Breaking taboos through music in Malawi
By Michelle Dobrovolny
When Malawian musician Agorosso had no money for a guitar, he made one and taught himself how to play.
"I just used a small metallic pot with nylon strings,” he says. “I didn't know how to play, I just tuned it to my wish."
This kind of resourcefulness reflects the importance of music in Malawian society. In a country where literacy is stunted by lack of resources and where 85 per cent of the population lives in rural poverty, music is vital; it’s a way to reflect the thoughts and feelings of people with no other means of expression.
But music here is much more than just catharsis. As an outlet to convey the daily struggles of people facing food shortages and an HIV/AIDS epidemic, Malawian music is innately political, something Agorosso acknowledges in his own work.
"The role of the musician is to speak for the people, for those who suffer, to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves. And to speak to them. Because when you compose a song, it can be heard and felt by everyone, more than just words," he says.
Agorosso, whose real name is Lloyd Phaundi, draws on the traditional melodies of his Sena heritage, a group with roots in Mozambique where Portuguese cultural influence is strong. His lyrics draw on daily life in his community.
"I compose songs based on what I have seen in the village or what I see in our day-to-day life," he says. "My music is a way of expressing what I feel, what I hear, or what I have been told."
In Kulowa Kufa, the Chichewa term for the practice of widows who are forced to marry their late husband's brother, Agorosso sings about the angst of widows and how the practice helps spread diseases such as HIV/AIDS. His open criticism of cultural customs is rare in Malawi, particularly in rural villages where tradition is valued above all else.
If he is allowed room for social critique, it is because musicians in Malawi are often granted license as a kind of alangizi or "advisor." Much like the court jesters of medieval Europe, alangizi express through art what is otherwise taboo. In his music, Agorosso sings about what is not talked about in everyday conversation.
"In song, I can be free to speak about such things," he says. "And when there is truth in that song, it can become political, depending on how you interpret it."
But beyond the village, musical censorship remains an issue on national radio and in the press. Even 15 years after the end of the eccentric dictatorship of the late Kamuzu Banda—who banned the Simon and Garfunkel song "Cecilia" because it reminded him of his mistress of the same name—there remains a lingering unwillingness to probe sensitive issues publicly.
While musicians are freer to challenge the status quo than the press, which relies heavily on revenue from government advertising, there are still consequences for criticizing power. The music of national icon Lucius Banda, for example, is banned on Malawi Broadcasting Corporation, the state-owned broadcaster, because of his politically-charged lyrics. In 2001, musician Evison Matafale died in prison, likely the result of police violence, after writing a series of letters condemning government action.
While Agorosso doesn't censor what he sings about, he does shy away from openly lambasting government. But there remains a latent critique in his songs when documenting social injustice.
"If the government is doing something to the people, then I would sing a song not to criticize but maybe to say that things shouldn't be this way," says Agorosso. "The intention is maybe not to clash with government, but to advise one another about what things should be like."
The importance of music is often overlooked in Malawi. But in offering emotional release while documenting the struggles of rural Malawians, Agorosso's music draws attention to social injustice even while public speech on such issues remains restricted. For the people here whose voices have been muted by the constraints of poverty and censorship, his small metallic pot with nylon strings brings not just music but social change.
Listen to more music from Agorosso here: