I am a big fan of world music and I am always on the look out for new groups to try out. This article in the Sunday Times caught my eye not only because it is such a good news story but also having travelled to the beautiful country of Malawi it is great to see an emerging music scene there. It is always inspiring to hear stories of people who make the most of their opportunities and the Malawi Mice Boys are poster boys for positivity. They have not allowed limited resources stop them from getting involved in writing, playing and singing music and they sing from the heart. Who would think that a small group of subsistence farmers, with a sideline in selling tasty cooked mice on a stick, could have the possibility of becoming the next big thing on the African music scene? Watch this space.
Catch them if you can
The Malawi Mouse Boys sound extraordinary, and do a roaring trade from their kind of pest control
Garth Cartwright Published: 13 May 2012
Brother of invention: Nelson Muligo on a scrap-metal guitar (Marilena Delli)
I n 1859, Dr David Livingstone heard the xylophone music of southern Malawi and, with typical Scottish understatement, described it as “wild and not unpleasant”. Since then, few have championed music — or anything else — from this southeast African nation. When the landlocked former British colony does get western attention, it tends to focus on infant mortality and HIV rates, so the arrival of a Malawian gospel group provides a chance to celebrate this ethnically diverse (and peaceful) nation.
The Malawi Mouse Boys’ debut album, He Is #1, captures a joy and inventiveness rarely experienced in contemporary western music. Like the Buena Vista Social Club, from Cuba, or Ladysmith Black Mambazo, from South Africa, the Malawi Mouse Boys possess a distinctive sound and a fascinating story. Both the other acts had an American musical connection (Ry Cooder and Paul Simon respectively) that helped to launch them internationally, and so do the Malawi Mouse Boys: Ian Brennan, a leading producer, came across the band while driving through rural Malawi.
“My wife’s father had done missionary work in Malawi,” he says, “so she had experienced the nation. As almost nothing by Malawian musicians had ever been released in the West I was interested to see what we could find.”
Brennan’s previous African sojourns include producing Tinariwen, the celebrated Saharan nomads, and the Rwandan vocal trio the Good Ones. “They were the first Rwandan group to have an album released internationally in their native language. For me, to hear these genocide survivors singing these remarkable love songs was incredibly moving,” says the Californian producer, who began his career working with the likes of the Bay Area punks Green Day before connecting with Americana veterans such as Merle Haggard and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. Long interested in Africa, Brennan produced Tinariwen’s album Tassili, which won the 2012 Grammy for world music.
“My goal is to help give voice to points of view that have not been expressed. You look at, say, Mali or Ethiopia, and these nations are celebrated internationally for their music, but Malawi appeared invisible in this sense. I believe all countries have music. There are no non-musical cultures. When a world-music expert told me there was no good music from Malawi, I took that as a personal challenge.”
Arriving in the country, Brennan found it had several popular singers whose tapes were sold in markets. Yet none of them represented the kind of music-making he was looking for. “R&B, rap, reggae and country music are loved across Africa, but I wanted something more distinctive. One evening, we were driving through farmland and I saw a young guy on the side of the road, playing a guitar. I stopped and listened to him, and was immediately struck by his voice. His name was Alfred, and he stood there and shyly sang. The sun was going down, cars were whizzing around and by the time he reached the chorus, we were surrounded by local kids. They all started singing along in harmony — it was obviously a local hit — and it was one of the most musical moments of my life. Just wonderful.”
Brennan asked Alfred if he could return to record him. The youth agreed and, when the producer arrived, he found Alfred accompanied by his band. “I was surprised at first, as I hadn’t expected to record a group, but once they started playing and singing, I realised I had stumbled on gold.”
Living in villages that lack electricity and running water, the Mouse Boys use instruments that are either home-made — a drum constructed out of animal skin and bicycle spokes, a guitar built out of scrap metal — or discarded. The acoustic guitar had a huge hole in its side and only four strings.
“Necessity is the mother of invention. And it’s incredible the sounds that they can get from their instruments. It proves that what really matters is the soul and imagination you put into it. You can have a $10,000 drum kit and still sound awful.”
The band’s music is all in the gospel tradition, yet Brennan notes: “Their best songs often express doubt and longing, rather than celebrations of certainty.” Most of the eight Mouse Boys have been singing together since childhood. “Zondiwe is an incredibly soulful lead vocalist. Nelson is also a lead vocalist and a lead guitarist, and he probably has the most poignant voice. He’s their secret weapon.”
Their vocal harmonies recall Sam Cooke or the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, and Brennan makes a comparison with “a lot of pre-TV era American Southern gospel. But they have never heard any American gospel records — just as Tinariwen had never heard American blues when they began making music. Africa is the source of all these American music styles, and with both bands, you hear how the music never left.”
None of the Mouse Boys is a professional musician (all work in subsistence farming) and Brennan decided to record the band playing barefoot outdoors. While this wasn’t without its problems — tiny spiders would invade the portable eight-track recording system and crash the hard drive — it allowed for lots of village interaction. “Every one of these recordings has dogs on it. Also a lot of chickens and children. The great thing about animals and children is that they are always on time, so musical and intuitive. So they are just another instrument, and it’s something to be embraced. I did some editing in the studio, but no overdubs. A lot of what gets called ‘world music’ got ruined by producers trying to make it sound like pop music, adding keyboards and such.”
The resulting album is, to quote Dr Livingstone, “wild and not unpleasant”. Actually, it’s a gem, one of the best, freshest releases of the year. Brennan admits he is ecstatic about both the album and the enthusiastic response it has generated. He then jokes that, with CD sales in steep decline, the monies he paid the band are likely to be the only wages anybody makes out of He Is #1. While hopeful that the Mouse Boys can tour America and Europe, Brennan states that he did not go to Malawi “looking for a new Tinariwen”. Instead, he emphasises that the most important quality of He Is #1 is how it “legitimises what they do. Never before has a record been released in Chichewa [the band’s language] outside Malawi. It’s one of the most musical languages in the world, comparable to Italian — lots of vowel [sounds]”.
How, I wonder, did the band become known as the Malawi Mouse Boys? Brennan chuckles and describes how band members earn extra income: they stand at the roadside offering a local delicacy, roast mouse. “They sell the mice on a stick. Minibuses stop and their passengers leap out to buy a stick. They’re better known locally as mouse salesmen than for their music. See, the mice infest the huts’ thatched roofs, and the boys prepare a big pot of boiling water, then whack the roof, and this makes the mice fall into the water. They clean and cook the mice, then sell them. This goes on daily. Naturally, I suggested that they call their group the Malawi Mouse Boys.”
Naturally, I had to ask: did Brennan ever sample the mice? “I’m a vegetarian,” he replies, “so no. But those who did said what you always hear: ‘They taste like chicken.’”
He Is #1 is released on May 28
Article published in The Sunday Times, 13th May 2012