The year 1999 saw the coming of a unique album with deep Malawi music elements on the world music scene. The lyrics in most of the songs in the drop were in Chichewa and the music elements of the Dr Daniel Kachamba propelled kwera music and other Malawian elements, fused with jazz and folk, gave the album a feel out of the world.
Rick Deja and Nathaniel Chalamanda, teaming up with several Malawian musicians, including South Africa-based Erik Paliani, brought the world such songs as Maloto, Nzama, Kazitape and Tingasale kwa Ngoswe, a rendition of the 1960 tune by the Paseli Brothers.
The songs were not only rich in bringing out the Malawian ethos but also in tackling social issues of the time. Nzama, for instance, uncovered the reality of hunger brought by the erstwhile strange El Nino phenomenon, which led some to eat foods they previously abandoned. In part, the song went:
El Nino wachita bwino Tiyambenso, kumamwa thobwa Thobwa lake, si lachimanga Koma la mapira.
Deep proverbs and rich language in songs such as Chipande conceals the true meaning of the dark side of democratic leaders who brought a new type of the corrupt wamk’achisi kudya zam’kachisi governance. Kazitape brought to the fore a new dimension to an age old Malawian folksong: M’saolokera, m’saolokera, pakati apa pali mtsinje.
When the Black Missionaries launched Kuimba 9 at the Robin’s Park in Blantyre on May 31, 2013, a surprise awaited patrons. When the Chileka outfit was about to dish out one of the songs in the album, I’m Not a Failure, Deja came on stage, sax in hand. As he gave a new feel to the song, the patrons went agog.
“I only rehearsed with the band in Chileka a day before the performance,” he said.
Deja, who was all over the world, is back in the country, after spending six months in South Africa where he has been working with Malawian artists. He has been working with Paliani, Romeo Jani who is working on a project for Sena and Mang’anja music. He has also played the sax for Chris Kele, whose jazz album, Ulendo (The Journey), is in the offing.
Another artist, Wazangi Chirwa, popularly known as Rasta Waza, said he has been working with Deja on his upcoming album.
“It’s great working with Rick. We met in 1991 at Chancellor College where I was attending a musical workshop! He produced my first album, Black Roses, which enjoyed a lot of airplay and got me some gigs when I was working for MBC Band,” said Chirwa.
Working with the musicians is part of research for his doctoral studies. He is pursuing an ethnomusicology doctorate at the University of Illinois in his home country, United States. He will be in Malawi until November.
“I will be working with musicians in studios and live from the whole spectrum of Malawi music to see how different cultural influences can be fused. Malawi music is diverse. The banjo and guitar strokes and the rhythm can influence even pop groups,” says Deja.
For him, the richness in Malawi music is easy to grasp. He cites Wambali Mkandawire, Kachamba, Lucky Stars, Peter Mawanga and Waliko Makhala as artists whose music is distinct. He says using traditional music elements can propel Malawi music onto the world market.
He believes Malawi’s different music elements are fine. What is needed is for musicians, producers, songwriters and all those involved in the sector to explore all avenues and leave no stone unturned. In essence, expand the horizon.
“It does not matter if Malawi groups are playing reggae, hiphop or whatever genre. But giving these international genres a Malawian feel by using traditional instruments like bangwe, banjo and marimba will give the music a rich touch. That can only come if Malawian musicians listen to music from far and wide. If they are into hiphop, they can listen to hiphop from Japan, Brazil, Zimbabwe, America and see how they can bring in something different,” he observes.
That rings true, considering that in recent times, South Korean hiphop artist Psy has broken hiphop grounds previously dominated by Americans with his Gangnam Style.
In fact, Deja brings out how exploring different music worlds can bring good fruit. Chichewa finds its way into his latest 11-track album, Itinerant. You can actually feel Malawi music flowing in his veins with kwera elements in some songs, and Stonard Lungu-like guitar strokes in others.
The language in one of the songs shows how much he takes Malawi for a second home. The song They’ve Lost Their Way goes in part:
Breeze poets sing
Voices lost in the breeze
The dusty ghettos ring
Elements similar to Kachamba’s signature kwera flute are evident.
Building audiences, he reckons, is also necessary for growth.
Artists, he said, should not only confine themselves to Internet and radio audiences.
“These days, piracy is a big problem the world over. But artists can diversify and be innovative. For instance, they can merchandise their musical brand. They can sell stickers, posters and even T-shirts to make up for records sales,” says Deja, adding musicians must root out jealousy and work as one.
Makhala, who has worked with Deja on various projects, says he has learned that musicians must take pride in their culture and borrow ideas that are progressive.
“Rick is now a seasoned musician having travelled and researched over the years. He has passion for Malawi music. We need to move to another level and make our sound fit for the international market,” says the ethonomusicologist.
As Deja works with several Malawian musicians, one thing for sure remains: A different touch of Malawi music is in the offing. If it is not from Kele—who is already earning big kudos in South Africa—or Wazza, then some artist on ground zero. He is no stranger in this second home.