Tales from the Studio: Part 2

I had the privilege of getting to record with some of Malawi’s best musicians last week. Alfred Sitolo (bass) and Dryson Mwimba (drums) constitute 2/5 of Peter’s Amaravi Movement, the band which Peter assembled last year and will be playing at this years Lake of Stars Festival in Mangochi, Malawi. In two days we knocked out all of the tracks these guys were slated to perform on. In Malawi due to scarcity of instruments very few musicians have their own instruments. This means every rehearsal and every day of recording we were on a constant quest to find a good bass and a good set of drums.

After two basses (a third one which we could never get a hold of due to classic Malawian setbacks like downed phone networks or missed appointments) and two sets of drums, we had a sound on record which is frankly…..amazing.

The studio is beautiful but unfortunately isn’t a high priority on the power company Escom’s power grid. I wonder if it’s even on the grid….the power went out three times the first day (unannounced of course). There were two instances when the power went out right in the middle of a great take…..biggest bummer of all. Our engineer Tristram organized getting us a generator for the second day of recording so we didn’t have to deal with Escom’s (Malawi’s only power company) capricious power rationing. Escom to my mind must be like the Springfield power plant. Somewhere in Malawi there is a Homer Simpson sitting at a huge control panel which the fate of all of Malawi’s power rests. Every now and then he hits a random button and knocks off work. That button is the Children of the Nations Recording studio outside Lilongwe where Peter and Andrew are in the middle of a great take.

Next day: So we send a guy out on the mission to get the generator but about 30 minutes away from us his truck breaks down. We are again raked over the coals by Malawian Homer Simpson’s power outages. Oy vey. So the next day we do get the generator (that runs on petrol because there was a diesel shortage that week) but lo and behold there is barely enough petrol in the generator to run the studio because go figure….Escom cut the power again. “Andrew can we siphon a liter or two of petrol from your car?” our engineer asks me. I barely had enough petrol in the tank to get me home but I happily offered my fuel if it ensured at least one day of uninterrupted power to the studio. Siphoning petrol….to power a petrol-fueled generator we specifically got because there was a diesel shortage….to power a studio which should have had power…..whose power was cut unannounced because the power company can’t distribute power properly. That is the reality of recording an album in Malawi.

By day 3 we had already laid down 5-6 tracks (half the album) and I was feeling good. Despite the frantic early mornings of getting basses, drum kits, and dealing with unpredictable power supply we laid down some scintillating tracks which I can’t wait for everyone to hear. Peter Mawanga is a producing genius and our engineer also has an amazing ear, knowing just when to push you one extra take and just when to back off.

The recording studio where we have been recording was originally designed to be a radio station for Children of the Nations International (COTNI), an NGO founded here in Malawi. The radio station idea evidently didn’t pan out but now Lilongwe has a top-notch facility for recording. It has since been formally redubbed Kujambula Studios, and is an amazing space to work in…professional at an international standard and quintessentially African: Notice how the walls are covered in chithenjes the fabric that virtually all the women here where. It makes the room very visually pleasing to record in and probably makes the music better too.

3 thoughts on “Tales from the Studio: Part 2

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