Every musician in Malawi has a story to tell about the genesis of their passion. But unlike most musicians who are engrossed with making quick money, there is one legend whose story is as interesting as his illustrious career.
Ben Michael Mankhamba took a halt in the middle of his educational journey at the Polytechnic to embark on a musical journey.
That decision has paid him more than enough dividends as among other achievements; this is a man who has to his credit seven international and national music awards.
“I had always wanted to be a musician, but my parents were pushing me to school so I had to do their school first then pursue my desires later. The only time I have worked at a company was when I did my practical at Grain and Milling Company in Limbe following my unfinished studies in Laboratory Technology at The Malawi Polytechnic.
“Otherwise all my life I have survived through music. I started music as a backing singer for Ethel Kamwendo Banda in Wepaz Band which was owned by the late Davie Mafuleka. Then I learnt to play percussions and now I can also play guitar and do leading voices,” said Mankhamba in an interview.
He had his hands firmly on arts such that it did not come as a surprise that he later established his own band. Having produced several contemporary traditional music albums in the 1990s, he established his own band in 2000.
To date, he holds the enviable record of winning the now defunct Kuche Kuche/Malawi Gin Music Award six times in a row.
“It was involving and tiring to maintain the top position because each coming year I had to compete with myself and come up with something new and better, but this helped me a lot to appreciate our traditional and cultural music since the competition’s score sheet had most points on traditional elements.
“I discovered the winning formula which other musicians found it hard to go through. I had to go camping in the village which was practicing the kind of dance that I wanted to use that year and learn everything about it for two weeks. Then I would go and teach my band and work on how to do it with electrical instruments. Even if that competition was still around this time, I don’t think anyone could catch me,” he said.
But his exuberance of content quickly faded away as he explained: “The sad thing is when I tried to record and sell the winning songs, Malawians never appreciated it, I don’t know why. This is the music which could have put Malawi on the international map because it was developed out of research.”
Mankhamba has flown the Malawian flag at several international festivals, including the Bayimba Festival in Uganda, World Aids Day commemoration in Japan with Kohei Yamada, at Victoria Falls Jazz Festival in Zimbabwe as well as a performance at the World Land Mines in Kenya.
Aside that, the artist also performed and conducted workshops in Berlin, Muchen and Hannover City in Blantyre with Blantyre Arts Festival.
“I have been awarded and appreciated by being given many musical tasks. I can challenge I am the only one who has been assigned to represent Malawi at many functions within and abroad due to the Malawian flavours in my music and performances. I have done numerous theme songs and jingles for uncountable local and international organisations. Some of them well-paying, others peanuts,” said Mankhamba.
He also added that he has done soundtracks for two international movies and soaps.
His love for stage performance can be his major secret throughout his musical journey.
“I like the stage so much that, if the audience is lively, I cannot tire and I can carry on for many hours. I know the stage performing techniques. I can challenge the audience that there is no other local musician who can perform to a strange audience which doesn’t know any of the artist’s song, but make them enjoy the show. I quickly read my audience,” he explained.
Having been in the limelight entertaining Malawians with his music and performances Ben Michael later took up a role of a traditional leader Chingalire in Nsalu, Lilongwe.
As a village head, he has been using his artistry, coupled with his position and influence, to help change the face of his community.
“I am very busy turning my village into a modern and model area. That is why I started this organisation, Chingalire Rural Growth Centre with an objective to create a teaching, learning and communication centre where children, the youth and the surrounding community can gain and showcase positive knowledge in education, social and cultural practices, agro-economics and environmental issues to develop their livelihoods supplementary to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals,” said the artist who was crowned on October 30 2010 after the death of his father, the first Chingalire.