As you approached the cathedral at St. Michael and All Angels CCAP Church in Blantyre, and before getting in, you could tell that the maestro was on the organ, as the music would be rich in harmony. Wyndham Chechamba had mastered the art of organ playing and was able to bring out all the required details from any hymn.
Sometimes Chechamba, whom we lost on August 7 2021, would get into trouble because of his choice of tunes. Many of the hymns in Nyimbo Za Mulungu or its English equivalent Hymns for Malawi, have been given different tunes from the original ones. The ‘acquired’ tunes have tended to be more popular to Malawian singers than the tunes originally arranged by composers. Chechamba was always true to the original tunes, often to the chagrin of some congregants.
The electric organ is now part of the furniture of St. Michael and All Angels Church. What many people do not know is that it has not always been operated on electric power. Originally, it was 100 percent manual. The air passing through the pipes was generated from bellows which somebody had to operate manually. The original players of the organ were Scottish missionaries but each time an organist was plying, somebody had to operate the bellows.
The first Malawian to play the organ was a Mr. Chisuse, who had learnt to play it while he was in Scotland, where he had been sent to study Printing, as he was working for the Blantyre Mission’s Hethrwick Press. As Chisuse was playing, a younger congregant called Wyndham Chechamba was operating the bellows.
Chechamba was privileged to witness the electrifying of the organ by a South African in the 1950s. When I once asked him about it, he was able to tell me the name of the company that had performed this function.
It was almost a natural transition for Chechamba to take over the playing of the organ from Chisuse. By that time, Chechamba was already an accomplished musician. Having been born in 1934, Chechamba relocated to Gwelo (now Gweru) in Southern Rhodesia, where his father was working. He, therefore, spent part of his boyhood there. When he returned to Nyasaland in 1940 he came under the influence of Rabison Nangwale who taught him how to play the banjo. He also met a musical entrepreneur called Dick Chimayimba who influenced him musically. He met other influential musicians from whom he learnt elements of the guitar. In school he became a member of the school band under the tutelage of Hazeldean Ralph Tata, who also taught him how to read tonic solfa.
In 1952, Chechamba joined the Kings African Rifles (KAR) Band and had the opportunity to learn how to play the saxaphone. It was while he was a member of KAR Band that Chechamba learnt how to read (and write) music in staff notation, a skill that he was to use for the rest of his life.
He met several other musicians in Malawi and Zambia, where the KAR Band had relocated to in 1954. In 1955 he moved to Bulawayo in Southern Rhodesia, where he also met some influential musicians. Returning to Nyasaland, he continued to interact with the musicians of that time and became a member of several outfits. Chechamba was among the musicians that welcomed the legendary Louis Armstrong to Nyasaland in 1960.
Following Malawi’s attainment of independence from British rule in 1964, a national broadcasting house, Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC), was established in that year. In 1968, Chechamba was approached by some MBC officials, who asked him to help in the organisation of the MBC Band. The initial band members included Ndiche Mwalale, John Mwathunga, Frank Kumilonde, Stampi Kamwendo, Rex Kapalamula and McBride Mbona. Chechamba was an arranger in the band. Some of the pieces he arranged were Hechipini yaka yonore, Zivute Zitani and Napoleon. He left MBC Band in 1970 to pursue other musical interests.
Chechamba was also a trainer and established his own musical school, where people would be trained in a variety of musical instruments including the guitar, the keyboard and the saxaphone. He even trained some children of expatriates in the playing of the violin.
If things began to go wrong musically in church, Chechamba would shoot to the front and ask the congregation to stop singing so that they would start all over again, singing correctly. He used to be strict with the pause at the end of the verse in “When Peace Like A River”, for example, to the extent that if people went straight into the chorus, he would stop the music to give some instructions as to how it should be sung.