Malawi Day 8: Refuse Stealing

I had the incredible fortune to run into the “Refuse Stealing Band” or the “Kukana Kuba Band” on the way home today. I still haven’t figured out if they are the “Refuse Stealing Band” as in, they refuse to steal, or whether they are the “Refuse Stealing Band”, as in a band that steals refuse (note: it has been since confirmed that the meaning is the former). I had heard stories of young bands that fabricate their own instruments out of wood and wire to create Malawian music, but tonight, I was lucky enough to find one. I have attached a picture of these two guys from Ndirande, which is a densely inhabited urban slum area north of here, but an upload of the incredible video footage will just have to wait until I have a proper internet connection. I can only hope that I will have the chance to see one of these “jazz” bands again soon.

Malawi has a long tradition of music, largely unknown to the rest of the world and, like other countries, it has a wide diversity of musicians and styles. This type of band, possibly pioneered by the legendary blind jazz and blues performer Alan Namoko Band in the 1970’s, is known as a “jazz” band, although quite unsimilar to that which is known as jazz in the US. Malawian musicians such as these two have little resources to buy instruments so they must fabricate their own from whatever materials are available. But what they lack in material resources they more than make for in precisions. The string player spent no less than 3 minutes painstakingly tuning his intrument, indicating that the construction and design of his bass/banjo/drum is deliberate and calculated. I am unaware of the creative process that goes in to the music itself and suspect that much of the music is either borrowed or inspired from other people in the genre, but the result is mindblowing in my opinion.

In true Malawian style, the music is quiet and unassuming, but incredibly complex and textured. The audio on the video I took simply does not do the band justice. I wish that someone would bring these guys or bands like them to the states so that all could experience it. In an alternate life, I would have loved to explore and document this country’s musical heritage, but, fortunately, others have taken the initiative to scratch the surface. Malawian music is available for purchase here. I’m also willing to share what I have with whomever might be interested.

About Pete Larson

Researcher at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. Lecturer in the University of Michigan School of Public Health and at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. I do epidemiology, public health, GIS, health disparities and environmental justice. I also do music and weird stuff.

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