In 1983 Kalimba Band, which was started and led by late Griffin Mhango released the song Sometimes I Wonder, from the reggae and soul album Make Friends With the World, which went on to become, probably, the greatest album to have ever been released by a Malawian band in terms of music quality and popularity.
When Mhango died in 1996 after leading the band for two decades, there was despair. But some of the group’s remnants like Bright Live Wire Nkhata, Reuben Tchongwe and Godfrey Mbidzi found themselves in a newly-formed band, Makasu.
Later on the band released popular songs like I Love Malawi, Anasiketi and Ndakana led by Nkhata who led the vocals for all songs in Make Friends With The World. But when Nkhata died in 2000, it was the group’s second major blow in a space of four years.
However, destiny was in favour of the band, thanks to the revival efforts which were championed by Vitta Chirwa, Mhango’s nephew. Chirwa has held the band together since the early 2000s.
According to Chirwa, Kalimba was initially formed by a group of young talented men who included Mhango, Nassau Mkukupha, Stain Phiri and Nkhata. The aim of the group was to become the resident band at Capital Hotel in Lilongwe when it opened its doors in 1976.
“The band spent several years entertaining guests at the hotel but it eventually decided to shift from being a cabaret group to a recording outfit, and eventually, in 1983, that happened with overwhelming results,” explains Chirwa.
The band, says Chirwa, trekked to Johannesburg, South Africa, and with the help of Dephon Promotions, it remains Make Friends With the World. It proved to be a huge success and left an indelible mark on the music scene; both locally and internationally.
Mhango’s composition, Sometimes I Wonder, made it to BBC Radio To 40 world music chart where it ended up in the Top 10, making it the first and only Malawian song to reach that far.
Yet, it has not been an easy road since then. Starting with success, the band has faced several challenges to be where it used to be. The journey, nonetheless, continues.
“So far, since it was formed the band has three albums namely, Make Friends With the World, Adyanguyedye in 1986 and Agogo in 1996. Following the demise of Kalimba’s pillar, Mhango, I inherited the band and we have since released two albums, Tiyende Limodzi in 1999 and Umoyo in 2015,” said Chirwa.
Veteran acoustic artist Kidd Mkandawire says during the early 1990s there were a number of good music groups like Love Aquarius, New Scene, MBC Band, but Kalimba had a unique approach to music.
Mkandawire, who is based in Denmark, observes further: “The band’s live shows were electrifying and the stage dress was also a class of their own. Most importantly, their song writing and arrangement was beyond the bar.”
After the success of their debut album, there were financial misunderstandings with their recording company. This discouraged the group members and it was the end of what promised to be a great future.
Chirwa agrees disagreements over payments resulted in the group’s disorientation.
“As it was, the fire the album ignited led to Kalimba becoming the most sought after group in the country; performing to packed venues; setting the standards. Follow up albums had been planned with the same recording company but due to how the firm handled things the lads were disappointed and discouraged,” he says.
The group lost trust and this made them drop any further recording plans. They considered suing, but concluded that it was going to be expensive. This significantly affected Kalimba’s further development and music in general in the country as they were the most known and successful group from Malawi.
The band is now back.
As of now, the band has roped in new members like Dick Chikweza on drums, Blessings Nkhoma on guitar, Steve Lifesa on bass guitar, Chifundo Katsekera on keyboards and Chirwa himself on vocals. They have all been part of the new album, The Collection, which was released three months ago. The album features some of the memorable songs that Kalimba has released since its genesis.
Among others, the 14-track album contains songs like Sometimes I Wonder, My Love, Let’s Talk it Over, Too Many Rains Ago, Mkazi Wachingoni, Moyo wa Kumudzi, Ali ndi Mwana Agwiritse, Ndapeza Wanga Nane, Tiwamwere and Lovers’ Rock.
Chirwa says people still love their songs although they took time since recording new songs.
“The motivation of this album is to keep our fans across the world happy as they always love to hear from us, and we love to give them something to smile about,” he says.
Recently, Chirwa toured the United Kingdom alongside Kelly Kay and Phyzix, saying got overwhelming feedback.
He asserts: “We had some people shedding tears as some of those songs took them way back in time, reminding them of their loved ones or other particular moments in time.”
Chirwa says they also had the crowds singing along to the songs, word for word, citing Sometimes I wonder as an example. He says he could not believe the joy we were putting in people’s hearts with the songs.
Zodiak Broadcasting Station (ZBS) radio and television presenter Frank Joab Chakhaza described Kalimba Band as one of the most iconic bands to have ever come out of Malawi.
He said that despite having limited technology and equipment in their time, they recorded world class music that has stood the test of time.
“Whenever I play their songs on radio, I get a lot of good reviews from listeners. Their music is refreshing and has a nostalgic feel-good factor about it,” he said.
He adds: “I personally feel there is a musical revolution happening in Malawi. I have seen a brand of young Malawians who are ready to experiment with music by fusing traditional and contemporary beats in their songs. Some are also paying particular attention to composition of lyrics.”
For him, this is a good development.
“It is not surprising that some of our local artists are a regular feature on international music shows and festivals both locally and beyond. I am optimistic that Malawi will produce better and more prolific bands again,” said Chakhaza.
It could be that sometimes you wondered where the band that made friends with the world is. The journey has been full of bitter lessons, but their songs are still worth singing nearly four decades after their breakthrough. Their reggae magic continues.