Malipenga is a syncretic music and dance art form that arose out of the colonial encounter between Western military traditions and African dance culture in Malawi. It is a costumed group dance for men, using mainly drums, gourd trumpets (kazoos) and whistles for accompaniment, and with elaborate, competitive, synchronized steps and call-and-response singing. The kazoos (trumpets or malipenga in the Chewa language) give the dance its name. Two main dance types are the malipenga white in which the uniforms are white and individual dance steps more fluid and individualistic and the malipenga khaki where khaki uniforms predominate. Malipenga khaki choreography is closer to the part-military origins of the dance. In malipenga dance, drama and marching mix to varying extents. Malipenga is typically performed as a competitive activity between two or more companies of dancers.
Malipenga originated when the imitations found in colonial military parades, such as the use of mimicry for entertainment and to resist colonialism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, were fused with local dances (Ranger 1975; Kamlongera 1986). This syncretization of traditional dances and military parade mimicry of colonial armies on the Swahili coast spread to Malawi, in the case of malipenga taking particular root in the Nkhata Bay district, which then included Likoma Island. The many Nyasa (Malawian) King’s African Rifles soldiers involved in the East African campaigns of World Wars I and II consolidated these syncretic dances in the popular arena and spread them throughout Malawi and parts of Zambia, where the related kalela dance is found (Mitchell 1957).
Beni, malipenga and mganda have since been carried to Zimbabwe and South Africa by Malawi migrant workers. Like its close relation mganda, with which it shares many features, malipenga has the same historical roots as beni. Beni, another dance that resulted from a syncretism between local forms and military marches, is considered by most observers to be the first to result from the encounters between colonial and indigenous cultures. However, both mganda and malipenga differ from beni in some musical patterns, aesthetics and choreography. As a useful generalization, in Malawi malipenga is practiced by and shows features of Tonga aesthetics, mganda is popular with the Chewa and beni is associated largely with the Yao. Thus mganda is ‘indigenous’ to the central region districts of Kasungu, Lilongwe, Nkhota Kota, Ntchisi, Dowa and Salima, while malipenga has its spiritual and aesthetic home in the northern and lakeshore districts of Nkhata Bay, Karonga, Rumphi and Likoma Island district. In beni the uniforms more closely resemble khaki military ones, while in mganda and malipenga the uniforms are white, more closely resembling those of a colonial officer class. The starchy white uniforms resonate with the reputed ‘fastidious smartness’ of Tonga men. The version of malipenga called malipenga khaki shows the relationship between beni and malipenga: the uniforms (largely khaki) are similar and this form of malipenga has, like beni, a more militaristic choreography.
Malipenga, like mganda, is performed for entertainment at rural and urban occasions throughout the year (Kamlongera 1986; Nthala 2009). It also carries social commentaries and has, since nationalist times, become a regular genre at political events and weddings. Chirwa (2001) observes that it was used during the fight for independence, a fact that later caused problems during Dr. Banda’s era, between 1964 and 1992. After independence, President Banda preferred less critical social commentary. In an attempt at taming the malipenga societies, whose music was rich in social and personal commentary, and whose culture and very organization went against the ethos of the one-party state, Dr. Banda accused Nkhata Bay and Nkhota Kota men of being lazy ‘bawo- [a chess board type game] playing and malipenga-dancing men’ who shied away from farm work (Kamlongera 1986). The songs cover both historical and current events and, like the dance steps, evolve as new musical styles are incorporated. Songs may be purely for entertainment or for social praise or critique. Classic malipenga songs from the 1950s may be heard on ILAM recordings by Hugh Tracey, for example, ‘Akapunda, Mungore’ (ca. 1958).
Malipenga troupes are highly organized, usually at village or area level, showing their partly military origins. There is a quasi-military hierarchy of ‘king,’ ‘adjutant,’ ‘doctor,’ ‘nurse’ and a council. The ‘king,’ inevitably the local chief, is the fundraiser and the adjutant acts as the organizing secretary. A company, society or team of malipenga dancers is referred to as a boma or bwalo. Public performances are usually of bomas competing with each other in the presence of a hosting king. In the rural area, a chief’s compound, a cleared bwalo (gathering place or ground, also referred to as boma) is used for performances, while in urban or peri-urban areas football grounds or stadia are used.
Malipenga uses drums to mark out the dance rhythm and steps. Usually two drums are used: a two-sided bass (marching band type) drum and a cylindrical smaller tenor drum. In bigger bomas, other smaller drums and percussion may be used to accentuate the climactic dancing. Usually two people carry the bass drum slung on a pole, with the drummer in the rear beating the instrument. In addition to drumming, malipenga musicians use homemade kazoos constructed from gourds with resonators made of spiderwebs or, in modern times, plastic. These kazoos or ‘trumpets’ are what give the dance its name; malipenga means trumpets. Malipenga dancers use kazoos both as props and as instruments. The kazoos or ‘trumpets’ are flourished with pride and panache in ‘military’ unison. Kazoo playing may be solo, unison or in call-and-response form with a leader. Given the dance’s origin, kazoos made from long gourds that resemble trumpets are preferred. Sometimes, however, malipenga is performed without kazoos and leaders’ instructions are communicated with whistles. Songs of a political, social, entertaining or critical nature, sung in call-and-response, unison or polyphonic manner, set the tone for the kazoo players.
In each boma there are usually those who can play kazoos, those who can dance and those who do both. In multiline formations, for choreographic effect, good dancers are placed in the front row. Sometimes kazoo players and singers are grouped separately from the dancers. Dancers with no musical skills mime at playing their instruments as they execute their elaborate steps, while instrumentalists, who may dance less elaborately, provide rhythmic and melodic phrases on the kazoos.
In the classic form of malipenga practiced before independence, the tempo was slower, with the marching drum beating out the dance steps to be followed by the dancers. A second, smaller drum was also used to provide a counter beat. In contemporary malipenga, the tempo varies with the song-and-dance routine. A song may have several movements that include both a slower section and a frenetic, climactic dance phase.
Malipenga is to a large extent about the performance of a dance-drama (Kamlongera 1986). It features elaborate costuming and accoutrements; the smart, clean, white uniforms that never seem to get dirty despite the dust are often heavily starched and well ironed. Headgear of fez and feathers is common. With time, the uniforms have evolved to include newer fashions but, overall, white is the preferred garment color. As with most traditions, uniforms reflect prevailing socioeconomic circumstances and fashions. In the twenty-first century dancers are as likely as not to be wearing scarves of various colors. In terms of choreography, the dance movements and performances start with a slow build-up as the dancers move from their waiting places on to the main arena. The basic movements may be described as an elaborate mixture of a military march with dance moves in which the dancers, shoulders hunched and bent over, use their arms and legs to create elaborate, synchronized, gentle but manly dance patterns.
In the natural environment (also called boma), as opposed to the political arenas, where time may be a factor, malipenga performances start with an elaborate schedule of local and invited boma groups marching, similar to a New Orleans Mardi Gras, to collect the king and to introduce the king and his office bearers to the audience and guests (Anon 1980). This is followed by the ‘march-dance,’ with the king leading and the malipenga dancers in two lines, singing songs of praise to the king, being theatrically ‘attended’ to by the doctor and nurse. The king’s role in malipenga is at once a symbol of authority to be praised and one to be blamed for any mishaps, which resonates with the evolving role of malipenga over the years from colonial to postcolonial times.
The procession circles the arena once or twice before the king addresses the gathering and sits down to watch the bomas compete. After some dancing the king is invited to inspect the dancers. The dancers respond with the most vigorous and inventive dancing, at once individual and in as much unison as possible, bowing low as the king inspects them.
Malipenga, like its sister dances mganda and beni, found a new lease of life in the twenty-first century. As one of Malawi’s ‘national’ dances, it is performed at social and state occasions. At both regional and district levels, it is thriving in its social and its entertainment functions. In line with its syncretic origins, it has continued to adapt, bringing in influences, fashions and choreographies from the latest dance imports such as jazz and modern dance, kwasa kwasa and even hip-hop. In turn, local and international popular musicians have appropriated some aspects of malipenga. For example, Faith Mussa, a gospel singer, incorporates malipenga kazoo playing in his ‘Timayenda ndi Mdidi,’ while Patience Namadingo, one of Malawi’s afro-jazz musicians, uses malipenga rhythms and choreography in ‘Msati mseke’ (see YouTube references).
Mitchell, Clyde. 1957. The Kalela Dance: Aspects of Social Relationships Among Urban Africans in Northern Rhodesia. Manchester: Manchester University Press on behalf of the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute.
Bamudala6. 2008. ‘Malipenga White’:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gSpMOMONO64 (accessed 12 August 2015).
Bamudala6. ‘Malipenga Khaki’:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=APGh7xJsBj4 (accessed 12 August 2015).
Colter Sol. 2015. ‘Malipenga White’:
http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x2tto7p (accessed 20 August 2015).
https://www.google.nl/?gfe_rd=cr&ei=1IhUVtXcK8GL-QbdlIH4Cw&gws_rd=ssl#q=malipenga+pictures (accessed 22 September 2015).
Mussa, Faith. ‘Timayenda ndi Mdidi’:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aUXHTNQa1zU (accessed 9 October 2017).
Namadingo, Patience. ‘Msati mseke’:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jMBc1FqmhTM&list=RDjMBc1FqmhTM#t=0 (accessed 9 October 2017).
Nkhani Digest. ‘Beni – a Malawian Traditional Dance’ (includes malipenga kazoo playing from 10 to 13.45 mins of the film):
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b7wvrHgZTY0 (accessed 21 April 2016).