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.
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Take One

August 7th, 2010

The games have begun. We did our first recording session on Friday, August 6th. I would have burst out the champagne (they actually have champagne in MalawiJ) in celebration but I thought it much more fitting to do that once the album is completed…especially considering the logistical issues of doing a full-scale album here in Lilongwe, Malawi. This isn’t exactly Nashville.

8:20am Arrival
Kaitlin our amazing piano player and I got there early so she could practice. We ran over all of her parts and I tried my hand at “being producer,” something which I am still getting the hang of. As soon as we begin rehearsing, the difficulty of getting a clean recording hit me: There was a sprinkler ts-tsing next door, excited dogs who decided to have choir practice right after we arrived, birds migrating outside, and the roommate moving out of his room. You can plan ahead, but sometimes planning is just to make you feel better. I managed to find someone to walk the dogs, but the birds were set on being on the album.

8:45am Enter the Engineer
Our sound engineer arrives with all of his gear and we begin the task of jerryrigging a studio out of our dear friend’s piano room. Finding a piano is virtually impossible in Lilongwe. Transporting a piano is…impossible. So when we found this beautiful German Sandner piano, since we couldn’t bring the piano to the studio we brought the studio to the piano. We took off the front panels to expose the hammers and set up two mics in front on either side of Kaitlin.
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Fall in Malawi

A May night in Malawi feels like a North Carolina one in October. Indeed it is fall in Malawi and I am finally putting my sweatshirts to good use. Lilongwe is undergoing a makeover. The dusty Presidential Highway I use to cycle calmly in January is now a four-lane slab of cement and gas-guzzling SUVs racing from one appointment to the next. Indeed the highway is the centerpiece of Lilongwe’s concrete makeover, a symbol of modernity. Not only that, Parliament house was just completed last week and there were thousands of well-wishers to usher in the stunning monolith which is situated right at the base of Lilongwe’s “Capitol Hill.”

Maize, hopefully enough to last the rest of the season

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Easter Bash at the Beach

April 13, 2010

Photo Credit: Andy Kerkhoff
Photo Credit: Andy Kerkhoff
A few weekends ago I had the privilege of playing with Peter Mawanga at Lake Malawi as part of the Sunbird Hotel’s Easter Bash weekend. Braai meat, a pristine beach, and huge stage-it couldn’t have been more perfect. The show was emceed by Malawian reggae icon Sally Nyundo who is featured on “Sungani Mwambo,” Peter’s current hit single taken from Paphiri ndi Padambo, which is dominating radio airwaves right now. Here are some pictures taken from that performance by my fellow musician/friend Andy Kerkhoff:

Yesterday, Andy and myself had a great jam session with two Malawian friends in the most unlikely of places….the market. To fully appreciate this scene, its necessary to have an idea of what a Malawian market feels like, looks like…smells like…sounds like. Imagine the center of commerce in any major city with all its chaos, arguments, tension and rapid exchange of money and opinions. Its busy, crowded, and has its share of characters…many of whom we were to meet. As chaotic a picture as I may paint, for many a vendor, going to the market is just another day at the office and life teeters on the edge of tedium. So when two white guys with instruments and two Malawians with guitars slung over their shoulders walk up and ask to play in front of your barbecue stand, the most logical response seems to be “why not?” After all, it’ll be better for business right?
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Diving Head First Into Malawi’s Arts Scene

We went to Senga Bay on Lake Malawi last week to do some narratives with some locals part of this NGO “Nyumba ya Thanzi: House of Good Health.” This NGO operates in this little village and their aim is to provide 34 AIDS orphans gathered from the nine surrounding villages with ARVs and three good nutritious meals every day. They also teach the kids songs and have a range of creative activities such as games and interactive theater performances centered on HIV education.

We had the good fortune of getting some narratives on HIV from two of the Malawians who run this organization as well as five mothers who have children in the program. To comment on the word orphan: orphan in Malawi can also mean having only one parent. Many of the orphans that are enrolled have mothers but the fathers are conspicuously absent. Men, at least sedentary ones, seem to be few and far between in the village we saw. Many of the men once they reach adulthood go off to work as fishermen fishing Malawi”s enormous lake or seek work in South Africa. Even walking through the village it seemed to be mostly women and children. Indeed men and marriage were important themes in our discussions with these women. At the end of our discussions in a big display organized for our benefit, the 34 children sang “are you sleee-ping?” from “Frère Jacques.” Then they sang us a piece in Chichewa and some of the village youth came in to perform a theatrical comedy on HIV awareness. Very unexpected and very well done.
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New Year, New Country

The long wait is over…..I am in Malawi. The rains have finally come and everyone is giddy and grateful. Flying in to Lilongwe I could see two distinct thunderstorms on the outskirts of the city separated only by a ray of sunlight and a patch of blue.

I met Peter Mawanga in person and feel like I have now formally snipped the red ribbon on the project. Peter is even more articulate in person and we’re both really excited about what this project is, could, and will be. Malawi is a warm country (in more than one way), in fact travel guides will refer to it as “the Warm Heart of Africa.”
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Do It With A Kick-A$$ Song

I had a great chat with Peter Mawanga a few days ago. It turns out he’s been traversing Malawi up and down the last two weeks in promotion of his new album Paphiri Ndi Padanga, which is getting lots of good press in Malawi. People are calling the radio stations daily requesting to hear it. He did an acoustic show with some of his bandmates for a live album promo recently… from the way he described it, I’m imagining Eric Clapton unplugged. Picture that concert but with a laid back Malawian guy in a perfectly placed stylish ball-cap strumming away to an entranced audience (…sometimes my imagination takes its liberties…) Check out a review of the album HERE.

I’d like to introduce myself beyond just the little blurb on this site. How did I become interested in Malawi? AIDS? Concept albums?
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