Malawi Update: Desmond Blakey

Riding down the street with my graduate adviser, I spotted this man carrying a makeshift guitar with a box strapped to his back. I waited until we had reached our destination, bolted out of the vehicle and ran a half mile down the street to catch up with this guy. Musical finds in Malawi are never regrettable. Don’t ever pass one up if you get the chance.

Desmond Blakey is a street musician from Chilemba, a peak near Mount Mulanje and about 30 km southeast of Blantyre. He plays all around the Blantyre area, traveling by minibus with his homemade guitar and kickdrum/box. His sings of Malawi and the situation of modern day Malawians, and relevant political topics, but unfortunately, my inability to speak Chichewa prevents me from knowing what the two songs I taped are about.

I asked him what sort of message he would like to deliver and he indicated that he would like nothing more than to have a new guitar, a passport and a plane ticket to perform all around the world. I couldn’t really figure out if he has any recordings at all, but he indicated that he’s working on an album.

In Malawi, even putting out a homemade cassette is a significant feat for any musician. I was fascinated by his guitar. He clearly went to great trouble to construct it. Note the frets in the picture above. To the right is his kick drum, which he’s attached straps to in order to carry it around while he walks from place to place. Malawians are an incredible people who create much with almost zero resources, putting us to shame. This incredible resourcefulness and ingenuity is truly the root of my fascination with this amazing country.

I managed to get two videos of him performing, and there’s a short interview at the end of the first one. The camera shakes because I had to run a half mile full speed with a bag full of books on my back in order to catch up with him. Forgive the old man wheezing throughout. Desmond is no Refuse Stealing Band but was still an exciting find.

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About Pete Larson

Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Nagasaki University Institute for Tropical Medicine

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