There are many ways to update traditions, some more obvious than others. When African artists retrofit ancestral lute or xylophone melodies on keyboards and guitars, or repurpose idiosyncratic old rhythms on drum kit, we know what’s going on. Modern musicians are channeling ancient ideas using contemporary tools. By contrast, this set of field recordings from northern Malawi often sounds like it could have been performed a hundred or a thousand years ago—notwithstanding the exceptional quality of the audio. But in fact, this music has been updated to suit our times as surely as any Mande pop song or mbira guitar number.
This live recording was made by Polish ethnomusicologist Piotr Cichocki outside the home of Emmanuel Mlonga Ngwira in Malawi. Ngwira is the son of a traditional doctor who used musically induced possession to heal the sick by invoking spirits. Ngwira’s Kukaya Group does not play any Western instruments. What we hear is layered polyrhythmic drums, hand clapping, bells and jangling metal accoutrements, flute, what sounds like a primordial kazoo, and voices—glorious voices of men and women interlaying, engaging in call and response and raising a rowdy, raucous spirit. They are not singing to induce possession, however, but rather to preserve through reinvention the premodern culture of the Tumbuka-Ngoni people of this region.
The reinvention comes mostly in the lyrics: “History and Culture,” “Be Careful, Malawians, HIV/AIDS Is Real,” and “Our Chiefs are Under Attack.” Malawi is today a deeply Christian country, and the harmonic flow and vocal harmonies on two of the songs—“Ulwindiko Kwa Kyala (Respect God)” and “Imwe Fumu Themba Lithu (Jesus Is Our King)”—bear a distinctly hymn-like quality. That is one audible element of modernity. But there’s more to this than rejiggering traditional music to boost a Christian message. There’s a deeper cultural dialogue unfolding within these performances. Kukaya makes vigorous use of music handed down through the centuries to address the concerns of people today, including but certainly not limited to, the embrace of Christianity.
All this cultural context is fascinating, but what makes this album a delight is the music itself—its energy, meticulous arranging and sonic clarity. Rich voices surround you, bells clang and jingle, handclaps sound crisp, and drums deep and sonorous. We don’t know what kind of gear was used here, but these are not your grandfather’s field recordings. Each song has its own character from the spare polyrhythmic clapping of “Makwa,” to the sing-along folk pop of “Kamchocho (True Love),” to the unglued celebratory clamor of “Malayirano (We’re Coming)” and “Ise Tazapano Kumkondweskani (We’re Here to Make You Happy),” a 12-minute-plus jam that concludes this joyous set. Put this album up loud and on repeat in your car and you’re apt to keep driving all day in a merry trance, unconcerned about your destination.