Yesterday, 14 years ago, musician Evison Matafale died while in police custody. KONDWANI KAMIYALA looks back at the legendary artist, his music and legacy.
On that Tuesday morning of November 27 2001, Malawi woke up to the sad news that at 3:20am, the uncrowned Malawi reggae king, Evison Matafale, had succumbed to pneumonia at Lilongwe Central Hospital (now Kamuzu Central Hospital). Speculation that Matafale had been assaulted by police officers—who had him in their custody—gained ground as the day progressed.
With two albums—and a single on the September 11 2011 terrorist attacks on the USA—to his name, Matafale died seven days after celebrating his 32nd birthday. He is survived by a daughter, Tereza, now aged 18.
The last three weeks of Matafale’s life were very eventful, but one thing remains clear: His death in police custody is a mystery, as police had not yet charged him. He was to appear before the Lilongwe Magistrates’ Court the day he died.
An autopsy report, commissioned by his brother, the then ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) governor for the Southern Region, the late Davis Kapito, showed he may have died of other causes. Dr Charles Dzamalala, who conducted the postmortem, refused to give more details then, as he presented the report only to Kapito.
Within a fortnight the then president Bakili Muluzi instituted a commission of inquiry, headed by Supreme Court Judge Leonard Unyolo. Another inquiry was conducted by the Malawi Human Rights Commission. In April 2002, both inquiries presented their findings to Muluzi, showing that although Matafale died of natural causes, police accelerated his passage.
Police nicked the ailing Matafale on November 24 either for purportedly writing a libellous letter against Muluzi and his ruling UDF and some religions or they remanded him at Maula Prison to answer charges of damaging window panes at OG Issa Music Shop in Limbe, following squabbles after he found a vendor trying to sell covers of his second album, Kuimba 2, released in August 2001.
Matafale had proceeded to order other music outlets, Clifton Bazzar and Portuguese Shopping Centre, to stop selling his music since he felt they were all ripping him off.
His death shocked music lovers who followed his two-year walk in the Malawi music fame hallway.
Thousands descended upon his Singano Village home, where he was buried. He had grown so famous that it was not surprising that before he died, readers of Nation Publications Limited titles had already voted him Man of the Year 2001.
He was also voted Musician of the Year 2001 at the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation’s Entertainers of the Year programme and his song, Yang’ana Nkhope, which is in Kuimba 2, was voted second best song. The votes were also cast before his death.
But who was Matafale and why has his music endured 14 years after his death? Why do music lovers continue to throng Chileka, his home area, every year to pay homage to the fallen star?
Music lovers, those who worked with him and friends contend he was deeply spiritual, revolutionary, visionary and an artist who could turn dust into diamonds, musically.
Before his death in 2012, Enock Fumulani—the patriarch of Chileka music—said in an interview Matafale’s music exploits became clear in 1998, after Kapito facilitated his repatriation to Malawi from Zimbabwe where he had become destitute.
“We heard he was working on farms in Zimbabwe under very poor conditions and he had to come back. When he came back, his interest in music was evident,” says Fumulani, father to renowned Chileka musician Robert Fumulani and spiritual mentor of Anthony Makondetsa, Gift Fumulani and remnants of the Black Missionaries.
Matafale formed the Black Missionaries in 2000, after ditching the Wailing Brothers, under which he released Kuimba 1. He joined forces with three Fumulani brothers, Musamude, Anjiru (vocals) and Chizondi (keyboards). He also roped in Peter Amidu (bassist) from Uhuru Band and the Chokani brothers—Paul (drums) and Takudziwani (lead guitar)—from the Wailing Brothers.
Leonard Chakakala Chaziya, one of Matafale’s closest friends, says the shock he had when his mother, who was matron at Lilongwe Central Hospital, told him that his friend was in bad shape still remains today as so many questions about his death remain unanswered.
Chaziya was on his way from Kasungu to the hospital when Matafale died.
“As long as those who had a hand in his death still roam free, we cannot honour him enough. We cannot talk of his legacy without understanding why justice was not seen to be done,” said Chaziya.
He referred to Matafale as a down-to-earth artist who still respected his friends in spite of the fame that came his way. Even after the fame that the success of Kuimba 1 brought him, Matafale never forgot his true friends and respected his fans.
The two became friends after Matafale was visiting his brother Elton, who was Chaziya’s roommate at Namitete Secondary School in 1992. They lost touch, only to meet again in 1998 when Matafale came back from Zimbabwe.
“He was just born a revolutionary and a fighter. Three weeks before his death, he showed me the letter against the government and other religions. I told him he was putting himself into trouble, but he said I feared politicians because I come from a political background. He said he did not fear politicians,” said Chaziya, son to former Reserve Bank of Malawi governor and politician Lyoond Chakakala Chaziya.
Chaziya, who spent most Sundays meditating, dissecting reggae music and reading the Bible with Matafale and other friends by the riverside in Chileka, said Matafale’s songs were mostly inspired by the Bible and his life experiences. He relates a situation in the late 1980s when Matafale was a student at Chipoka Secondary School in Salima, when he had to go into exile in Zambia. He had to flee Malawi Young Pioneer operatives.
It is from the Zambia exile experience, Chaziya says, that Matafale composed lines of Olakwa Ndani: Walira mnyamata/ M’dziko lachilendo/Kodi ndapha ndani ine kuti ntere? (The boy moans and groans from exile: Whom have I killed to suffer this way?).
“He came from Zimbabwe with six songs, which were in English and Shona. Most of the English songs like Poison So Sweet and No Winner No Loser did not need retouching. He had to work on translating the Shona songs. He did not want the message diluted in any way,” says Chaziya.
Current Blacks leader Anjiru Fumulani says Matafale was visionary, as he often told them one day they would be performing the world over, including the home of reggae, Jamaica. He concurred with Chaziya that Matafale was spiritual, citing Olenga Dzuwa as an example. The song, he adds, came from Matafale’s experience at a Zimbabwe diamond mine, where some people were worshipping the sun. Matafale wondered why they were worshipping the sun, not the one who created it.
“That song has four pillars. These are: Timamudikira (We wait for the Lord); Timamulilira (We cry for His presence); Timamulindira (We wait upon the Lord) and the very essence of kuimba, which is Timamuimbira (We sing for Him). He used to tell of a future time, when we would be singing for the Lord as He descends from heaven to earth. We would all be dressed in white robes, he used to say,” narrates Anjiru.
Music promoter Jai Banda and former MBC Radio 2 DJ Gift Mabeya Mbeya who worked closely with Matafale agreed Matafale was legendary.
“I can’t find anyone to compare to when it comes to Malawi reggae. You find nothing new in our lyrics. Matafale’s lyrics were powerful. He was a musician who needed to be understood for he fought for his rights,” said Mbeya. n