In 2003, Ngati Mafunde took over airwaves in Malawi like a gale. Ironically, the hit, which took the country by storm, talks about strong waves.
This is the story of Kenny Gilmore and his Sangalala Afro Blues Band whose exploits form the gist of the country’s newest music memoirs, Harmonica Diaries.
Described as a mixed-world music musician, he skillfully merges traditional African rhythms and soulful American blues to create a unique sound which catapulted the title track of the album Ngati Mafunde to maintain the number one hit on local charts for three months.
The track helped Gilmore to further stardom, with Sangalala Band competing in the finals of the Kuche Kuche National Music Competition in April 2007—challenging racial stereotypes and perceptions of traditional Malawian music.
The musician was born in 1978 in Kenya’s Rift Valley Province and raised in Malawi before moving to New Orleans, USA in 1998.
When he returned to Malawi in 2002 and founded the band, he admitted had no idea that he was setting on a memorable journey to stardom.
Now, he has chronicled those memories and highlights of his return into his first book, Harmonica Diaries, which is already on sale.
Gilmore’s memoirs unravel the roller-coaster ride of how a young boy at St Andrews International School in Blantyre became an instant hit.
In an interview, he explained: “It’s an action-packed story of how I went from being a schoolboy studying in Malawi, to an international musician—all because of my unexpected talent for playing the harmonica.
“I have had a colourful life so far, and a lot of my most outlandish experiences are packed into this book. It’s not so much of an autobiography as a tightly focused account of how my life was hijacked by music.”
Much of the book set is in Malawi where he learnt the ropes.
He gave flashbacks of his humble beginnings: “I was in there! I was jamming with the Black Missionaries at the rooftop dancehalls near Chileka, I was onstage with Lucius Banda on Glynn Jones road, I took my band to the first Lake of Stars Festival, and I was honoured to play for the first lady of Malawi at the time [the late Ethel Mutharika] at Sanjika palace —may she rest in peace. All this happened because of a song called Ngati Mafunde.
“I played a small fun instrument that was hardly ever seen in Malawi in those days—a harmonica. It helped get other musicians interested in what I was doing, and that’s the point of the book—how playing the harmonica led me to enriching experiences.”
He pours out great memories of concerts in the Warm Heart of Africa.
“The music concerts I played in Malawi have always been precious in my heart. There is something explosive about a Malawian crowd and the joyous way that they can respond to live music. It makes me proud to still claim Malawi as ‘one of my’ homes,” he recounted.
Some of the experiences in the book are outrageous—narrow escapes.
“One time I had to lie down on the stage with Joseph Tembo while an angry crowd threw bottles at us [after a power outage]. All of the experiences are true-to-life, and reveal some of the charm, madness, energy and hope of the music scene in Malawi at that time.
There are more bizarre experiences described in the book, including a frightening break-in from panga-wielding thugs during the rainy season in 2005.
The gang, he said, seemed to have discovered his whereabouts and where he stored his music equipment.
“Incredibly, the thieves left much of what was economically valuable and went straight for the thing that would hurt me most—my harmonicas. They stole the entire collection,” said the artists.
This forced Gilmore and the band to cancel concerts for almost two months.
Traumatised, Gilmore sought cure from arguably bizarre and outrageous source, especially for Westerners, a witchdoctor.
He narrated: “The remedy by which I sought to have them returned was worse. After the police had tried and failed to uncover any clues, I interviewed a witchdoctor who offered to help me.
“I am afraid to say he didn’t help at all, but instead set a dark chain of events in motion that haunted me for five years, leading to a desperate confrontation on a rooftop in El Salvador and my final redemption. I can’t give too much more away about that part, you will have to read it,” hints Gilmore.
But what motivated him to write the book?
“In 2014 while attempting to locate an Andean musician in Bolivia, I was lost in the Andes for three lonely days. Feeling desperate, I began to fear for my life when I suffered a venomous spider bite.
I reflected that if I died then a lot of my best stories and most unique experiences would never be passed on. I resolved that if I could find a way out, I would write the best of these stories down in the shape of a book. So here it is,” he stated.
He said writing the first draft was easy. He continuously wrote every day and had manuscripts out in six weeks.
Presently the e-book is on sale on Amazon and Kindle books.
“The physical copy can also be ordered from the same group, although I think postage will take a week or two. Again, Claim Bookshop is going to stock the book.
The artist also plans to visit Malawi in 2018 to stage a book signing event.