There is a period in Malawi music history that was characterised by great compositions that reached sublime quality. This period that saw the golden generation of musicians and music bands runs from the early 1970s to mid 1990s.
Music legends such as Robert Fumulani, Maurice Maulidi, Stonard Lungu, Bright Nkhata, Daniel Kachamba, Allan Namoko and Michael Yekha, just to mention a few, produced great pieces of music that did not only excite the people of their generation but have also stood the test of time.
For instance, Black Missionaries have redone several songs originally by Fumulani. These include Mlomo, Moyo Wathu ndi Ovuta and Apongozi Ndadabwa. Also during live perfomances the group, popularly known as Ma Blacks, do at times renditions of old timers like Gas Machine Head’s Achimwene Musalire.
But what contributed to the quality of old timers songs, for there was no technology such as computers to aid them produce quality music, is the question that boggles the mind of some music lovers today.
According to Robert Chanunkha, a music lecturer and Dean of Cultural and African Heritage at Malawi University of Science and Technology (Must), quality does not come from technologies in computers, but rather the artists’ input, value addition, and artistry to the end product which the consumers can attest as fit for the purpose.
“The artists of the 1970s and 1990s were successfully able to compose music through the use of simple instruments, simple tunes, and localised lyrics responsive to lived experience,” he urges.
“Think of Nkhata’s Anasiketi, Maulidi’s Asakina, Maria by Malawi Army Alpha Strings and MBC band’s Chikakula Patuka. Malawians identify themselves with those songs because they speak about people’s lived experiences that matter most,” adds Chanunkha.
Maria Chidzanja Nkhoma, a veteran broadcaster, remembers that these artists were talented and skilled in a number of ways.
“The [artists mentioned] produced songs that had a balanced combination of lyrics and instrumentation. Most of them, addressed themes that were relevant to their time and that were universal too,” explains Chidzanja Nkhoma, herself a veteran musician.
Chanunkha says in the past artists came up with different themes ranging from moral lessons, social injustice, development and entertainment.
“Namoko’s Lameck and Masiku Sakoma Onse by Fumbi Jazz Band addressed moral lessons. Anachita Chobaya ngati Nkhumba by Lungu addressed social injustice.
“Chinafuna Mbale by Lucky Stars and Ulanda by Police Orchestra addressed development while A Michael ndi Patali by Michael Yekha was about entertainment.
“The lyrics of those songs have a universal appeal, they speak the truth or unending real life situations. This is the reason different generations find those songs relevant,” he says.
Jai Banda, a music promoter, says that the artists were able to produce such high quality music because they put a lot of effort to make music.
“Despite that, the artists were talented, they also had the passion for music. They put their whole heart into what they were doing and it paid off,” says Banda.
Banda says there were few recording studios. In fact, most music was recorded at MBC.
“Artists or bands would go there physically to record their songs. Musicians played different musical instruments in the studio unlike these days when a computer does the instrumentation for artists,” says Banda.
He says these musicians were not driven by appetites for money to record songs so there was no rushing to studios to produce an album to sell.
“This helped them take their time to come up with great pieces. One such song that depicts great artistry is Lungu’s masterpiece, Zapadziko,” says Jai Banda.
It is one of the songs that continue to enjoy airplay. Some modern artists such as San B have redone it, fusing its lyrics with modern beat.
The artist is advising people not to waste time pursuing mundane appetites that cannot last. According to Lungu, there is more to life than temporal riches or materials. When a person is lacking, he must not lose hope as one day God will reach out to him in his time of need.
“Zapadziko was redone by San B where he fused the lyrics with modern style of music. The result is another masterpiece.
Waliko Makhala, ethnomusicologist, researcher, actor and radio producer, says he adores Zapadziko.
Alan Namoko’s Achilenga, a dedication to his teacher is highly praised by a woman from Chilomoni called Jean Phiri.
Namoko is singing that Ndiyimba nyimbo/Kuyimbira aphunzitsi anga Achilenga/Iwo kwawo ndi ku Zomba… The teacher used to cycle to Thyolo from Zomba to teach.
A literary critic, Alfred Msadala, analyses Robert Gwilani’s song Tsoka Liyenda as one great piece rich in theme and it was beautifully sung.
He says the song still has the appeal of a great piece of music and it addresses superstition, a well known subject among the village folk in Malawi.