Malawi is the first country in Africa I visited. Once I left Blantyre and moved south towards the border with Mozambique in Gambula – and the then on-going war – I saw children selling mice along the road. My guide explained that people prized roasted mice with their maize meal at night. Children, in turn, made a few kwacha capturing them in the bush and selling them after piling them on a stick. Not the best of suppers!
Sitting at a road side cafe in Malawi, Ian Brennan saw children selling roasted mice to travellers. Most probably he did not think much of that food, either. But he was interested in hearing the music that those kids played while waiting for more customers. Brennan is a Grammy award-winning producer. He is behind the success of band such as Tinariwen, from northern Mali. Brennan is always on the lookout for new sound, and Africa has produced quite a few new artists in the past years. Just think of the Karindula Session from Southern Congo. When he heard them playing, Brennan knew there was potential in that music.
The Mouse Boys are a vocal band singing homemade songs, mostly gospel and call-and-response style led by acrobatic vocals from Zondiwe Kachingwe. These eight friends have worked together since boyhood, crafting songs when business was slow. The music they produce has a refreshingly unencumbered sound, a lack of technological interference allowing the honesty and authenticity of the music to shine through. The recording, done in situ, did little to hide the imperfections. The poor sound of the home made instrument is just what it is. The occasionally out of tune response was left untouched in post production.
He is #1 is the resulting album; 13 songs of faith and love. Kunvera (to hear) opens the album; a powerful a cappella led by lead vocalist Zondiwe Kachingwe supported by a strong chorus of peers. Listeners can be excused if they were to think of listening to South African music. In fact, Malawian music is heavily influenced by the Ngoni tradition. In the XIX century, coming from Natal, the Ngoni attacked the Maravi Kingdom led by the Chewa people. They have been influencing the culture of Malawi and Zambia since then. Mtsilikali (Soldier) places some reggae vibes behind the constant references to “Jesus”, and Wabwino (It’s Good) is justly rough.
It is a little too early to proclaim this band the future of Malawian music, but certainly the recording has a freshness that cannot be doubted. Most songs are not well refined, exactly how you would hear them played on a country roadside. However talented, these young musicians cannot change the rough sound of home-made instruments; but this does not play against them. On the contrary, the Mouse Boys can capitalize on this first album and refine their music, hoping they will also keep the positive aspects of their music as well.
Malawi Mouse Boys, He is #1, Independent Records Ltd, 2012