Another week of insider-interviews from Blantyre, all of which have highlighted important trends in Malawian music. During the colonial era, traditional musical instruments, songs, rhythms, and pedagogies were chronically marginalized. Colonial governments were concerned first and foremost with their territories being financially self-supporting, so administration was kept to a minimum. Thus, economic activity was left to profiteers and education was placed in the hands of Christian missionaries.
Unsurprisingly, missionaries abandoned traditional music in favor of western gospel, and the result has had profound effects on the development of Malawian music, the vast majority of which is divorced from the country’s rich cultural heritage. Instead, copy-cat artists have come to dominate, both musicians who reproduce other African sounds, such as those found in Zambia, the DRC, or South Africa, and those who simply sing western tunes translated into Chewa lyrics. The hope for many of these musicians is that, by mimicking popular sounds, they too will reach international audiences. Rather than embracing distinctly Malawian tunes, they are attempting to compete with the sounds of western pop. But, handicapped by low quality recording equipment and unrefined production/distribution networks, they stand little chance at making a mark on the world music scene.
Locally, musical expression has been increasingly shaped by monetary ambitions. As the sixth poorest country in the world, financial considerations are certainly warranted, but the result has been a proliferation of untrained and unprofessional recordings. Low-quality recordings have inevitably pandered to a widely held public opinion that music is not a serious professional pursuit. It’s easy to see how this cycle reinforces itself and can lead to the erosion of musical integrity.
It’s not a doomsday scenario, but the challenges facing Malawian music are real. The country is full of extremely talented musicians with broad international appeal, but the current mechanisms for artist development and promotion are simply inadequate. But, with the introduction of new low-cost production technology, the invisible hand is beginning to play a role.
In the last two years, important players have started moving into the market to counter these trends. Tuesday we sat down with Michael Munthali of J&D Records. As a Malawian record label, they are among the first breed of companies to combine the services of a professional recording studio with artist production, promotion and distribution. Michael hopes to shift public perception of Malawian music by using J&D’s administrative role to produce Malawian music to an international standard.
Wednesday, we met with four DJs from MBC Radio (Malawi Broadcasting Corporation). While many villagers may not have televisions, most have access to radios. So, MBC’s audience is a wide cross-section of the Malawian population. The DJs on-air experience made clear the demand for local music relevant to the country’s history and the issues faced by the average Malawian. For example, one of MBC’s highest-rated broadcasts is Tidzoani Zoyimba, a weekly show devoted to live traditional Malawian music. Additionally, the DJs noted that they receive more song requests for traditional music than any other genre.
This issue, the reflection of culture and history in modern music, continues to emerge in all the conversations we have. We’re talking to everyone—bartenders, waiters, gardeners, cashiers, etc. We’ve found a trail of interest that we’ll continue to follow.
This weekend the trail takes us on a tour of northern Malawi. In Mzimba, we’ll be going deep in the bush to learn about the traditions of the ingoma warrior dance and the vimbuza healing ritual. Then, we’ll be heading up Mzuzu to sit down with the legendary Wambali Mkandawire. Stay with us…..