It’s close to midnight on a Friday. The Mibawa Café, close to Protea Ryalls Hotel in Blantyre, is packed to capacity. The lights are dim, with only a shimmering light putting you in the proper party mood.
Some patrons, hoping for a bit of privacy, go up the stairs, to watch the proceedings from the upper compartment. Others are at the tables strewn across the café, while some are on the dance floor, swaying the night away.
As you enter, Percy Sledge’s When a man loves a woman tickles your ears. That old school track takes you down memory lane. And the way it is coming out, it’s like the 1966 composition is coming out of some CD player.
It’s not. The live band dishing the music is Mibawa. Leading the vocals is John Kutsokwe Jnr, alias Jay Jay. Here is one artist with talent up his sleeve. His voice can take you on that melancholic journey down memory highway to a time when fun was just that: fun.
As the night continues to die, the band takes you through old numbers and the classics that define world music.
You cannot believe this man is only 29, born and bred in Ndirande and is now living a life of music and dreaming of greater things. From Bob Marley to Lucky Dube, Michael Jackson through Elvis Presley, Jay Jay will mesmerise you with his talent.
“I listen to a lot of music. Every day, I make sure I get to the heart of four new songs. It was difficult in the past when I had to get the lyrics by listening to the songs, but right now, with growing technology, I download some lyrics. Music is my life,” he says.
He started way back in church. His late father was a bishop at United Living Gospel Church. Jay Jay, a father of one daughter—Mayamiko—used to play the piano in the church. That was before he joined Young Generations Band in 1997, where he was playing keyboards and was a backing vocalist for the Afiti Opemphera proponets.
Three years later, he was on the road to join Mr Entertainer Jai Banda’s Uhuru Band, where he played the keyboards and was also a backing vocalist. His next step was Young Generations Band again, and this time, the live performances heightened at the then Lunzu entertainment hotspot, Road House, in Blantyre.
Banda says of Jay Jay: “He is quiet good. He can follow any song and bring it out like the originator. I have always encouraged him to record his own songs.”
The lead vocalist
For three years, he was performing with Matumbi Vibrations, a resident band formed by Road House owner Andy Mpinganjira. This time around, he was lead vocalist but was also handy on keyboards.
Come 2006, he teamed up with several other artists to form Mizati Band, which was later taken up by former Musicians Association of Malawi (Mam) president Costen Mapemba. Here is a band that used to rock town, especially at Sunbird Mount Soche’s Sportsman’s Bar and later on Blue Elephant.
He was leading the vocals.
He looks back: “The Sportsman’s Bar performances raised my bar. We were performing before a middle and upper class audience that was conscious about the music that made their past. When we started performing at Blue Elephant, we noted that the audience was more youthful and we were mostly performing more of the new generation hits.”
Then, after differences over ownership of the Mizati nomenclature, Jay Jay and bandmates formed Maziko Band, which struck a deal with Nde’feyo Entertainment. This is the team that used to back Maskal in the early days of his spotlight musical career. They have backed several other artists, including Piksy, Young Kay and Marko Sadik.
It was in December 2011 when John Nthakomwa opened the Mibawa Café, and Jay Jay was one of the names he thought of for a resident band with a difference. He brought together agile-fingered bassist Godffrey Mbizi, keyboardist (coincidentally) Jay Jay Munthali, lead guitarist Manyozo Chado, Lemekeza Phiri on drums and MacDonald Muwawa.
Not forgetting fellow vocalist Eunice Kadzuwa.
“I combine so well with Eunice. She does tracks from the likes of Tina Turner, Zahara, Brenda Fassie and others. She has a voice that sends shivers down my spine. As a matter of fact, plans are underway that I should release an album, she will also have an album and we will also dish out a Mibawa Band collection,” says Jay Jay, a fond admirer of 2Pac Amaru Shakur and Bob Marley on the international scene.
He reckons music has transformed greatly from the days he was starting out to now. Today, the issue of piracy is larger than life, so much that musicians are not selling as highly as they used to.
“That is why you see some musicians going all the way to sell their own music. If you look at live performances today, you will discover they are not as hot,” he observes.
On his upcoming album, Jay Jay says he can’t delve much into it, as things are still in the crucible: “All I can say is I am composing something different. A touch of my own.”
When he sits at the end of each day, he looks forward to watching music videos—which help him sharpen his act and listen to more music. And who is always by his side at his Chitawira home? His girlfriend of six years, Tina Kamulaga.
“She is the woman of my life. She has seen me through thick and thin. For one, she looked after my mother when she was ill until she passed away in August last year. She is my inspiration. She supplements my God-given talent,” he says, a glow in his twinkling eye.