When Manganje becomes Malawian Beat

Others before me have wondered how much justice we offer our music genres like Ingoma, Manganje, Chioda, Tchopa, Likhuba, Minoghe, Masewe, Mchoma and the list could be endless.
UNESCO has so far recognised Malawi’s two traditional dances of Vimbuza and Gule wamkulu as protected heritage.
We have discussed about musicians calling the kind of music that they churn out as traditional music. Almost most of our renowned musicians at one time or the other have produced songs which are described as the traditional dances stated above.
I want us to look at the so-called songs and agree if indeed they are what they are described. Can indeed Manganje, which is a dance that uses a dancing pattern, two drums and clapping of hands for it to be produced use electrical equipment by contemporary artists, and be called the same.
The reason that Vimbuza Healing Dance and Gule wa mkulu have joined a number of dances across the globe in all member countries that subscribe to the ideals of UNSECO is to preserve the oral and intangible heritage of humankind.
What they are safeguarding is the knowledge, the values and the artistic intellectual behind its creation and this is done is line with supporting copyright and intellectual property so that those artists at the core of these products enjoy the fruit of their sweat.
What is perhaps more interesting is that when you look at a music genre like Pop or Rhythm and Blues or Jazz you will not hear it being called anything close to a dance.
While what we are saying here is that the kind of arrangement that is called Manganje is called a traditional dance and not traditional music, genres like pop or reggae are looked at differently as purely music.
The reasoning is simple but tough. While you will just have, the sentimental songs done by say ‘Beethoven’ appreciated because of how they are produced, as we know them today, our parents never invented any music genre without accompanying it with some choreographically designed pattern.
Alternatively, one may argue on what was starting first when our ancestors invented these artistic products. Were they inventing the dances first then music later as is the case now? Yes, now like when women want to compose a Chioda song for President Mutharika. They are not going to re-invent a type of dance and songs; they will only compose songs that will be performed in the Chioda dance.
The reason Gule wa Mkulu is also protected is not only for its pattern of drums that is emitted when performed or how nicely the lyrics are arranged. However, it is also for the other artistic aspect that goes with it that makes it so rich. How one spends time to carve a mask to be worn by a ‘Mbano’ or ‘Simon’ that has to look different from one to mask the face of the effeminate ‘Maria’.
The same can be said of Vimbuza. For the performer there has to be a headgear called ‘Njukula’, a necklace called ‘Mthiyi’, a flying whisk known as ‘Tchowa’ , leg wear called ‘Nyisi’, and waist wear called ‘Mangenjeza’ or ‘Mangwere’. Some of these wears also emit sound that complement the music.
The additional artefacts that go with the performance are one other aspect of art that makes these traditional dances so loaded.
Then there are those that will be playing the music, who will be using drums, hoe beating, clapping hands and actual singing, which has to take after a pattern that is in tandem with the dancing.
What it means here is that minus any of the mentioned bits and pieces the particular dance will be in complete.
It is therefore folly that one Mlaka Maliro should be saying he has produced a Manganje track or Billy Kaunda a Vimbuza song or Malume Bokosi a Tchopa number when all they have done is take after a pattern, which is devoid of all other necessities that make up a complete Manganje, Vimbuza and Tchopa performance respectively, for example.
We are a creative nation and we should not confuse what our contemporary performers are calling Vimbuza when we know what vimbuza entails. There has to be a proper name for ‘Chiterera’ when Phungu Joseph Nkasa releases a song he is calling a ‘Chiterera’ one.
This why Soul Chembezi has to tell us what he is singing and not tell us that he has three Manganje songs in his latest album, for example.
Our traditional dances are so rich, that we cannot allow anyone to start defacement of a heritage that has come from very far. If our artists have chosen to use modern instruments let what they play be in line with what is modern and let them call such products appropriate names.
Let the national dance troupes who will indeed give you what ‘Beni’ or ‘Manganje’ is be given room to deservedly be the ones calling their products as such. Otherwise, Manganje is Manganje when it is performed as Manganje and there need not be any shortcuts.
Feedback: drummingpen@columinist.com


One thought on “When Manganje becomes Malawian Beat

  1. Some dances throughout the world and of course here in Africa are also known to have spiritual elements such as enabling a ‘spirit’ to possess a person hence the sounds made. In some dances refined maize flour is splashed on the head of a “possessed” drummer and other sacrifice offerings made to appease the ancestral spirits. It is also interesting to note how traditional healers and elders etc play an important role…but today many label everything genuinely African as evil and “primitive” so they adopt foreign ways and spirits.


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