<p>Africa is a grand and diverse continent. I am continually amazed at the sheer brilliance, ingenuity and talent that is seldom seen outside the continent, particularly in countries that don’t have much visibility beyond their borders. As a Nigerian, the world knows us. Perhaps not in a nuanced manner, but they know of Nigeria. As the most populated country in Africa, Nigeria has visibility. Nigerians are seemingly everywhere and in every sector. In contrast, Malawi is the opposite. Malawi is a landlocked country in Southeastern Africa, and it is a country seldom discussed.
In my years documenting African musicians, I had never documented any Malawians. This all changed when a quartet of young men named ‘Malawi Mouse Boys’ performed in NYC on October 7th, 2014. The Malawi Mouse Boys are Zondiwe Kachingwe, Nelson Muligo, Alfred Gavanala and Josephy Nekwankwa. All four are self-taught musicians and they have been singing and making music together from childhood. Not having access to top-tier instruments was not a hindrance for them. They fashioned four-string guitars from scrap and used tin cans for percussion. This stripped down, back to basics instrumentation highlights what is truly charming and extraordinary about these men; their voices.
The Mouse Boys made their living selling skewered mouse meat kebabs to passing motorists on the side of the road, while singing, whistling and playing instruments. While in Malawi, it was here that the Grammy-award winning producer Ian Brennan spotted them during a roadside performance. Brennan was so impressed, he brought them to the WOMAD World Music Festival.
The Mouse Boys recently embarked on a short fall 2014 US tour which saw them playing dates to a sold out crowd in Los Angeles, at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in San Francisco, Oakland, and a final stop in New York on October 7th as part of Live@365’s Fall 2014 series at Elebash Hall at CUNY’s Graduate Center. This was their first performance in New York City, and I was looking forward to it.
The Mouse Boys took to the stage at the Elebash Hall quietly. They started playing in a calm and subdued manner. I read that they played songs of praise and worship, and indeed this sounded like that. It was tender and beautiful. I don’t think anyone would have been upset if the rest of the show went on like that. I certainly wouldn’t have minded. Alas, it didn’t. Things became supercharged as the Mouse Boys took turns dashing through the audience, much to the audiences delight. This wasn’t just a show for quiet spectators. As the Mouse Boys worked their way through the crowd, they wanted participation from the audience and routinely put a microphone in their faces to repeat what they were saying.
The ingenuity of the Mouse Boys cannot be overstated. Sure, they were using coke cans for percussion, but I saw a cardboard box on the stage. I thought surely a cardboard box isn’t going to be played as an instrument. How would it work? I thought wrong. The cardboard box was played superbly with gentle, but firm taps.When was the last time someone told you that a cardboard box was played superbly? Better yet, have you ever envisioned a cardboard box being used as a makeshift instrument?
As the show went on and sweat drenched the stage, the Mouse Boys disrobed until they were all shirtless. This is not gospel and praise music like in your grandparent’s day. The Mouse Boys were in their zone and the audience didn’t need much coaxing to get on their feet. The seated show became standing room only as the Mouse Boys once again made their way through the crowd, playfully encouraging audience participation.
The Malawi Mouse Boys will embark on a tour in Australia and New Zealand this spring. If you’re around those parts, do yourself the favor and see them live. The band is an absolute delight. You’ve never seen anything like them before. I guarantee it.