Musical traditions are strong in the rolling hills of Southern Malawi. Elaborate ritual dancing and singing are common, while vestiges remain of an earlier era.
A Traditional Music Treasure of Malawi
One of these vestiges is Wenham Chechamba, a musician from Blantyre, Southern Malawi’s biggest city and the country’s commercial capital. Still going strong at 80 years old, Chechamba is a multi-instrumentalist, composer, sought-after music teacher and somewhat of a beloved national treasure. He began playing music professionally 60 years ago – first in the army under British colonial rule then as a full-time musician and teacher.
In many ways, Chechamba is a piece of living musical history. He is a link to the colonial and regional influences that make up Malawian music and a bridge between modern urban sounds and rural traditions. His playing and style harks back to a bygone era, when Malawians began exploring their own music in the wake of colonialism.
“When I started playing music, we were playing songs for white people since Europeans relied on Africans for music,” says Chechamba. “When we became independent [in 1964], Malawians began to demand their own music.”
Proficient in American jazz (he does a mean Louis Armstrong impression), Chechamba also plays traditional Malawian music, singing in Chichewa, the national language. He is a master of guitar and piano, but it is one instrument in particular that brought me to him: the 5-string banjo.
Yes, banjo. Definitely not the first instrument one would think to find in the mountains of Southern Africa. But as Chechamba explains below, the banjo is very much Malawian.
The Banjo in Malawi
How did a West African instrument, originally used by 17th century slaves in the New World make it "back" to Southern Africa? Chechamba explains it all in this video and plays a few Chichewa tunes using a two-finger picking style.
Filmed at his music school/house in the Blantyre neighborhood of Chilomoni.