The Republic of Malawi (previously Nyasaland) is situated on the western bank of Lake Malawi, with Mozambique to the south, Zambia to the west, and Tanzania to the north. The country measures 540 miles (900 km) from north to south and has an area of 46,283 sq miles (118,484 sq km). The official languages are English and Chichewa. The name Malawi, meaning ‘flames,’ first appears on a Portuguese map in 1546 (Pachai 1972, xv), referring to a powerful empire with which Portuguese traders at Sena and Tete on the Zambezi had contact. The languages spoken in the former Malawi Empire, whose territory covered much of present Malawi’s central region, part of the southern region and adjacent areas in Zambia (around Chipata) and Mozambique, belonged to a dialect continuum now split into Chinyanja, Chichewa and Chimang’anja (Guthrie 1948).
British influence followed the exploration of the area by the Christian missionary David Livingstone. A Church of Scotland mission was established in the Shire Highlands in the 1870s, and a town grew up around it, named after Livingstone’s birthplace, Blantyre. British Protectorate rule was established in 1907 over the territory that was to be called Nyasaland. From 1953 to 1963 Nyasaland was part of the Central African Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, ruled from Salisbury (now Harare). The territory managed to detach itself and became independent on July 6, 1964, under the name Malawi.
Pre-World War I popular music included ‘native songs’ (Chakanza 1921). Soon after the establishment of the Christian Mission in Blantyre in 1876 the missionaries began to teach hymns and other English language songs in Churches and schools. Very soon local catechists translated them into the local languages, adding some compositions. After World War I, new traditions such as malipenga, chiwoda, visekes and others developed in northern Malawi (Chilivumbo 1971; Kubik 1987); in the 1950s the genre of ‘national songs’ arose (Nurse 1964).
After World War II a wave of musical innovations swept the country, affecting music styles within institutions and in contexts associated with a ‘modern life style,’ such as schools, churches and popular dance entertainment. Staged performances became popular under names such as makwaya (the choirs) and konseti or kamsoloti (concert), the latter sometimes involving tap dancing. The radio, the cinema and the gramophone opened Malawi to the influence of popular North American, South African and other musical styles. The sudden ease in communication and the increasing labor migration to the south and to the Copper Belt were two major factors contributing to the rapid spread of several distinct guitar-based styles throughout southern Africa. Sabasaba, sinjonjo, vula matambo and other dance genres characterized the 1950s. The acoustic guitar, the banjo (Kubik 1989) and the accordion became the basis of the new dance music. Ballroom dancing became fashionable during the 1940s (Malamusi 1994, 57). It is remembered as the jore dance (e.g., Jore Bandi ya Bambo Deko Asani, at Chileka; Chileka is an area in Blantyre district where the most famous musicians in Malawi come from; see Malamusi 1994, 67) and described as dansi yogwilana-gwilana (dance with man and woman holding each other).
In Zomba, the Paseli Brothers rose to popularity during the late 1940s. Like other groups of this period, their early recordings, such as ‘Tiyeni amayi’ and ‘Mwana,’ were made by Hugh Tracey for the South African Gallotone Company. Their song texts commented on topical issues. One famous Paseli song, ‘Napolo,’ composed in 1946, is based on the singer’s eyewitness testimony of a disastrous flooding and erosion that occurred that year in Zomba (Katundu 1986). Its history was recently analyzed by Kondwani Phwandaphwanda (n.d.).
While radio stations with their educational objectives did not feature popular songs, Indian-owned business enterprises in Blantyre/Limbe began to record popular music that they knew would sell. Most of these shellac discs have not survived, but some can be found in private collections. One of the most famous groups during the 1950s was the Ndiche Brothers Band, who recorded ‘Chitayo,’ ‘Valanda akazi’ and ‘Akazi pukunu.’ Ndiche Mwarare, who was born in Ntcheu, began to learn guitar in 1953. By 1958, he was known countrywide for his hauyani (Hawaiian) style of guitar playing, using a slider (a glass bottle) in the left hand and finger picks on the thumb and index finger of his right hand. During the time of struggle for Malawi’s independence he often accompanied the future president, Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda, to political rallies. From 1965, he was employed by the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC). He died on July 30, 1991.
In the 1960s, guitar music in Malawi took a new turn with the rise of the eminent Daniel Kachamba (1947-87). Starting off with a band using South African kwela music instrumentation, which included pennywhistle, guitar, rattle and one-string bass, he also soon developed a solo guitar style of his own. Some rare film tracing Daniel’s solo guitar music from 1967 to 1983 has been published on video (Kubik 1995). He composed many of his guitar pieces in a manner that created auditory puzzle effects, and he referred to these subjective patterns in conversations (Kubik 1976). Already in 1967 his band had used a greater variety of dance steps and patterns than any other contemporaneous group in Malawi: saba-saba, sinjonjo, ‘double-step,’ twist, lumba, cha-cha, vula matambo, rock ’n’ roll and jive, and he had nine different tunings for the guitar (Kubik 1974, 35-39). He was a master of ‘pull-off’ and ‘hammer-on’ techniques on the six-string solo guitar, as his composition ‘Dolosina Lumba’ demonstrated (two versions were preserved on sound-synchronized film; see Kubik 1976 and 1995).
Among his most famous guitar compositions are those dealing with the theme of death, such as ‘Panali agogo’ (There Was a Grandmother), ‘Amayi mwalakwa’ (Mother You Have Made a Mistake), ‘Zotsala kumanda’ (Everything Will Remain in the Graveyard), ‘Musamandizunze’ (Don’t Torture Me) and the epic poems about his own future funeral composed in 1972, Maliro aKachamba.
In his final years Daniel Kachamba used an electric guitar on which he developed unusual playing techniques, such as employing his left hand alone in a combination of ‘pull-off’ and ‘hammer-on’ patterns and playing with his right hand in a spectacular clockwise and counterclockwise movement. Kachamba’s first international concerts were given in 1972 in Kenya, Ethiopia, Austria and Germany.
During the 1980s, two categories of popular music emerged at approximately the same time. One was by those musicians who played ‘box guitars’ (as acoustic guitars, both homemade and factory made, are called in Malawi). They had distinctive styles, developed perhaps from one of the traditional dances played on modern guitars and using original lyrics from the traditional dance. Such music was very popular at that time; it was often played on the MBC (Malawi Broadcasting Corporation) station, then the only radio station in Malawi. There were no audio cassettes on the market yet - only a few 45 rpm records produced by the Nzeru Radio Company in Blantyre, which did very little to promote their musicians. The musicians active in the 1980s played live acoustic music in various venues. They included Daniel Kachamba, who at that stage composed many different types of songs in several of the languages of Malawi, and whose singing style led the radio announcers to call him ‘Mr. Sweet Melody.’ Another ‘box guitar’ player was the blind musician Alan Namoko, who led the Chinvu River Jazz Band. Namoko sang in the Chichewa and Chilomwe languages, and said that his music was based on sekhere, a traditional beer party dance of the Lomwe-speaking people of Malawi. His group played regularly in bars in the area of Blantyre and Lilongwe and was known countrywide through radio broadcasts.
Stonald Lungu also developed a style of his own playing ‘box guitar’ and singing in Chichewa. His first song, popular in the 1980s, was ‘Mukakhala pa ntchito’ (When You Are at Work). Stonald Lungu’s audiences particularly appreciated his songs about grief. Another leading figure in this kind of popular music was Michael Yekha, a banjo player from Mulanje. He developed his distinctive banjo style toward the end of the 1980s when cassettes were first coming on the market. One of his titles, ‘Michael Mpatali’ (Michael the Unrivaled) became very popular throughout the country within a short time because of its availability on cassettes. Many other banjo and ‘box guitar’ groups were recorded: for example, the Fumbi Jazz Band (Baily 1989; Malamusi 1999). While ‘box guitar’ popular music was being played by different artists in many different styles in the 1980s, Daniel Kachamba was the sole musician to come up with a new genre with a name of its own: it was called ‘double-step’ or limbika music. Beginning in 1978, one of these musicians or groups was selected as ‘Entertainer of the Year’ by a jury appointed by the MBC. Listeners could write a letter to the MBC board, nominating their candidate.
The second category of popular music that originated in the 1980s included the groups or bands using electrically amplified instruments. Bands had sponsors who purchased instruments for them. Those bands sponsored by the government or by an institution such as the MBC had more modern equipment than those sponsored only by individuals, although the musical quality of the individual bands and the government bands was more or less the same. Although they performed in different styles, most drew on foreign music - from South Africa, Zimbabwe or Kenya. Very few had an indigenous flavor, not even those who named their music after a traditional dance, such as Robert Fumulani, who called his popular music khunju, and Saleta, who still calls his music sekhere.
Most bands, such as MBC Band, the Police Orchestra, the Army Strings Band, Robert Fumulani, Saleta Phiri, Makasu, the Rainseickers Band, Love Aquarius and many others, played a mixture of different types of music, some borrowed from Malawian traditional music, and others based on traditional music of other countries such as South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya and Congo. But while particular songs or particular musicians were popular during the 1980s, people in the country began to feel that Malawian music had no identity, that musicians were merely eclectic. This complaint was also expressed by a top member of the Musicians Association of Malawi, who called for musicians in Malawi to create a ‘Malawian musical identity.’
A change occurred in 1990 when the Roman Catholic Church in Balaka provided Paul and LuciasBanda with musical instruments and facilities for making recordings and producing ‘spiritual’ audio cassettes for sale. The brothers called their six-member group the Alleluya Band. Originally, it played in the Catholic Mission, but soon its cassette recordings were being played everywhere; even in bars and night clubs people would dance all night to ‘spiritual music.’ The Alleluya Band’s earliest album, Chikondi (Love), consisted of songs based on Bible stories, and was a national hit in 1990. Wanting to help, the group invited other musicians without musical instruments to record at their studio, Andiamo Studio in Balaka. For example, Cosmos Chiwalo recorded several cassettes with the help of Paul and Lucias Banda.
By this time the cassette market was growing, and musicians would finance the recording of an ‘album’ (as the music cassettes were popularly known) at Andiamo Studio with an advance payment from cassette sellers, the largest of these being O.G. Issa in Limbe. Since there were many musicians who wanted to record, they often had to wait for their ‘album’ to be released. To bridge the gap, MC Studio in Blantyre, which had previously only produced radio advertisements, bought instruments to allow musicians in Blantyre to record their music. For the MC Studio musicians performed not only spiritual songs, but reggae as well, which soon became popular with both musicians and audiences throughout the country.
In 1992 the Alleluya Band broke up, and Lucias Banda formed his own reggae group, Lucias Banda and Zembani Band. He set up his own studio and, among the musicians who recorded his ‘album’ there was Billy Kaunda, who drew large audiences and became a star in Malawi.
Many bands formed after the change of government in 1994, when President Muluzi replaced Dr. Banda. Under the new regime, musicians felt they had the freedom to perform their music of choice, and Indian music retailers began to advance money to greater numbers of bands to cover recording costs. Many groups were formed, playing different types of music, but the most popular genres remained spiritual songs played on keyboard and other ‘modern’ instruments, and reggae music. One of the earliest creators of spiritual music was Allan Ngumuya, who released several ‘albums’ with the help of Indian store owners – O.G. Issa in Limbe and the Portuguese Shopping Center in Blantyre. The recordings of Billy Kaunda, Jefrey Zigoma, Ned Mapira and many more began to replace foreign music in the Malawian market.
Their success was helped by Malawi’s first private radio stations that included FM 101 in Limbe and FM Power in Blantyre. FM 101 promoted popular music through live interviews with Malawian musicians who had just released new ‘albums.’ At the end of the twentieth century musicians were regularly recording new music and, in any city in Malawi, locally produced cassette music was being sold by street vendors.
Baily, John. 1989. ‘Review of “Fumbi Jazz Band – a Film by Gerhard Kubik 1987 ...” ’ Yearbook for Traditional Music 21: 167–68.
Kubik, Gerhard (assisted by Moya Aliya Malamusi, Lidiya Malamusi and Donald Kachamba). 1987. Malawian Music: A Framework for Analysis , ed. Mitchel Strumpf. Zomba: Jointly published by the Centre for Social Research and the Department of Fine and Performing Arts, Chancellor College, University of Malawi.
Kubik, Gerhard (in cooperation with Moya Aliya Malamusi). 1989. Opeka Nyimbo . Musician-composers, southern Malawi. Booklet accompanying the double album MC 15 (Museum Collection). Berlin: Museum für Völkerkunde, Musikethnologische Abteilung.
Phwandaphwanda, Kondwani. n.d. ‘Napolo: The Life of a Song. An Example of Ethnomusicology Through Radio Broadcasting.’ Manuscript of a radio program and introduction, deposited at the Department of Fine and Performing Arts, P.O. Box 280, Zomba, Malawi.
Strumpf, Mitchel, ed. 1992. Daniel Kachamba’s Memorial Cassette/Kaseti ya nyimbo za chikumbutso cha Malemu Daniel Kachamba . 20 musical pieces performed by Daniel Kachamba. Selected by Donald Kachamba from unpublished historical recordings, 1967–83. Text of the pamphlet by Gerhard Kubik, in cooperation with Donald Kachamba. Zomba: Department of Fine and Performing Arts.