The term ‘jazz’ or ‘jazz band’ has been used to describe bands in Africa from the 1950s, since the days of Congolese bandleader Joseph Kabasele’s African Jazz and South African jazz bands. In Malawi, ‘jazz band’ is highly syncopated, polyrhythmic music played on homemade instruments by rural and peri-urban males. In Malawi, the term ‘jazz’ designates the degree of syncopation and improvisation in a piece of music in that rural ‘homemade instruments’ genre (in contrast to the North American meaning of the term ‘jazz’). Musicians also use the term to indicate that ‘jazz band’ music is dance music (in Chichewa colloquially kujaza means ‘to dance’).
Between the attainment of self-government in 1963 and the end of the 1960s, the syncretic form of music called jazz band emerged within rural and peri-urban localities. Malawi jazz, in its various subgenres, incorporates South African kwela, sinjonjo and smanjemanje (Kubik 1987), Zimbabwe jit, Zambian kalindula, East African benga (called kanindo in Malawi) and Congolese rumba into the major component, which is characterized by highly syncopated local Malawi rhythms derived from traditional dances including chopa, nyau, beni, chiwoda and others. A number of subgenres of jazz bands and associated artists may be identified, including rap jazz (Namakwa Brothers Band), folk jazz gospel (Chikowa Jazz), pop jazz (Kasambwe Brothers, Kamwendo Brothers, Mitoche Brothers, Tinyade Sounds), jazz blues (Namoko and Chimvu Jazz, Ndingo Brothers) and jazz jazz (Linengwe River Jazz, Kalambe Jazz, Mulanje Mountain Jazz, Sangalukani Jazz, Mikoko Jazz, Chikowa, Ndingo).
Jazz band music was inspired by a number of factors, including the artistic creativity of the young and the marginalization of nonpolitical youth music from radio, while the high cost of Western instruments led to a resurgence in the manufacture of homemade instruments, encouraging many to take up music. Although not recognized at the time, the emergence of jazz band music was part of the post-independence indigenization of popular music, both in localities and on Malawi radio. The Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) increasingly played jazz band music, often in lieu of Western pop. The relevance, resonance and, often, subtly rebellious nature of the lyrics, and the rising cost of foreign music recordings, contributed to the popularity of jazz bands (Lwanda 2009).
The evolution of jazz music reflects changing attitudes in gender relations as well as the musical and social growth of the musicians and their society. The jazz band tradition was pioneered mostly by unemployed teenagers (Kubik 1987), school leavers with no prospects of further secondary or tertiary education. Many of these young males who played jazz band music had recent experiences of female environments and influences as teenagers. Until the age of male initiation, or around ten years, boys are allowed around mothers and aunts in the fenced compounds (kumpanda) (Lwanda 2003). In rural Malawi, as women pound maize at the mortar (both the pounding act and its environment are called pamtondo), they often sing blues, ‘gossips,’ laments, work songs and songs of joy associated with females and their concerns, all of which are easily traceable in early and later jazz band songs. Lyrics of the early jazz band songs often showed clear influences from local genres associated with women; a significant amount of early jazz band music was, to varying degrees, appropriated from women, especially their pounding songs (Lwanda 2003). Good examples in which elements normally associated only with exclusive women’s environments were transferred to the jazz band context include ‘Makolo’ (Parents) in which the young Mitoche Brothers Band retell a common folk tale; Kamwendo Brothers Band’s ‘Mwatonyanya nsanje’ (You Are Excessively Jealous), which is about a female upbraiding her husband; Sangalukani Jazz Band’s ‘Aphiri tidzalekana,’ about Mr. Phiri, a husband who does not provide for his wife; and Kalambe Jazz Band’s ‘Nasimelo,’ pure female pamtondo gossip reserved for social contexts involving only women and uninitiated boys, about a work-shy female who spends all day ‘painting her nails.’ These songs are all sung in female persona.
Jazz band musicians often employ several sets of lyrics for each melody: one for political or personal praise, one for social critique and the original. ‘ANezilia’ (about a stubborn unmarried person) by Kalambe Jazz changed to ‘Angwazi Banda’ (Dr. Banda) on political occasions. ‘Mitala’ (Polygamy) by Mikoko, with its chorus of ‘Palibe ndiona ine’ (I earn nothing) highlighted rural poverty (Lwanda 2009), and its melody was also used for political songs.
Malawi jazz is improvised and designed for live performance; lyrics can be changed to suit the occasion. Jazz musicians mostly use homemade musical instruments that include drum kits, banjos, guitars, babatoni (one-string bass), various percussion instruments, shakers and flutes.
The music is highly syncopated and mixes chord structures, rhythmic and tempo breaks and drum and bass patterns. The vocal arrangements call for the ensemble to sing in unison, or else to sing parallel harmonies in call-and-response form. The lead singer performs the melody while the rest sing chorus or counter-melody. Various vocal ‘tricks’ include throat baritone singing, falsetto and yodeling. Some jazz bands feature several lead singers who may sing in unison or in parallel harmonies. Interestingly, many jazz bands, including Linengwe, Ndingo and Chikowa use the babatoni bass as the lead instrument, while guitars are usually strummed (Kalambe Jazz). Lead guitars play short bursts that run counter to the main melody while the rhythm guitar plays a steady but often varied pattern. The bangwe (zither) is one of Malawi’s traditional instruments and its strummed nature has influenced guitar styles in Malawi. However, when a banjo is present, it is usually plucked as lead, particularly by bands such as Mulanje Mountain and Sangalukani Jazz in which sharp lead banjo notes are characteristically the lead feature. Underpinning all of the music is the polyrhythmic drumming. This can be a basic steady pulse with counter-beats and syncopation or a complicated melange with percussion, beat changes and additive drumming.
Dancing is often a part of the performance by the singers or animateurs. Where there are animateurs they usually base their choreographies on traditional dances or, after 1994, modern styles including kwasa kwasa and ndombolo. The dancers encourage the crowd to dance and to fupa (throw in some money). During the HIV/AIDS awareness campaigns, jazz band music was used to sensitize the rural population about HIV/AIDS issues, with dancers acting out various preventative scenarios.
Jazz band music was a reaction to the social, political and economic circumstances of the 1960s and 1970s. Malawi was a one-party state with constrained modes of expression; educational opportunities were limited; and, given its agro-based economy, job opportunities for school leavers and dropouts were limited also. It is interesting for a number of aspects: its appropriation of female music, its syncretic nature, the relative chauvinism of the lyrics of the early jazz band period, and the fact that it was an important method by which nonpolitical rural males entertained and articulated the grievances of their class. Out of the jazz band tradition have arisen many socially and politically engaged musicians, including Joe Gwaladi and Lawrence Mbenjere who, paradoxically, use keyboards to create a ‘bastardized’ modern electro-pop jazz that does away with ‘real musicians.’
Lwanda, John. 2009. ‘Poverty, Prophets and Politics: Marxist Discourses in Malawi Music, 1994–2008.’ Online at:
http://www.iaspm.net/proceedings/index.php/iaspm2009/iaspm2009/paper/viewFile/782/77 (accessed 27 May 2017).