With Wasalala, Yobu Maligwa and Yosefe Kalekeni pay their respects to banjo music: an intentional, optimistic, joyful first album, where strings and harmonies give a taste of Malawi.
Paris-Lilongwe, 1.30pm GMT: it is one of those long-distance calls where we sense each other above all through the inflections of the voice. It sounds clear and playful on Yobu Maligwa’s side, a storyteller and vocalist pastor who became a swift player of the babatoni, an imposing hand-made double bass with one string. The younger of the pair, Yosefe Kalekeni, punctuates the discussion with his hoarse voice, much more taciturn here than on the four strings of his guitar or on the foot drum. In the village, he lived on small jobs, looking after cows for a neighbor.
The connection is good. The two thirty-somethings regularly burst out laughing. “Journalists ask us a lot of questions, you really want to know who we are!” It’s true. Not only did Wasalala, the debut album signed by the intrepid Bongo Joe Records, reveal the pure energy of an album recorded in its raw state, with lush harmonies that give us a glimpse of the authentic collaboration and joy of the two voices, but it also propelled Madalitso on a major tour in Europe. They draw attention to a little known and yet popular musical tradition around Lake Malawi: banjo music.
Yobu and Yosefe are respectively from Ntcheu and Dedza, two quiet villages in southwest Malawi, not far from where the prominent Californian producer Ian Brennan recorded the songs of the Malawi Mouse Boys — evangelical ex-sellers of mouse skewers — then the blues of the inmates of the central prison of Zomba in 2013.
Meanwhile, Madalitso has been enchanting the dusty red streets of Lilongwe for ten years now, a post-colonial capital financed by segregationist South Africa, now populated by 800,000 people who, like the two friends, arrived from the countryside where work is sporadic and the harvests of tea, tobacco, and corn too unstable. After the Second World War, it was in these plantations and near the uranium mines that banjo music was born, an outlet tinged with blues from working class families that was very popular in the villages thanks to musicians like Alan Nakomo and the Kuwoza River Band. It then followed the roads of a massive rural exodus, reaching urban centers in the 1970s, apparently even to the extent of influencing the South African kwela.
“We met on the street. At first, our duo was called Tiyese, “Let’s try it.” One year, we were always running into the same lady. She loved our music so we sang gospel songs to her,” Yobu recalls. “One day, she told us that we had tried hard enough, that it was time to succeed and that Madalisto would suit us better: it was a blessing in chichewa. Shortly afterwards, in 2009, we met Emmanuel.” Emmanuel Kamwenje, a Malawian activist and producer who is passionate about traditional music, pushed them into the studio to record a few songs, but while they excited the villages, “In the city, people prefer modern music, pop or hip-hop. For most of them, we’re just farmers, we represent the past. Except for a few state stars, it’s very difficult to perform and make a living from music in Malawi.”
And it was indeed by leaving the country for the first time by responding to the invitation to the Sauti za Busara festival in Zanzibar in 2017 that Madalitso put the audience in a trance and attracted the attention of a few European musicians who would soon lead them to Bongo Joe, the Roskilde Festival in Denmark, and the BBC. Good move. “Thanks to our last tour in Europe, we were able to earn enough to build a house, it’s a bit of a break. The problem is that now people are jealous: they think we are very rich and they are trying to steal from us. But they’re imagining things. We’re far from being stars, even if we’d like to be,” exclaims Yobu laughing.
On Wasalala, Yobu and Yosefe choose humility and prefer social chronicles of daily life, love and radiant optimism like “Vina Vina Malawi”, which is nothing more than a declaration of love for their country, to the stories of cash that make younger people dream. Yet they are well aware that the picture is not exactly rosy. The second poorest country in the world, Malawi is often cited for its AIDS prevalence rate, which is among the highest in Africa, the persecution of albinos, the recent discovery of sexual initiation camps for young girls, the corruption of its political class, and the worrying consequences of climate change. “Music allows us to forget the problems,” says Yosefe, suddenly very close to the phone. And Yobu goes further. “And then with a positive message, you can change attitudes, have a lasting impact on people,” as well as on “Naphiri,” where they encourage women not to put up with either violent men or lives they would not have chosen. With all our blessings.