It is lunchtime at Sunbird Livingstonia, a beachside lodge in Salima which offers postcard views of the palm-fringed Lake Malawi.
Forget the high-class hotels where luncheons are marked by classical jazz, country and other slow Western songs amid a clash of table knives, forks, spoons and other pieces of cutlery digging into lip-smacking meals.
Fridays are no ordinary days at the lakeside, open-air restaurant. This is the day visitors are served with a buffet brimming with bites that offer a taste of Malawian delicacies, including ground and soaked gondolosi tubers which are believed to be an aphrodisiac.
But equally local and lekker is the music in the air—the unique sounds emanating from a trio garbed in white and armed with home-made instruments.
In the mix is a massive bass guitar called babatoni. The plucking instrument, measuring almost three metres long, is the most prominent piece of props in the hands of the band whose tools are contrived from recycled scrap metals.
Babatoni is one of the country’s distinctive music instruments slowly facing extinction. It is rarely appreciated—just like kaligo and other locally produced instruments that churn out scintillating, inimitable music.
Fascinating to the eye, the home-made ‘bass guitar’ leaves ears yearning for more.
San Njakata Chizulu has been playing his babatoni since 1987.
As his fingers pace across the length of the single-stringed instrument derived from a rusty metal drum wrapped in a raw hide, it is amazing how he grabs the massive instrument by its wooden neck and tuner.
The device, with no frets, produces deeper sounds, clearer and of course louder than an ordinary bass guitar.
Chizulu’s string, extracted from a tattered tyre, runs across the length of a wooden neck tied to the soundboard draped in a cowhide.
The instrument demands sublime skill. Hard at work, the 42-year-old player slides a metal pipe across the string with one hand while the other presses on the wire, ‘choosing’ imaginary chords.
In his way, the babatoni becomes the dominant instrument for the Kuchekuche Band.
In fact, Chizulu leads the group which also comprises Charles Njakata, 52, and Shati Njakata, 33.
The two brothers play locally made drum set and lead guitar, respectively.
Says Chizulu: “All these instruments produce great sound, but the main one is the babatoni.”
Kuchekuche, which presupposes a dusk-to-dawn gig, mostly plays renditions of other folk musicians.
But they have several unrecorded compositions of their own. Despite their weekly gigs at the hotel, they have not raised enough money to have the songs recorded.
“We get booked by many places of interest. Sometimes, tourists from abroad invite us just to appreciate the sound of the babatoni,” says Chizulu.
Their rusty instruments, which often leave the audience gazing at his handiwork, are durable.
The band leader has been using his for ten years on the trot.
“I used mbawa hardwood and cowhide to fashion my bass guitar,” he says.
The trio entertains patrons at Sunbird Livingstonia Beach’s lakeside restaurant every weekend.
They also perform at neighbouring lodges on the shoreline of the freshwater lake, including Chinamwali, Kambiri and Blue Waters.
They are probably the most frequently booked band in the lakeshore setting, almost 103 kilometres east of the capital, Lilongwe.
“Once upon a time, we bought a modern lead guitar, but it failed to produce the sound we wanted. So, we dismantled it and replaced the strings with our wires taken out from an old car tyre,” Chizulu said.
The band’s firm insistence on locally made tools and unique sound has maintained their identity as a folk music group..
What looks like a mix-up of scrap metals conjure up melodic and harmonious music when the band belts out Cousin Wanga.
“Cousin wanga adzandilakwitsa/ Dzana wandipeza ndili ndekha ku room, Cousin/Kenako wandipeza ku bafa/Cousin akundilakwitsa/ Mundigwetsa mu mpingo, cousy,” goes the song.
After brief vocals, the number transitions into a lengthy interval of the melodious babatoni, the lead guitar, the drums and shakers, called zisekese.
As the brothers perform, the babatoni asserts its supremacy.
The resonance of the sole string on the special bass guitar, often played using a stick and a metal pipe or an empty bottle, is craftily interwoven with persistent drumbeats resulting from persistent blows on the cow-hide body.
The result is an amazing, danceable sound seamlessly fused with other instruments.
Such is the magic of the babatoni, the instrument which catapulted the legendary Dr Daniel Kachamba and Nkhata Bay-based youngster Gasper Nali into global glow.
Nali, who released the album Abale Ndikuwuzeni, received international acclaim and massive likes on YouTube, Facebook and other platforms on the worldwide web.
Plucking his extensive babatoni, Chizulu says the band cannot wait for its turn.n