Chikwawa happening


It was only a few weeks ago that I had taken a long bicycle ride along dusty bush tracks to visit a village where two musical groups lived and worked. Musicians and farmers. The Kamba Valimba Band (a rustic looking marimba) and the Lusulao Boys Band (wild home made guitars and drums mixed with exquisite vocal harmonies). Even with the mental pictures of the harsh life in rural Bolivia and struggling Romania implanted firmly in my memory, nothing compared to the barren brown dustbowl and desperation of these villages. I was moved to do something.

So I decided to organise a concert in Chikwawa (the Blantyre locals always say "what are you doing there, its hot hot hot!") where the musicians and dancers would perform a free concert and be paid from money given by my friends back in Australia.

A few hours in the smallest, slowest, hottest, friendliest internet cafe and I set about raising the flag for help.

Signs painted, toilets cleaned, performance space mapped out, invitations typed, budgets prepared and a meeting with Charles to designate our individual tasks, then onto the bus back to Blantyre.

Three fourteen-hour days in the recording studio to finalise our collaborative pieces left me with little time to deal with my end of the concert preparations. So, on the morning of the concert, I arose at 5 a.m. and headed in to the busting chaos of Blantyre to purchase candles, matches, lanterns, soap, maize meal and rice.

Having also planned to meet and guide a handful of travellers to the 'happening', I was running from 6 a.m. till ten. With the quantity of maize and rice we were buying it was worth shopping around. The harder I worked to keep to my time schedule the slower the service appeared to become. As we drove round and round, looking for somewhere to buy a single bottle to put kerosine in, and with my travel clock striking 10.20, I decided to give in and go 'African style'. Laid back, late with a laugh!

I arrived back at the backpackers with a ute laden with goodies and announced to the patiently waiting crew that the noon bus would be our best possibililty. We were soon amongst the bus station's crackling speakers, distorting to an indiscernable rubble of vocal sounds, the heat stilled lines of staring faces and packages, lounge chairs, crude bamboo crates crammed with inordinate numbers of chickens, sacks of mangoes, maize meal and large tin pans, all waiting for their respective transport. It was 11.15, waiting for 12.00, which we had already surmised could be 12.30. By one o'clock I was thinking of alternatives, with a two hour bus ride and a four o'clock concert starting time staring back at me.

I asked the bus company people again if the bus was coming, with the regulation "ten minutes, sure boss". At 1.30 I spied a looming disaster and sprinted a few hundred meters to ask some friends, who I knew to be driving down to the concert, if they could fit us in too. I sprinted back to the station only to see our bus arriving!

We purred on down through the Blantyre hills towards Chikwawa, with the comment that with every hundred meters we descended, the temperature seemingly rose five degrees.

The first thing I noticed upon arrival at the site was a lack of people; an audience. It was 3.45 p.m. and we were to kick off with some short speeches at four. Then I noticed that the long, eight roomed transportable building, which had been located there before, had vanished along with our designated accomodation for the artists. Then the performance space, which I had designed and worked on to be organic circles within circles, had become a square with a wood railing caging it in. Upon all this, the band designated to play second were already in full swing.

By the time it was apparent the highest invited official, the District Commissioner, was not coming, and the first speaker was strutting forth in an immaculate but well worn suit, it was 5.30. The agreed agenda of short speeches burgeoned (bludgeoned in my mind) painfully towards fourty minutes worth of non music and dance. Light, and my well planned idea to video the night for those friends who had given so generously, was fast fading along with the reddened sky. At some point Charles mentioned that the womens dance group may, or may not, arrive.

"Always expect the unexpected and then go with the flow" I thought to myself.

With a great sigh of relief, and distress at such officialdom intruding into the 'art' time, the ngororombe musicians and dancers were announced to begin. In tandem with this announcement a crate of drinks arrived and their focus turned towards sugar consumption. Quickly it was decided that band two should play first.

Of course their thirst was completely understandable. To get to this performance they had walked three hours in the early morning heat, most of them bare footed across sharp rocky ground, then boarded rough transport for another few hours. They were mostly elderly men and women over fifty years old. These were life-toughened farmers who were about to play outside their village for the first time.

The Lusulao Boys Band strutted their wonderful music, songs with good messages like "why don't you send your child to school", and soon had people laughing and dancing. Next the ngororombe group, with their mesmerizing circle dance, shrilled womens' voices and sing-blow whilst dancing musicians, gave us a truly unique insight into rural Malawi. With legs that accented steps with seed pod rattles and the dance steps which seemed to bear no connection with the music they played. This was my personal pan pipe heaven and a vision of many years previously finally realised.

Kambas band came next and enticed a dusty dancing frenzy, including a hoard of smiling children mimicking my stumbling dance moves. Then I was invited to play our newly co-composed piece together with them, mixing pan pipes and didgeridoo with their valimba, vocals and shakers. Things headed further left of centre with the addition of a Frenchman brandishing a huge five meter black collabsable alphorn. The musicians played on, in between visits to an eating house to 'replace energy'. The audience began to dwindle away with the approaching darkness and the last note played at two in the morning.

Asleep at three a.m., awake with the birds at five, and a morning filled with goodbyes, filming and photographing. An orchestra of instruments strapped to one bike, sixty kilos of rice on another, twenty kilo bags of maize atop the heads of those bare footed elderly women.

I said goodbye to the last couple of travellers and returned to finalise accounts and pack ready to leave. It was now 9.30 and just Charles and I remained, with that wonderful feeling of standing in the area and recalling all those wondeful moments of the night before.

And now, who arrives in a battle scarred mini bus? I know that people who have travelled in Africa would not be surprised by the answer but for me it was the perfect sequel. The big surprise. Was it expected? Almost, but not quite.... no, not at all really!

Twenty women and two of the best young dancers I had ever seen, packed sardine-like and smiling into a fourteen seater bus!

I will never, nor actually really even want to know, why they came fourteen hours late but it bought a tickle to my sense of humour and the African experience cemented in that singular moment.

A sense of sadness as I said goodbye to Charles, sitting pillion passenger on one pushbike, my backpack attached to a second, and heading to the pickup place on the main road. Just stand and wait for a mini bus to Blantyre. Two hours standing, waiting, thirsting for water and transport, to get back to town for a 2.00 p.m. meeting. Suddenly, from the haze appears another unexpected. Ta!da!, drum roll, disbelief in all thirty pair of our eyes. An empty bus!! Large gong!! (NB. this empty bus may just top the list of all the Malawian surprises).

We boarded in pure delight, I falling asleep in this spacious luxury, and finding peace in dreaming of myself lying on a beach back in Australia. But as if entrenched and ingrained in 'expect the unexpected' mode, the bus suddenly stops, and in the middle of this oven baked nowhereland, we are encouraged to disembark. I am nudged awake by a toothless man wearing a muslim cap, and quickly join the shuffling line onto the weedy patch beside the bus. The bus pulls away and thirty people say nothing. They expected it!? Perhaps they were so accustomed to expecting nothing!?

Next another bus arrives, with sixty five people already stacked in it (I know that because in the ensuing three hours, crammed in tight by the lady with the chicken, the crying baby, the breast feeding mother with the 'strange' sores on her neck and arms, and the little girl on the seat below me who was becoming closely aquainted with my left buttock, I counted every last person on that bus). Simple mathematics went sixty five plus thirty two meant massive overload, excessive weight and an inordinately hot, snail paced, return back up the hills to Blantrye.

The defining moment in temperature assessment came as I focussed on a drip, dropping at regualar intervals, from my left elbow onto the shoulder of the 'chicken lady'. My whole body was awash with perspiration and I could see the glistening bodies of my co-travellers shining in a similar state around me.

Back in Blantyre I promptly replaced two litres of liquid, spent an hour and a half waitng for the National Bank of Malawi to cash a hundred dollars for me, and arrived an hour late for the ensuing two hour meeting. Aussie time!!? It was a difficult meeting, presenting the possibility of losing three pieces of music which we had recorded at the studio which was not a studio. A recording studio without a CD burner seeemed like a car without wheels!

This story has no end. It is continuing even as I write. One of my co-composing musicians being attacked by a machete wielding robber, meeting 'the girl who lived in the mango tree for two months' and the continuing difficulty of finding a way to retrieve the music recorded at the 'dodgy' studio.... such small occurences really, but magnified to immensity by what had happened in those previous days, the Malawian experience. It was the inspiring thought of those wonderful new compositions, Life Is Life and Walking Together, with Goodson, Nachi, Owen and Sam, which saw me through.