Retracing Mbenjere

The quest to get hold of one-time Malawi’s music sensation Lawrence Mbenjere looked like it will frustratingly go on forever. Efforts to find his mobile number, even from his peers, yielded nothing for close to two months.

Just how could someone who had stolen the music limelight and established himself as a darling among many music enthusiasts not long ago be so untraceable among the over 14 million Malawians?

Mbenjere was a daring for many in his hey days

Here is an artist who in 2010, got K2.5 million in royalties from the Copyright Society of Malawi (Cosoma). At the time US$1 was equal to K152. Currently, the dollar trades at K733, meaning he could have got K12.5 million, all factors being equal.

Mother luck as they call it, finally smiled on this reporter when the man who had apparently vanished availed himself at the Cosoma annual general meeting (AGM) in Blantyre at Grace Bandawe conference centre last week.

When many thought his interest in music had waned and gone with the wind, his act of travelling from Mwami border in Mchinji, where he is doing his business to be part of the Cosoma gathering, showed music is still close to his heart.

“I should admit a lot has changed on the music landscape. With no distributor to buy our music, it has become extremely hard to earn a living through music. But music is still something, which is close to my heart,” says the Sewere hit-maker.

The 49-year old at one time appeared like he is the one to set the evolution of the local music beat. His fusion of mganda, nyau and a bit of some other modernised local beats gave birth to a unique danceable sound, which only was only synonymous to him.

The content of his message, which mainly fought for the ills of those maligned and the struggling peasant farmers, quickly made him a darling among a majority of rural Malawians with whom he identified.

Ulimi n’dzaleka ine/Aye n’dzaleka/Chaka chatha tinachalira kuuza wakazi/Pamodzi ndi ana omwe tikamaphu fodya/Zinachitika ku maliketi mutu wanga udazweta…sings Mbenjere in one of his popular and touching songs Kumaliketi.

In a passionate plea, the persona, a poor farmer, who had made huge promises to his wife and children, about a killing he had anticipated to make at the tobacco market upon seeing how bumper his harvest was, only to come back disappointed with the prices at the auction floors.

Now, he is almost in tears, painfully retracting all the promises he had made and contemplating quitting farming altogether. 

Such compositions not only brought him an instant star status, to a good measure they brought him fortune too. He managed to set up four recording studios under his Mbenjere Records but, sadly, only one of those is remaining.

He says: “I was forced to close the other three looking at how business was. With the music business environment, artists have become very calculative. You need to be careful or else you can end up using money which you are supposed to buy bread at home.”

The man from Simphasi Village in Traditional Authority (T/A) Ndakwa in Mchinji has, however, not allowed his music dream die. He invested the proceeds from his studios by opening Mbenjere Music wholesale, which is one of his businesses at Mwami.

Just when many thought he was done with music following the lack of success of his last album Zibwente, which came in 2016, Mbenjere is seeking to reclaim his spot on the music ladder with a new release, Uchembere.

“I will officially launch the album on December 22. So far, I have already released three promotional singles which are enjoying airplay on the radios. I am not done yet musically,” he declares.

The artist, who is married and a father of six, has nine albums to his credit. Samugwira Pakamwa, Ndimasilira, Biliwita, Sewere, Udzaleka, Chisokonezo, and Khwekwerere are some of his productions.

Ethno-musicologist Waliko Makhala says the one-time people’s favourite can crack it if he can be daring enough to make a little shift and move with the times.

Makhala says: “The content of the lyrics now play a big role. That is one area that he needs to carefully look at.”

From a zero he worked his way up to a hero. Then, as fate would have it, he went into oblivion again. Is he about to write another script in his life by the upcoming release? Only time will tell. n

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