Malawians are an enigmatic people in the sense that while they have an insatiable appetite for imported physical goods, the range of music they are able to appreciate is very narrow and almost entirely local. Sophistication does not come into Malawian tastes when it comes to music and the visual arts.
A recent survey showed that the best selling artist still living is Madonna. Now Madonna is a household name in Malawi, but for other reasons than music. The name is mentioned in the same breath as David Banda and Mercy James, the two Malawian children that Madonna adopted. Apart from that, very little else is known about this iconic figure in Malawi.
When Madonna first went to Mchinji to open her negotiations for the adoption of David Banda, a sizeable local crowd followed her around. MBC TV managed to interview a villager who wore a T-shirt with the Madonna inscription and portrait at the back, and asked him if he knew who that person was. He said he had no idea.
And indeed many Malawians, not just the Mchinji villager, have no idea what kind of music Madonna plays, despite her being the most accomplished living artist, globally. Songs like Hung Up or Like a Virgin almost never get played on Malawian radio stations. Despite having great international acclaim these songs are not nearly as well known in Malawi as Chinamuluma Chakuda, for example.
Malawians are contented with the simplicity of local music. Anything that goes beyond the simplicity they are accustomed to is simply thrown away. When Game Shop first opened in Blantyre, they had a section that stocked a wide range of international music, from traditional African through reggae, rock n’ roll and jazz to classical music. As it turned out, the patronage was very poor and consequently that section was closed.
When you go to Oliver Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, you get the opportunity to buy music from all over Africa and from further afield, the only exception being Malawi. Once they stocked Wambali Mkandawire’s Zani Muone. But generally speaking, the lack of sophistication in Malawian music compels the international music sellers to bypass it.
The problem with our music is that it lacks musicality. In fact most of what passes as music in Malawi is more of drama than music. I get approached by many artists wanting me to buy their music. Mostly I turn them away. If I buy it, I will more likely than not give it away. I do so because the musicality in most of the so called music DVDs is conspicuously missing.
When I listen to music I want to appreciate the melodiousness and the harmoniousness of the effort. I want to hear how the various instruments blend into each other to form not just three chords but a wider range of major and minor chords. I want to appreciate the vocal range of those vocalising the music. Yes, I want to hear not a raw voice but one that has clearly been appropriately trained for serious music. That to me is musicality.
Instead what I get on Malawian music DVDs, more often than not, is some attempt at acting backed with anything but convincing music. If truth be told, I would rather watch Kwathu or Nanzikambe or indeed Bayana Chunga’s Parables than the acting I get from such DVDs.
The confining of the majority of Malawians to local music has nothing to do with patriotism. It is the same people who import all kinds of physical goods: sofa sets, carpets, curtains, floor tiles – and the list is endless. Perhaps the only thing that has not yet been imported is sand, but should the opportunity arise some over-enthusiastic Malawians will not hesitate to import it.
The sad thing about our confinement to local music is that we have failed to develop a proper appreciation of music. Anything that has some semblance of rhythm passes for music. Malawian radio and TV stations appear to have adopted the “anything goes” approach in so far as music is concerned. Our exclusion of international music has driven us into a musical quagmire which we will find hard to extract ourselves from. Meanwhile, we will continue to produce music without musicality. n