The popular music of Malawi at the time of the country’s change from colonial rule to self-government in 1963 was largely acoustic, a carry-over from the guitar and banjo-based acoustic music of the 1950s and 1960s. Rumba, kwela, soul and rock ’n’ roll were dominant on Lusaka Radio, Radio Laurenco Marques and later, Radio Malawi (Lwanda and Kanjo 2013). Self-government and independence brought with it a cultural imperative (Phiri 1983) to create a Malawi sound acceptable to a growing urban population using the electric instruments that were then becoming available. The resulting music, afroma (the name of which combines the first two letters of the words ‘Africa,’ ‘rock’ and Malawi), is usually (but not exclusively) electrified music that fuses Malawi melodies and rhythms with Western and other African styles.
The musical superstars of 1950s and 1960s Nyasaland (pre-independence Malawi), such as Luka Maganga, Thailo and Kapiye and the Paseli Brothers, all used acoustic backing. This guitar and banjo music usually featured vamping guitar backing a lead banjo played in finger-picking style, as on Thailo and Kapiye’s ‘Dziko,’ which was easy to imitate on electric guitar. The bridge between 1950s acoustic sounds and the electric phase was provided by musicians such as Ndiche Mwalale who, in the 1960s, played acoustic slide guitar (‘Andiche alombele’) but who also lived and played through the early stages of afroma.
The roots of afroma can be traced back to army and police bands that trained musicians in both world wars. Both marching and dance bands, led by Europeans, mixed African and European melodies and rhythms in songs, including ‘Tilikuyenda’ (King’s African Rifles, n.d.).
Pioneer Malawi electric musicians played mostly covers of soul and jazz classics such as the Platters’ ‘The Great Pretender’ and Chubby Checker’s ‘The Twist.’ One seminal band was Naison Seke’s Jazz Giants. Later led by Morson Phuka and renamed New Scene, Jazz Giants at one point included many of the pioneers of afroma, including Botswana’s John Selolwane Longwe who later played with US musician Paul Simon (Chechamba 1997, 33). Although Seke’s Jazz Giants played mostly soul they also tackled Western jazz arrangements of local songs such as ‘Chitukutuku’ and ‘Kumanda Kwa Bambo Wanga.’
Morson Phuka’s trajectory offers a case study of how his group Jazz Giants combined the elements of African (afro), rock (ro) and Malawian (ma) to form afroma. In ‘Gule wina’ he started by playing the original ‘Peanut Butter’ (The Marathons 1961), then he indigenized the lyrics and finally increased the syncopation, without changing the chords. In another composition, ‘Mtsinje’ (1969), he took a tune from the female dance genre chiwoda and rearranged it using a rock tempo, chords and sensibility. New Scene offshoots included the True Tones and Muzipasi, which featured Maria Chidzanja Nkhoma, Malawi’s veteran lady singer who emulated Miriam Makeba’s mix of Western and African beats with Muzipasi’s version of ‘Music Man.’
Five bands were crucial training and experimental grounds for afroma: the Malawi Police Orchestra; the Army Strings Band, the Malawi Broadcasting Band (MBC Band), the Jazz Giants/New Scene and Kalimba. Under Mjura Mkandawire and Kapote Mwakasungura and with musicians including guitarist William Malikula and arranger and saxophonist Wyndham Chechamba on board, the MBC Band was led by trained musicians interested in composition and arranging. The results of these experiments are recorded on the band’s only LP to date, Kokoliko ku Malawi (1974). The LP and several singles on Nzeru Records featured different afroma experiments: jazzy arrangements (‘Echipini,’ ‘Kumanda kwa bambo wanga’), and reggae (‘Zivute zitani tili pa mbuyo pa Kamuzu’) from the LP Kokoliko ku Malawi; and mbumba (‘Angwazi kawiri kawiri’), rumba and simanjemanje (‘Wayaka moto’). The Police Orchestra experimented with swinging reggae-style afroma arrangements such as ‘Mwana wanga Koli’ and ‘Sapota’ (Supporter), while the Army Strings Band (‘Ndavutika’) produced a more rumba-influenced sound.
At the same time as the MBC and Police Orchestra, the Katenga Humming Bees, a folk group, was also updating Tonga songs for a new generation; they used both the Jazz Giants and the MBC Band as backing groups, respectively, on their afroma arrangements of ‘Kankhali wilawila’ and ‘Ilala’ (Chechamba 1997, 28–35). The Katenga Humming Bees were active at the same time as Daniel Kachamba and his brother Donald were creating one of the main exceptions to the afroma sound. The Kachamba Brothers Band largely remained acoustic, although Daniel liked to play blues guitar live on stage. The Kachamba Brothers Band played two broad types of music: the kwela music for which they are well known, due to the work of Gerhard Kubik (1987); and the acoustic afro-jazz soul of ‘Unoroti phwanya,’ ‘Mlendo ndi mame,’ ‘Kodi atani mbale’ and ‘Kwa inu matsoka.’ Daniel’s sound in this case used Western chords but traditional Malawi beats and syncopation; his lyrics dealt with socially relevant issues including debt, drink and disease.
A younger generation led by Nassau Mkukupha and Griffen Mhango took the mantle from Phuka and formed Kalimba in 1976, where they continued fusing Malawi music with rock, soul, ska and reggae. Kalimba achieved a BBC chart-topping hit in 1982 with their soul reggae song ‘Sometimes I Wonder. ’ Makasu (a splinter group from Kalimba that included Brite Nkhata and Stain Phiri) and Love Aquarius (which included Overton Chimombo) continued this trajectory. The brothers Isaac and Nassau Mkukupha also broke away to form Super Kaso Band. Super Kaso, as their hit ‘Jessie ndimakukonda’ showed, was a move toward a less rock-oriented and more afro (Zambian/Zairean) influence, as shown by their use of the mi-solo rhythm and lead guitars. A decade later, a Police Band offshoot, Mulangeni Sounds, created one of the first local kwasa kwasa hits with ‘Tinadya Chambo.’ In a separate development Elias Kaliati and Kenneth Ning’anga from the Army Strings, started arranging traditional wedding songs on electronic keyboards.
Another cohort of musicians, at their creative peak in the 1980s and 1990s, developed a harder riff-based and more syncopated afroma sound aimed at the rural and peri-urban audience with more socially conscious but apolitical lyrics. These bands included Deaf Ears, Masaka Band of the song ‘A Molotoni’ fame, Chitipi Capital Sounds, The Roots, Maurice Maulidi and Songani Swing Stars of Ulendo wanga fame, Robert Fumulani and Likhubula River Dance Band, Africa Express and Saleta Phiri and AB Sounds, who recorded ‘Zinthu zasintha, malamulo sanasinthe’ (Things Have Changed but the Laws Remain the Same, 1994). This group cultivated more influences from Zimbabwe, Zambia and Zaire.
Afro jazz is one area where afroma has achieved international exposure with a number of subgenres: Wambali Mkandawire, recording in South Africa, achieved a Kora Award nomination; Masauko Chipembere of Blk Sonshine, Chris Kele and Eric Paliani are also playing versions of Malawi afro jazz internationally. Others, such as Tiwonge Hango and Peter Mawanga are continuing the experiments locally in Malawi.
In a separate but related development, younger musicians (both trained and some self-taught, such as Agorosso) have returned to the original afroma experiments and created an urban afroma, in some cases by fusing Malawi rhythms, raps and melodies with rhythm and blues music. Prominent among these are the Real Elements (Lewis Chikuni, Qabaniso Malewezi and Kimba Anderson) and, on the international scene, Esau Mwamwaya. As of 2015 many consider the Malawi acoustic afro-jazz musician Francis Phiri (Lawi) to be the leading exponent of afroma within Malawi.
Afroma was created by the convergence of history, economics, politics and culture at a time of possibility for Malawi musicians and consumers. Hotels, previously restricted to Europeans, were opening their doors to African clients and, with expansion in education, a youth market was developing. However, the onset of a one-party dictatorship in 1964 affected the trajectory of the economic possibilities for the musicians, if not the form of the music. As afroma required more studio time and was more expensive to promote, it did not prosper as well as reggae or gospel.
Kachamba, Daniel. ‘Kodi atani mbale’ and ‘Kwa inu matsoka.’ MBC Archives. 1982: Malawi. (Reissue: Daniel Kachamba. ‘Kodi atani mbale’ and ‘Kwa inu matsoka.’ Acoustic and Electric Dance Hits from Malawi. MC Pamtondo PAM 030. 1991: UK.)
Ndiche Mwalale. ‘Andiche alombele.’ MBC Archives. Circa 1960s: Malawi. (Reissue: Ndiche Mwalale. ‘Andiche alombele.’ Banjoes, Guitars and Fifties: Malawi Music of the 1950s. Pamtondo PAM050. 2006: UK.)