Album Review: Madalitso Band – Musakayike : joyful, jumping urban folk from Malawi

The Breakdown

When in motion Madalitso Band are a bundle of spirited energy, tight meshed rhythms, harmonies that glide in close formation and street wise songs – raw and distinctive you wouldn’t want them to change.
Bongo Joe Records 8.9

Big in Europe, unknown in Malawi…It’s not often that you can use that strapline about a band but that’s the trajectory so far for Madalitso Band, the enduringly upbeat partnership of Yosefe Kalekeni and Yobu Maligwa. The pair’s distinctive raw Malawian folk sound, bonded through years of busking in Lilongwe’s shopping malls, may have first been clocked by producer Emmanuel Kamwenje way back in 2009 but their great leap forward came several years later. Following a spot at Zanzibar’s influential Sauti Za Busara festival in 2017, the word on this dynamic duo spread so quickly they were soon off playing their first European tour.

Four similar trips have followed, with a fifth booked this summer including an excursion to the US, which says much about their work ethic. Madalitso Band are the travelling kind, real troubadours, diligently spreading their infectious music wherever and whenever. They do pause the road trips once in a while to record. After their first gig distributed CD ‘Fungo La Nyemba’, the duo released ‘Wasalala’ via Bongo Joe in 2019 and now comes the much anticipated follow up for the label ‘Musakayike’, available from June 17th onwards.

It’s a record that sticks close to the Madalitso aesthetic, a compact sound shaped by their busking heritage and the lo-fi earthiness of their homemade instruments. Kalekeni’s four string acoustic and cow skin drum (played with his heel) plus Maligwa’s single strung babatone (think long necked version of skiffle’s tea-chest bass) is their set-up. That might seem something way beyond the usual stripped back descriptors but the pair’s music can’t be dismissed as plain, simple or stark. When in motion Madalitso Band are a bundle of spirited energy, tight meshed rhythms, harmonies that glide in close formation and street wise songs of wit and wisdom (respectfully translated on the lyric sheet by Isaac Mafuel and Maloto Chimkombero). The band say they stick stoically to their repair shop principles because “that’s how we get the sound we want” and hearing ‘Musakayike’ you wouldn’t want them to change a thing.

Ali Ndi Vuto’ sets the record’s pace without hesitation, bowled along by breezy guitar flicks, trusty heel thumps and the babatone’s elastic twang, while the vocal call and response discusses everyday ins and outs. The fine- tuned Madalitso motor is kept purring on the joyful love song ‘Chikondi Sichiona Nkhope’ and the title track ‘Musakayika’ opens the throttle even further with the fluid finger work of Kalekeni’s guitar and Maligwa’s quick -fire bass pulls. The babatone player’s dynamic vocal range is another highlight here, wryly sketching some hook-line/put-down banter:
Sister, stop doubting, it could be your lucky day,
And she responded, she asked me
Are you a rich man?

Away from the live setting, where their verve and vitality wins you over, Madalitso music in recorded form may struggle to assert itself if given only superficial attention. ‘Musakayika’ rewards playing on repeat and being lived with, it’s then that the internal workings of those intricate rhythms become more exposed. The cross beats, interlocking patterns and subtle variations really have the complex integrity of the wildest techno or deepest electronica. Maybe a Four Tet collaboration awaits…

That’s not to say that the percussive power of ‘Musakayika’ is the album’s focal point. Both Kalekeni and Maligwa are fine songwriters whose tunes steadily grow closer to you. The heartfelt ‘Diya’ takes a haiku- like lyric structure and wraps it in a revolving melody so mesmeric that it’s hard to let go. Then there’s ‘Mwandikumbusta’ an almost mournful, sobering look back at the simplicity of the past and complications of the future. Taken at a slower pace, the gently chiming chords and first-take harmonies show another side of Madalitso Band’s emotional reach.

Elsewhere guitarist Kalekeni takes the lead vocal on the sprightly ‘Wandiputa Dala’, tackling the consequences of bees’ nest disturbance and adding the occasional Buddy Holly flourish to his jangling chord patterns. Then on ‘Mwaza’, the song with the record’s winning chorus, Maligwa’s babatone reaches a frenzy of plucks, pulls and bends to propel the tune to its close. Fundamental to the Madalitso sound, this timbre rich percussive engine gets pushed to its full potential time and time again on the album, creaking and groaning as it takes the strain.

It’s fitting that ‘Musakayike’ closes with a long time live favourite, the juke- joint jumping ‘Jingo Janga’. As the band go gloriously full tilt and the ‘apo apo’ chant hits repeat you can imagine those waves of swaying hands in the festival field taking up the Madalitso Band’s offer. But if you can’t get to see them sometime soon ‘Musakayike’ is more than fair compensation. A big record and mighty sound that shows you that in the right hands the bare essentials can go a long, long way.

Pick up your copy of ‘Musakayike’ by Madalitso Band from your local record shop or direct from:

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