My obsession with Malawian music - Dr John Lwanda

Ali Mazrui, in his 1990 book Cultural Forces in World Politics (James Currey), argued that culture “provides lenses for perception and cognition, motives for human behaviour, criteria of evaluation, a basis for an identity, a mode of communication, a basis for stratification and the system of production and consumption”. By that time I was well into my obsessional collection and study of Malawian music.

Musicians such as the Malawi Mouse Boys play an important role in storing, transmitting and interpreting information, history and traditions
Musicians such as the Malawi Mouse Boys play an important role in storing, transmitting and interpreting information, history and traditions

I suppose I was born a musicophile, always the first to tap feet or indeed dance. My upbringing, perhaps, exacerbated and, in a way, consolidated this tendency. My dad, an Anglican primary school teacher taught music, Scottish Country dancing, and could sing like NP Kazembe. My mum broke into gospel or hymns at the drop of an argument. I was exposed to all sorts of African, European, and American music from the early 1950s via Radio Lusaka (CABS).

Since 1969, I have collected Malawian music on vinyl, cassette, compact discs, video and digitally and I have written about it since 1981. At some point, especially as I was driving around doing my house calls, the music consumption also became analytical. Time gave me the opportunity to listen to the lyrics and the messages they carried. My research covered traditional music, sacred and gospel music, jazz band music, popular music, mbumba music, afrojazz and classical music.

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I won a locally made Nzeru radio in a writing competition in 1968 and on arrival in Glasgow in 1970 was able to buy a powerful shortwave radio from John McCormack’s (Bath St, Glasgow). They had hire purchase terms to arriving international students on scholarships. Then on shortwave I could hear some African radio stations (South Africa, Ghana; even, briefly, in the 1970s, the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation).

Regarded as one of the foremost authorities on Malawian music, Dr John Lwanda is a medical doctor, writer, poet, researcher, social historian and music producer. He has lived in Glasgow since 1970 and continues to make frequent family and research visits to Malawi.

In the wake of the World Music interest, I run a small record company that issued a number of compilations and new recordings of Malawi music. Later, as a mature PhD student in history and social science, I recorded traditional, gospel and popular music on video. My efforts saw me meet and interact with key Malawi musicians, such as: Alan Namoko, Saleta Phiri, the Kasambwe Brothers, Kalambe, Kamwendo Band, Waliko Makhala, Overton Chimombo, Wyndham Chechamba, George Mbendera, Beatrice Kamwendo, Lucky Stars, the Malawi National Dance Troupe, and the Mount Sinai Choir.

My collections and research have produced papers in newspapers, magazines, journals, books, and encyclopaedias.

I believe that in largely oral cultures – and Malawi is one such – music plays an important role in storing, transmitting, interpreting information, history, and traditions. To understand such cultures, one needs to be able to access some of their public spheres. In Malawi, on the authority side, music is used in most traditional rituals and ceremonies; it is, as everyone familiar with Malawi knows, a major staple of political rallies. It is used in school as well as health education. Gospel is ubiquitous and pervasive.

On the other side, music is part of normal resistance to poor governance, creating beni in colonial times and featuring significantly in postcolonial popular music. Music is, of course, a major factor in surviving lives blessed with poverty and misery; humour features greatly in Malawi music. Malawians use music to deflate sectarian and political tension; the same tune can carry lyrics by opposing factions. Being oral and communal, musical lyrics in Malawi must, of necessity, be multi-layered and, if needed, ambiguous, so that both children and adults can dance communally each at their own level.

John Chipembere Lwanda’s Making Music in Malawi

Dr John Lwanda is a medical doctor, writer, poet, researcher, social historian and music producer.

John Chipembere Lwanda’s Making Music in Malawi (2021), (451 pages) is published by Logos Open Culture, Lilongwe. A few copies are available from Pamtondo, 41 The Fairways, Bothwell, G71 8PB ([email protected]) at the discounted launch price of £25.

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