How do you start to write a story with no memorable beginning nor a discernable ending? Even as I write, and somewhere beyond the greened and secluded safety of this backpackers high walls, my presence is purring and my story being lenghthend. In a way, it all seems to prove the adage about art, in that the nature of pursuing art means that there is no end point, just a .....
A couple of years later I travel through East Africa, inspired by this continuing and personal interest in the traditional cultures of the world where the pan pipe still thrives. It is in this area where the unusual sing-blow whilst dancing ngororombe and nyanga traditions still live.
I had already spent much of the last fifteen years pursuing this interest, having been through the Andean countries of South America (Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador), followed by long periods of time in both Romania and the Solomon Islands. Such a simple instrument with completely different, complex traditions and playing techniques. Even within the respective countries existed marked variations and traditional differences.
I would have considered Blantyre the last stop of years of transience, had I not recently learnt of further living pan pipe traditions in Vietnam and western Russia.
Even now, as I sit and write, an inebriated but friendly Malawian ex-journalist hoists himself at my table and tells me "don't write more, don't write less" and "go to the real beginning, the true heart of your story". Find the 'real' beginning.
Upon this advice I rewind another ten years from the spool of memory bank, way before the launch night inspiration, and land at 1973. Santiago, Chile.
I'm a nineteen year old sports fanatic, from the centre of Australia, Broken Hill to be exact. I've been selected to represent Australian YMCA's in Argentina, and have stopped over in Santiago for goodwill and gatherings. We're being treated to a music and dance concert when a sound appears from a musician's lips, a haunting , deep and breathy sound. Unlike anything I'd ever heard before. It sends tingles up and down my spine and unnerves me a little. It is a connection which, at the time, had subconsciously affected my subsequent life and my life for the next twenty five years. The zamponia or pan pipe of South America has alighted within my senses and that moment is indelibly stamped into my psyche.
For now, with just one week remaining from ten months of travel, I consider Blantyre to be both a finite point, and yet just a speck within the landscape, of this personal pursuit.
I have just lived and worked in Bolivia and Romania for three months each, and now, nearing completion of my time in Malawi, will just have the Solomon Islands as the remaining fourth country of this project. Within each country, and armed only with some musical instruments, my last CD as my business card, a website full of stories and pictures to fill in between the lines, I strive to collaborate with local musicians to create 'new' compositions.
Such a continual stream of luck has followed me during this travel (except for the theft of 'everything' in Prague, en route to Romania... (see "One Pair Of Underpants In Prague") that I had only just arrived in Malawi and promptly met a wonderful human, musician, recording engineer, named Goodson Gomanda. Within a week of landing here things were happening at a fast rate, which was in contrast to Romania where it took five weeks before I felt that the process was in the 'groove'.
With uncomplicated openness and childlike excitement we collaborated and created, together with musicians Mildred 'Nachi' Ligoya, Owen Hulera, Sam Katimba, birthing two of the easiest pieces of my ten months away. "Walking Together" and "Life Is Life" represent all the best aspects of collaborative music making. Everyone's ideas considered, creativity flowing and even mistakes causing discovery, and eventual improvements to an arrangement. Lyrics are written in English, transformed poetically into Chichewa, and the beautiful harmonies of the Gospel Vocal Chords singers adding to our excitement. We're dancing, laughing and enjoying this process of composition when in waltzes Waliko Makhala, bringing with him an armour of traditional instruments and even more good vibe.
Fronted by heat, dust, poverty and controlled chaos, it would have been so easy to write sad lilting songs, minor chords with reflective and philosophical moods, but I consciously decided not to. Instead I wanted to be swept along with that spirit of Malawi which all travellers take with them upon leaving. Those mental pictures of huge smiles, moments of unfounded generosity, the welcoming 'muri bwangi' hands which greet me everyday would become the themes within the music.
Concurrently with the igniting of the collaborative process in Blantyre, I travelled to Chikwawa to meet an old friend of ten years previously. Again I became enveloped by the enthusiasm of Charles Chibwana, and made several forays into remote villages in the surrounding Chikwawa district. During one of these bush bicycle rides I encountered an extraordinary valimba (marimba) band. In the next village I was surprised to meet the Lusulao Boys Band, whom I had heard play a decade before. The inspiration and ideas started to flow, a floodgate of possibilities, and so I decided to expand my collaborations to include one song with both the valimba and Lusulao groups.
"Children's Dance" and "Lusulao Joys" may be two of the proudest works to accompany five new compositions from Bolivia, and six from Romania. From working with members of the Romanian National Orchestra to farmers from the furnace-like plains of Chikwawa district, seemed like stretching the spectrum of the world and its cultures. The joy and enthusiasm with which both of these unknown Malawian bands make music has been a delight within these ten months.
At every paragraph of this story, whole other memories, other complete stories, spring to mind and could be inserted as links to this central story. The visit to Fineus Village, on the Mozambiquen border, and my opportunity to experience the wondrous ngorormbe pan pipes provided me with some of life's most potent humane moments. The richness and vibrancy of these cultures, the generous nature of the people who live there, what they have shared with me, represent my overall Malawian experience, and will never be forgotten.