It’s been seven years since Ankolo Layi rocked the country with a promising album, but was he just another one-hit wonder?
Wednesday around 10am—a tap at the studio entrance mixes with a music breeze escaping soundproofed cubicles of Audio Clinic in Naperi, Blantyre.
The jazz in the making offers a special healing experience to ears searching for its source.
In a country where artists stand accused of abandoning standards and succumbing to shortcuts, the music maker is just a forgotten clinician when it comes to diagnosing and treating the cancer.
His looks keep his abilities under wraps. However, Ankolo Layi is no ordinary musician.
Born Layson Njati in 1976, the former MBC Band member plays it all—drums, guitars, keyboards and percussions—except blowing instruments.
Rewind to 2006, he stormed the airwaves and homes with his first album, Romance, featuring the hitNdangoyakilatu. Ask keen gig-goers where he has been ever since his promising debut faded, they know he plays the lead guitar for the Wazelezeka hitmakers, Edgar ndi Davis—and he sometimes switches to the percussions. But Ankolo Layi is also the producer of the music clinic that he runs in partnership with former Story Workshop executive director Marvin Hanke who promoted his first release.
When asked about his next album, he disclosed that he actually has four under construction.
“I am still around, but I don’t believe in releasing albums every year like those who do it for business. I want to take time to unleash my talent,” explains the artist who fuses his jazz with manganje, gule wamkulu and other traditional dances.
Yet, he knows the long wait could amount to nothing, for the country’s bestsellers largely constitute quickies best appreciated by those who lack music literacy. By contrast, clinical productions that appeal to expert minds usually end up gathering dust on shelves.
Welcome to the world of the music clinician who has gone into hiding to give rise to more stars. In his three years at Audio Clinic, those that have sought his services include ethno-centric award winners Ben Mankhamba and Edgar ndi Davis as well as urban music frontrunners Piksy, Armstrong, Marco Sadik andAkamwire fusionists Fikisa.
Ankolo Layi started playing music at age nine in keeping with his family tradition only to be spotted by MBC Band, featuring Osward Thyolani and Brian Sita, five years later.
After the jump-start, the Ndangoyakilatu hitmaker has always been part of the country’s big-stage bands, including Acacias where he met Afrojazz maestro Erik Paliani and Mankhamba; AB Sounds where he understudied deceased guitar wizard Saleta Phiri; Sapitwa Band which starred Tepu Ndiche and Mankhamba’s Zigzaggers.
He is also the producer of Edgar ndi Davis’ blockbuster, Energy Saver, which boasts delightful double-edged lyrics and smoothly raw instrumentation.
“It is exciting working with people like these because they understand music and to see the works of Mankhamba selling like hotcakes when they go abroad,” he says.
Ankolo Layi says this gives him satisfaction in an industry afflicted by the mushrooming of studios that seemingly see nothing wrong with recording artists who can neither play a wire nor marry their vocals with a sensible drumbeat. The opportunists include entrepreneurs who think recording is all about having requisite computer programmes—a brood that can ill afford to bar unskilled customers when producers are scrambling for artists to beat the prevailing economic odds.
“It is a common mistake that some artists come to record when they have no idea how the instruments will go. They don’t know anything and they don’t understand what they are doing and sometimes say things that cannot be translated into music language. Even with computers, how can you programme an instrument when you have never played one?” laments Ankolo Layi, who studied basic principles of music at the University of Cape Town, South Africa.
Like deceased kingpin Chuma Soko, the star confessed turning down some clueless artists: “You can stretch elastic, but there comes a point when it breaks.” The strict stance does not only save his name in music circles.
In a separate interview, longtime producer MacDonald Chimkango said the evictions are good for the quality and maturity of Malawian music.
“This is one of the reasons the standards of music are falling the standards scaled by the likes of Bright Nkhata, Mankhamba and Paliani. Ankolo Layi is not one of the lazy musicians who don’t read and practice,” said Chimkango, formerly a member of the Tapps Records
Even veterans need some coaching to raise their billing, the two say.
Ankolo Layi adores Wambali Mkandawire, saying the Nkhujipereka star’s jazz transcends boundaries and time. Across the borders, he is down for Cameroonian Afro-jazz bassist Richard Bona whose guitar genius is a delight to behold.
He indicated the album, Love, is coming soon—but he attached no deadline to his project.