Not long ago, a band of young upstarts was so revered on the international scene that few who listened to their music believed they came from Malawi.
Calling themselves Kalimba and formed in 1976, the band comprised Bright Nkhata, Stain Phiri, Griffin Mhango, Isaac Nyirenda and Francis Chintembo.
Yet four decades after these five musicians started the drum beating, sax blowing, guitar strumming and percussion tingling fusion, the band is still playing, albeit with a whole new appearance.
Kalimba was responsible for putting Malawi music on the map with the 1983 release of Make Friends With the World.
Produced by Attie van Wyk under South Africa’s Dephon Promotions, the album’s number one hit was the anthemic Sometimes I Wonder, a song so popular that it made it in the Top 5 of BBC’s Top 40 Singles Chart.
The force behind the band was the legendary Mhango, who was not only the founding member of the band but the leader, composer, arranger, guitarist as well as vocalist.
Bright Nkhata manned the vocals and saxophone, Phiri played keyboards, Nyirenda on the drum set and Chintembo played guitar.
Some of the standout tracks included My Love, No or Nada, Wake Up Get Up, Too Many Rains Ago, In This World and Let’s Talk It Over.
Mhango composed the cream of the songs on the album, including the big hit Sometimes I Wonder, according to the band’s current leader Vita Chirwa, who also happens to be his nephew.
“Griffin George Mhango was the last born son in a family of five and he was born on April 18 1956. He was a vastly gifted and skilled musician. Griffin was a singer-songwriter, guitarist and founding member of Kalimba. He could play anything on the guitar and could also express his feelings through his baritone voice. He was such an amazing and successful artist and yet humble and down to earth,” recalls Chirwa.
Mhango went to Malamulo Secondary School in the early 70s where he sang in the Malamulo Choir. Having finished high school, he chose to pursue a music career and eventually co-founded Kalimba in 1976.
“He was a hardworking musician and it did not come as a surprise when, in 1983, he led Kalimba to international success with the release of Make Friends With the World, recorded in Johannesburg, South Africa.
“Although only five members made the trip, Kalimba had four other members who did not travel for the recording; lead and background vocalist Kidd Mkandawire, rhythm guitarist Don Mlenga, plus trumpeters Brian Chingwalu and Enock Mbewe,” states Chirwa.
There was no music in Malawi without Kalimba and there was no Kalimba without music—it ought to be said. The band was everywhere and the members were trendsetters back then.
“Kalimba played to packed venues wherever they went, wowing crowds with their music, intricate stage work and flashy costumes. The group had so much style, sophistication and splendour that they quickly became trendsetters. Everybody wanted to be like them. Some people used to call them ‘afana apachanya’,” explains Chirwa.
Over the years, members walked in and out of Kalimba, but Mhango remained unshaken. He continued to train young musicians into fine instrumentalists, making them adhere to his standards.
“A great teacher he was, he taught so many. I’m one of his students so I speak from experience. But he also taught Deus Mwalubunju, who eventually ended up playing bass for Dr Victor and the later Rebecca Malope, Godfrey Mbizi, who is now with Mibawa Banda, Sam Phiri and many more,” states Chirwa.
In early 1996, Mhango fell sick.
“He died on September 29, the same year. He was buried at Elangeni Village in Mzimba. He is survived by two sons, George and Mike as well as daughter Victoria,” says Chirwa. n