A few weeks ago I asked my friend Q Malewezi whom he could recommend for taking lessons in the musical traditions of Malawi. Without hesitation he said “Charles Mkanthama.” I figured it was high time I learn some of the traditional music of this country I have been graciously hosted in since January. After all, my project is centered on music and Malawi.
Charles is a schoolteacher by training and Malawi’s ambassador for traditional music (a title unofficially given to him by me). He is a rarity in Malawi. As odd as it seems, there are only a handful of people left in Malawi who really know how to play the nsansi (essentially the Malawian name for the Zimbabwean mbira or the “thumb piano” as sometimes referred to outside Africa) or African xylophones, sing the songs, and can tell you the origins of Malawian music. Of course this does not mean that Malawian musical traditions are not an important part of its culture(s). Music is an undisputed part of everyday life. Song breaks out spontaneously on the back of lorries bringing dozens of men to work, in minibus taxis, or among women simply doing the day’s chores. The Chewa ethnic group’s mganda dance is still a staple at any traditionally Chewa wedding. It seems like every young girl learns to dance the Chitelera and the ubiquitous “de-duh, de-duh, de-duh, de-duh” of the Gule Wamkulu (a secretive society of male Chewas) is a quintessentially Malawian rhythm heard all over Malawi. Groups of Gule Wamkulu boys cloaked in burlap-sacks grunt their way through villages, having been newly initiated. Despite music’s prevalence in most aspects of daily life somehow the nsansi has faded from Malawi’s musical culture…enter Charles Mkanthama.
Originally I just wanted to learn some Malawian melodies, beats, and rhymes as any hungry musician seeking to expand his or her horizons, would. Then I heard there was this guy Charles who taught nsansi and I thought bingo: a small, beautiful-sounding way to literally play for people the sounds of my Malawi experience for years to come. Charles got a certificate in ethno-music from Pretoria University. He learned the West African Kora (that enormous harp-lute used by the griots of Senegal and Mali and popularized by the virtuosic Toumani Diabate), the marimba, the nsansi, and many more. Charles is back in Malawi and wants to build Malawi’s first ever school of Malawian traditional music. Growing up attending workshops and schools for traditional Irish fiddle, it hit me the amazing accessibility I had to Irish ethnic music so many generations removed from me. Here in Malawi many children have no opportunity to learn their own traditional music. There are only so many Charles Mkanthamas. In fact there is really just one, because the more I listened to his plans, the more I realized his vision is so different from what anyone else in Malawi is doing.
His 81-year old father has entrusted ALL of his land to Charles who is one of the fifteen surviving children. “I think he loves me a lot,” Charles remarked on this. No one in the family now questions the judgment of this decision after hearing of Charles’ plans. “Here is where the nursery will be….there, the primary school…oh, and over there the secondary school,” he gestures with his hands pointing in every possible direction over the sprawling acreage where he has already built two buildings.
“And here” he exclaims “…will be the school of traditional music.”
Charles loves teaching children anything really so why stop at music? He wants to build a school to educate children from nursery through secondary (what in the states we term high school) with music as the centerpiece of the curriculum.
Charles’ breadth of knowledge on Malawian music has brought him all around the world, most recently Norway. Last year Charles took five Malawian children to Norway where they did workshops teaching eleven Norwegian children traditional music of Malawi. There was a huge concert where all the children danced and performed the music of both countries. As the Malawian visitors’ departure was nearing, one Norwegian friend just couldn’t let Charles leave without a piece of Norway’s musical culture: a fiddle. This friend found an elderly Norwegian women who was the widow of a deceased violinist. Her husband’s violin had been sitting on the shelf for years collecting dust. She wrote Charles a long letter entrusting this 100-year-old instrument with him, and telling him that whenever he played it she “would think of him.”
When I first approached Charles about teaching me nsansi he told me this story. How could I not be moved? “Bring your violin next time!” I said eagerly. So now I have become his violin teacher as he has become my nsansi teacher. This beautiful century-old violin has now found a home in Charles’ music school built into the maize fields of an African village thousands of miles from Norway. When I visited him last week for my first lesson and to receive my new nsansi we meandered through the village giving impromptu performances on nsansi and violin for anyone that would listen. I think we were a hit. Charles insisted we go to the soccer match, which was just finishing up when we arrived. I whipped out the violin and it wasn’t long before hundreds of spectators had descended on the two of us. Charles entertained the crowd with improvised lyrics in Chichewa as I sawed away next to him on his fiddle.
On my last day in his village I went in to Charles’ nursery where he is teaching 30 local children basic English and math. I played them a bit of Appalachian music from my North Carolina and a 3-year old choir sang me adorable renditions of nursery rhymes from home. It was an amazing weekend and really inspiring to witness Charles’ dedication to fulfilling his dream: to build Malawi’s first traditional music school. Our musical collaboration is almost becoming a band (we got to do a wedding this past weekend which delighted the Malawian audience). Afterward, people we’re telling us we needed to cut an album…I saw Charles’ eyes light up. It’s more likely than they think.