Creating a unique and distinctive local sound identifiable in an increasingly global world takes a lot of intentionality. This purpose move is apparent in the music created by Atoht Manje, real name Elias Missi, who passed away two weeks ago.
Manje’s discography dates back to 2013, but his music from 2017 to 2023 truly captures his genius. In the last seven years, he made more identifiably local music using Chichewa and ChiYao and sounds from the Yao and Islamic music traditions. His music was also relatable and grounded in the experiences of Malawian society.
In 2017, Atoht Manje’s music evolved as he moved away from dancehall, the genre he initially experimented with from 2013. There is no telling what prompted him to change his orientation. But, this shift allowed the artist to embrace a new identity as an artist and explore Yao and local Malawian music. In this new music, three components are noticeable. First, he drew from the Manganje music traditions of the Yao ethnic group, which uses low and high-pitch drums with varying rhythms. Second, he incorporated a traditional guitar, making his sound more local. Last, he borrowed from the Thikiri tradition, an Islamic music tradition, locally known as zikiri or sikiri, which involves chanting and making sounds in place of musical instruments. In almost all his songs with a few exceptions of rhumba beats in Ndalama and Zili Bwino both produced in 2021, there is a dominance of drums, a local bass guitar, and Manganje sounds. The zikiri effect stands out in Che Patuma (2017), Kunong’a (2017), Apongo (2018), Munthu (2018), Zili Bwino (2021), and Nchape (2023).
Another tactic Atoht Manje used to enrich his music’s identity was sampling. Sampling involves taking a portion of one sound or recording and using it in a different song. This element is evident in Kunong’a and Zili Bwino. In Kunong’a, Atoht Manje uses an excerpt from a traditional song sung in Malawian societies during weddings: “Kuti ndipange chonchi ata kulephereka, kapena ndivine chonchi ata kulephereka”
By adding this sample, Manje created familiarity in his song, as the sample is a song most people in Malawi would know. Given that it is sung during weddings, the sample adds dimension to the song’s message, highlighting the love as a worthy marriage that had undergone the right procedures.
Another song that uses sampling is Zili Bwino. In this song, Atoht Manje narrates how he survived traps and limits set by people and swam seas he was supposed to drown in, all by God’s grace. The song’s underlying theme is God’s providence and how God has the final say in people’s lives regardless of humans’ plans. Toward the song’s end, Manje samples the Malawi national anthem, capturing the part that goes: “Put down each and every enemy hunger, disease, envy.” In adding this line, the artist added familiarity to the song while drawing the listener’s attention to the seriousness of envy, a national problem. Because the song centres on God as supreme, sampling the national anthem, a prayer, was also most fitting.
Atoht Manje’s music was brilliant in the way it was relatable and addressed issues that people are familiar with. His themes ranged from romantic love to human relationships and the dynamics that come with human complexities. Take, for instance, Phone ya Bae released in 2023, which addresses the problems people experience in romantic relationships owing to the use of smart phones. In the song, Atoht Manje wonders why his lover’s phone never rings when they are together as it is always placed in flight mode or on silent. However, when apart, the lover’s line is always busy. Also, he questions why the phone and its apps, including the gallery, WhatsApp, and contacts, are password protected. The artist wonders if this is a case of infidelity on the lover’s part and if she is hiding something. This scenario is relatable given the prevalence of smartphones and the issues surrounding cellphones between partners.
Munthu released in 2018 is another relatable song that discusses the contradictions in people and how no matter what you do, people will find fault with what you do. Manje wonders how best to handle people, concluding that humans are beyond comprehension. For instance, he talks about how if you buy meat, you would be considered pompous. And yet, if you cook the meat in your house they would say you are stingy. The song’s bottom line is that one should not strive too hard to please others because that can never be achieved.
Nchape, a song Manje recently released before his demise, is also relatable. The song focuses on busybodies who eagerly gossip and wish ill upon others. He suggests that because envy is a disease, God needs to heal such people by giving them nchape, a concoction that heals ills. Nchape became famous in 1995 Malawi during the Aids pandemic when a traditional doctor, a Billy Chisupe of Machinga claimed to cure it. In referencing nchape, Atoht Manje uses an aspect of Malawi’s history that enriches his storytelling as people who lived through the experience can relate with the concept.
Although Manje’s music was in Chichewa, occasionally he code-switched between Chichewa and Chiyao, with songs having Yao lines, albeit few. His use of Chiyao reflects Manje’s desire to embrace the Yao culture and identity while making his music accessible to a larger Malawian audience.