If you had asked me a month ago what I would have been doing St. Paddy’s day or St Paddy’s Day week I probably would have replied “another typical day in Malawi” (i.e. either doing a narrative transcription or off in search of that next incredible story that just commands me to flip on the audio recorder). I wouldn’t have said “playing Irish music non-stop with a bunch of Irish musicians.” Well that’s exactly what the last week has been ever since this foursome from University of Limerick, Ireland showed up for the Irish Arts Council’s Malawi-Irish musical exchange. Orchestrated by Brona, chair of Malawi’s Irish Art’s Council, we have had some kind of musical performance or demonstration nearly every day. Last Friday (March 12th) there was a huge concert with 300 in attendance. The Irish musicians and myself played a few sets and then an incredible band from Malawi Mafilika played a few sets. For the grand finale all ten of us did an epic jam of Irish dance tunes and Malawian traditional songs in tandem. The crowd went wild. The hi-light had to have been when a talented Irish step-dancer from Malawi’s Irish embassy got up to dance with this Malawian guy. They did Irish steps and Malawian steps together as we-the band surged behind them. From my vantage point all I could see was their backs. When they stomped the last downbeat of the tune I saw silhouettes of hundreds of ex-pats eclipse the back lights and wave their hands in raucous applause. It was exhilarating.
On Tuesday we all went out into rural Lilongwe (sounds oxymoronic for a city of 300,000 but this city spraaawls) and we performed for two schools. The first school was a Catholic school of 350 young children. As soon as we walked in hundreds of children flooded in with chairs and in a frenzy assembled the haphazard rows, each one vying to put their chair closest to the stage. The Catholic parish priest, a charming Irish ex-pat of 40 years in Malawi explained to them in Chichewa what each instrument was and we all obliged him by giving little impromptu demos of what we played: accordion, bodhran (Irish frame drum), wooden flute, guitar, and fiddle. Two of the lads got up to dance the St. Patrick’s Day set dance and the kids were beside themselves. So naturally we invited them up to dance. For our last two sets I struggled to find space to bow as the stage began to fill with more and more little bodies flailing, kicking up dust, and screaming in their tiny sopranos. By the end we were literally all standing on our chairs wheezing on the dust being kicked up by hundreds of legs.
That afternoon we went to a school where we played for 400+ boys in their school yard. Again we did our little instrument demos. Again we gave them several sets of rousing good tunes. This time, some of the students got up and played us a song, a hip-hop rap about HIV/AIDS awareness and responsible sex. The age ranges here were from about 5 to 15 and the older boys were clearly kings of their school… dancing and singing this song about HIV as hundreds of smaller faces cheered them on. The boy strumming the guitar had literally never played a real guitar but played it with surprising facility. Evidently he had fashioned himself a two-string guitar out of scrap parts and fishing line at home and was giddy at the opportunity to hold a real guitar. By our last set of Irish tunes the boys had descended on us and we felt as if we were at the center of a mosh pit. Imagine 400 boys bursting with excitement all clamoring for a front row patch of grass to dance to the music we were playing. By the time we left the Irish contingent had achieved celebrity status. It was all I could do to hold on to my fiddle as the boys mobbed each one of us in delight.
As we were leaving, Willard, the home-town hero who linked us up with the school, was explaining to me the dearth of musical equipment in the village and yet the obviously overwhelming desire to learn music. It took me back to what the editor of Sons & Daughters: Ana Athu said at the launch two weeks ago: “there’s no lack of talent, just a lack of resources.” Willard said he wanted to figure out a way to get these kids instruments and real musical training. In the 24 hours since we had that conversation, I haven’t had any groundbreaking ideas come to mind but I’m still thinking. To sum up, the afternoon was a real treat for both the musicians and the boys. I hope some of the pictures do the whole experience justice. So to recap-yesterday I did a musical fusion between my mother tongue Irish music and Malawian music with an HIV musical message inserted in: Could I have scripted this any better?