Hailing from the African nation of Malawi, Peter Mawanga’s dedication to preserving his country’s musical traditions places him at the nexis of being a musician, advocate, and ambassador.
Writing and performing in his vernacular Chichewa, Peter’s songs strive to give voice to the voiceless.
Peter describes his sound – and that of the Amaravi Movement – as an “amplified version of traditional rhythms from the lake shores of the famous Lake Malawi.” He and others call this sound “Nyanja Vibes.”
Before starting the Q&A, Peter wanted to pass along the following: “I am so excited to be coming to Denver and bringing the “Nyanja Vibes” to Swallow Hill music.”
Your music has been praised for staying true to key elements of traditional Malawian music even as you add modern instruments and styles. Is there a lot of pressure for you to abandon those traditional sounds for something perceived as more “pop?” Why do you feel so beholden to the traditional sounds and singing in the Chichewa language?
Malawi, just like many African countries, has embraced the digital sound and because of this, traditional music and dance is becoming less visible. The younger generation of deejays and TV presenters prefer to feature pop music on their shows, so what it means is that a teenager in my country would know an American pop artist more than he/she would know a traditional artist like myself.
However, the use of traditional instruments and traditional music and dance is so much in demand in Africa. The only challenge is, there are a few of us especially in southern part of Africa and Malawi in particular that have managed to go out of the norm to research and preserve our traditional heritage.
Our traditional instruments are on the verge of dying and as more and more young people are getting educated and learning other foreign languages like English, our vernacular languages are dying as well. This is why I have chosen to preserve our instruments and language through my music.
You have been described as a “Voice for the Voiceless” in Malawi. You have done a lot of international touring. Do you consider yourself an ambassador?
80% of my country’s economy is controlled by donors who provide the much needed aid in Africa. Hence the stories of life in Malawi or Africa are usually distorted ones, told by those that pocket the aid instead of the actual recipient, like poor children in the streets or orphanages. When American Fiddler Andrew Finn Magill came to Malawi to work with me on the Stories of AIDS Album, I asked him to go out to the villages to speak to people living with HIV/AIDS and I then translated those stories into songs.
I believe my role as a musician is to tell the story of Malawi and Africa through song, and let the world decide what to make of the stories.
What truths do you hold to be universal that you have seen transcend barriers of language and culture?
Through my travels I have learnt that every country in the world has its own fair share of problems and joys, but despite the fact that people from these countries may look or speak differently, they will unite in dance, when good music is played.
Outside of Malawian influences, who has been a big musical inspiration for you?
Who is an active musician that you would love to perform with that you haven’t already?
Obviously, Lokua Kanza.
Are you working on new music? How do you see your sound evolving?
Am Hoping to release my new album in the United States called Zo Zama this coming summer of 2017. This will be my second release after (the) Mau A Malawi (Stories of AIDS) concept album.
This Q&A was conducted via email with Swallow Hill Music Marketing Manager Barry Osborne.