Lawi’s Poverty, Poetry and Music

Five, let us say seven, songs in Lawi’s latest release, Sunset in the sky, are not just laced with poetry. They are delivered in varying fusions, resonating natural sounds, a kind and careful tone, yet beyond – or perhaps underneath – that eclecticism comes a huge theme in modern literature: poverty-porn.

When I met with Lawi, on a drizzling evening last year where he had come with that simplicity of a commoner yet the mind of an artist who understands his trade, I charged that he has metamorphosed into an artist who celebrates poverty.

I was, in a way, echoing an opinion long highlighted by the University of Malawi academic, Emmanuel Ngwira, who writing on Lawi’s previous release specifically singled out Life is beautiful as a celebration of a distant life. A ‘poverty porn’ of sort.

“It is not a celebration of poverty per se,” Lawi argued. Thereafter, he went into a sermon:  on happiness – almost philosophical and intellectual in its packaging. Yet, in brief, he was explaining a song in the album. Maybe just a line, from Therere:

Ulemelero si ndalama/koma mtima wa chimwemwe (To live happily is not about what you have/it is about a grateful heart).

“I do not just present poverty. I present actual situations of people: their survival in such situations, their experiences, their joys,” his argument – in brief.

“In presenting poverty, I am not presenting a situation I only hear of, or just watch. I present situations I have experienced,” he said.

Indirectly, maybe throwing to his song Monga Nyerere in which he describes poverty with poetry that can only be created by one who has experience of it:

Umphawi ndi ndende/kusauka ndi nkhalango/ukaponya diso lokhalokha dondo (poverty is a trap/it’s a forest/anywhere you look at/there’s hardly an escape route).

And, Lawi’s latest release has not just been accused of being a celebration of poverty. Hastings Ndebvu, an art critic, said the album is elitist. That Lawi is no longer performing for his base. ‘The people that made him,’ he said.

I put this to Lawi as well because, in a way, I sympathised with that view. Lawi’s latest release does not come cheap, as per Malawian average price. The music? It does not come with that energy of Malawian music, like that single he unleashed as a precursor to the album: Zonena kuchuluka.

“But I think the album is a mix. It is simplistic to simply label it as elitist. I think anyone can take home something from the album, there is something for the elite. Something for the non-elite,” Lawi said.

There were some songs he referred to that appeal to different sectors. He talked of Yalira ng’oma – a song that celebrates the Ngoni culture with Ingoma drumming that synthesises with modernity. A song that comes with a harmony that beats understanding when it is said that it is Lawi, throughout, on the vocals. In the song, he boasts:

Ndibweletsa nyama/ndi ng’oma zowamba/zovinitsa ndi mafumu omwe (I am coming along with meat/and drums that will have chiefs join in the dance – of the non-elites?)

And, he dwelled on the larger themes that the album carries. Themes on hard work, like the one that the poetry-in-music song Ndilemba carries. Themes on death ably handled with a rhythm that is inviting to a spiritual sojourn such as Where my heart is.

“Then there is Timalira, a song that anybody can relate with,” he summed up on the subject. Either deliberately, or perhaps callously, pointing to a song that appears to have struck a raw nerve that is not frequently stepped upon in people’s chain of feelings.

“It touches on a good theme in a very simple and intriguing manner,” said Harry Chikasamba, a music critic, on the song.

Of course, for an album with 25 songs – disparate and tethering on a wider experimentation – to label it as elitist sounds casual and maybe careless. Yet, also, at the same time 25 being such a huge figure, authenticity can be an issue. Some songs in the album, unsurprisingly, have been accused of sounding like songs from elsewhere.

When I put this to Lawi, he asked for the songs: those he was being accused of borrowing from and his products that were sounding like others.

“Meaning you have not listened to them (the so-called originals)?” I was blunt.

“I might have listened to the artists but having a deliberate concept of copying from another, that I did not. I know the time it takes to create an art product, I would not deliberately steal an artwork from another person,” he said.

And proceeded: “Of course, questions of originality in art these days are contentious. Almost any song you can produce, something similar has ever been done elsewhere before you. At times, you do not even know it yet the audience assumes you stole such a concept.”

One could be forgiven to think he is quoting the Bible, the book of Ecclesiastes. It would be a safe guess, especially considering that Lawi has largely been associated with gospel music. A good number of Malawians might still be thinking that he is a gospel musician. That was another topic that I asked him about: is Lawi a gospel musician? 

“I would not characterise myself as one,” he said.

“But people, throughout, have thought you are a gospel musician. Others have wondered if you stopped doing gospel music,” I implored further.

“I do not think that there ever was a point when I was a gospel musician as we understand gospel musicians in Malawi. Some of the music that I have made throughout the years, and even in this album, has had a leaning towards Christianity but that does not imply that I am a gospel musician in the sense of the word,” he said.

Alanga, Kosalowa dzuwa, Ndi angelo, Salimo langa ndi and a few other songs are certainly gospel songs. And Omanga nyumba and Nyumba ya pa mchenga are songs with a foundation in Christian literature. Yet, they do not represent the whole essence of the album.

“I have grown up in a Christian community, that comes through in my music” he said.

Sunset in the sky, a fair commentary from a fan might say, is Lawi’s coming of age. It is a man bidding farewell to his kinsmen to take on a bigger stage. Perhaps, asking for just one handshake from them before he takes on his dreams. It is Malawian. And not Malawian. It is an aspiration. A dare. A challenge targeting heights.

The poetry, which I find to be highest in the album, is a roadmap. A campus of some sort. It points us to the future of music. Tracing him from Lawi, the album, this must be a huge footprint into a future that is bright. Yet, at the same time, it sounds that it is the future it is pointing into.

The article was published in the Malawi News of  27 January, 2018.