Not so long ago, there was Balaka reggae. Although it had a short life span, it was a locally brewed music genre which produced some of the biggest music stars in Malawi. During its prime, it was influential and defined Malawi music. And the man who created and perfected the art of Balaka reggae, Paul Banda, deserves all the credit.
Two beautiful musical tales of one reserved man, whose prowess and footprints in the industry go deep. Like lovers, ready to take the world by storm, the tales join with every tissue of the cadaver, to make one humble, but harmless concoction that is Paul.
Several artists who have drunk from his Imbirani Yahweh Studios’ well can attest to that, so can music lovers. Just ask the crop that is part of the 1995 to 2005 golden decade of Malawi music, and almost all of them have had and continue to have an illustrious career through their interaction with Paul, either in Alleluya Band or as a producer at the IY Studios.
Most top musicians, including Paul’s young sibling Lucius, Billy Kaunda, Mlaka Maliro, Coss Chiwalo, Charles Sinetre, Charles Nsaku, Patrick ‘Abigi’ Tung’ande and Joseph Tembo, shot to fame through Alleluyah Band and IY Studio, one of the first recording music places in the country.
The old generation is well versed with Paul’s hits such as Mtendere, Malilime, Zonse Zabwino, Munda/Ambuye Waitana, Konzani Moyo, Chipulumutso Chafika and Achimwene Mudzigona Kunyumba, but the music genre known as the Balaka rhythm is coming back from the dead.
The veteran gospel musician returns in the music selling business with his 17th yet-to-be-titled album after retiring from the Malawi music scene in the 1990s as he dedicated himself to studio work.
“I am getting help from other musicians such as Coss Chiwalo in working with the album as I am an old man now, certainly I can’t do everything alone. But the album will be ready by April,” said Paul in an interview.
After much consideration, the legend is also releasing his debut DVD, which was initially supposed to be out last year.
“I never wanted to do a DVD, but for the sake of documentation in terms of the future, I had to. I want future generations to be able to see Paul and not just read or hear about me. So, I am working with Anthu Ambiri Records who have done videos for Joseph Nkasa as well,” he explained.
Paul’s biggest achievements remains Alleluya Band, which through its music, has evangelized both nationally and internationally for close to four decades without break and clocks 38 years this year.
To date, its best export remains Lucius, who quit the group in 1997 to form Zembani Band.
As such, Paul holds the band in high regard.
“This is going to be my 17th album as I did some with Alleluya Band, the band that I started in 1977. Our first show was on January 19 1978 when Father Mario, who had arrived earlier and established charitable youth groups, was celebrating his first year in Malawi.
“I was naturally drawn to and interested in a guitar and so I asked him to allow me to teach boys around the town how to play the instrument. It was from that group that we played for him and the public and Father Mario started supporting us. I left in 1994 after the big devaluation and I couldn’t find ndiwo at home,” recollected Paul.
Interestingly, Paul never went to any formal music school to learn how to play his trademark instrument, the guitar. He says he started music out of interest. Yet, he turned Balaka into a music powerhouse.
“I taught myself how to play the guitar. Actually, in our family, we don’t have a relation who has background in music. I saw the late Joseph Nangalambe in Blantyre, playing a guitar at a beer party and it was encouraging and fulfilling to see him play. I was moved and from then on, I tried to make my own guitar.
“Unfortunately, in those days, playing a guitar was associated with womanising, drunkenness and chamba smoking. So, my mother and everybody was against me. They could destroy it and no sooner than later I would make another guitar until I started making sense of the instrument on my own,” he remembers.
For years, with his magical hands, he created a music kingdom, that in turn artistically crafted and built the great man he is today—a legend.
So the godfather of the Balaka rhythm is continuing with his journey which he started four decades ago.
“My album is the continuation of the Balaka rhythm. I don’t deviate from my root, so I am maintaining my rhythm which is synonymous with Balaka people. Though music is evolving, we surely have to incorporate some changes but not completely moving away from the original thought.
“It’s sad that the rhythm is dying. Not naturally, but as a result of fights that have been there between artists. There have been deliberate attempts to have the Balaka rhythm thwarted, but it has and will soldier on,” he bemoaned.
Call him the godfather of that rhythm as well as Alleluya Band, but Paul wants to be remembered as the engineer of Malawi’s professional recording music.
“When I came onto the music scene, a lot of things were happening. When I started experimenting recording, I made an effort to put music on a tape and took it OG Issa where it was sold. In that way, I brought the idea of musicians professionally recording songs onto a tape and make a little something out of that,” he enthused.
As the artist celebrates his 53rd birthday in October, he has no regrets that none of his three boys is into music.
“I am happy that they have not because I have not been happy as a musician. There are no monetary gains, it’s a struggle. The Copyright Society, for example, is just on paper as music continues to be heavily pirated. Certainly, I would not want my children to go through that experience, never,” he said. n