The music of Malawi is fairly diverse. It’s a blend and fusion of various musical styles from British, American, and African traditions. Its location has been a prime merging of cultures through trade and travel for centuries. During WWII, there was even more Western musical influences; soon guitar and banjo duets became really popular among Malawian musicians, especially when it came to dance music. Malawians who worked in South Africa and Mozambique brought in Dutch and Portuguese traditions as well. These styles together created a genre called Kwela. However, even though some musicologists believe these Malawian workers added more to the genre, South African Kwela bands tend to be more popular.
During the early years of independence when Kamuzu Banda led the country, music was highly censored. Nothing political or anti-government in anyway would be tolerated. Only music that praised how awesome he was would be permitted. Now that multiparty elections have been established for some time now, musicians and artists alike are freer to practice their arts. In fact, just last year, Malawi made news when The Zomba Prison Project’s I Have No Everything Here album won Best World Music Album.
In Malawi, dance plays an important part of their culture. The National Dance Troupe, which got its start in 1987, focused on promoting traditional dance styles. Many of these dances are performed during rituals, marriage celebrations, and other rites. The Gule Wamkulu dance is performed by the dancer who wears a mask.
Over the years, there have been many different types of music in Malawi. Besides kwela, Malawi also developed its own genre called kwasa kwasa that was influenced by the soukous music of 1980s Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Jazz is also popular with jazz fests happening throughout the year. Jazz musicians like Wambali Mkandawire and others utilize several different styles of jazz. One musician I listened to was guitarist Erik Paliani. I really liked his work; it’s a little jazz, a little Afro-pop, a little reggaesque (maybe) at times. Gospel music is also fairly popular in Malawi as well.
Hip-hop music has been influenced by American and European traditions. It really got its start in Malawi with a group called Real Elements. Since then, they have paved the way for a myriad of other rappers and hip-hop stars to emerge on the scene. Likewise, there have been several successful R&B artists as well, like Maskal. Rappers like Young Kay, Pop Dogg, and Gwamba have made names for themselves on an international level (and/or based out of other countries). House and electronic music is also pretty popular with DJs like Phyzik and Cyclone dominating.
Reggae and pop music also have a presence in the country. Lucius Banda is a musician who is widely listened to across Africa. His lyrics often criticized the government, and his music was subject to quite a bit of censorship; his music was banned for a while as a result. Reggae music has especially been popular and promoted by the country’s Rastafarians. One of the more popular reggae bands is Black Missionaries.
One artist that blew me away is Tony Bird. Not because I have a writer friend of the same name, but because he’s basically Malawi’s answer to Bob Dylan. It’s uncanny. I am fairly impressed and entertained.
Up next: the food