Spoken Verse in Malawi: the uncertain road

On Sunday, 11 December, I sat in the audience at Kwa Haraba Arts Gallery in Blantyre. For an event dubbed Rise of spoken word poetry. I wrote an article for The Sunday Times of 18 December, 2016. I publish the article here as it appeared in The Sunday Times

The promise was that there would be a rise. At Kwa Haraba Art Gallery in Blantyre. Of Spoken Word Poetry. On a lazy Sunday of 11 December.

The expectation, as well, was that there would be a rise. A shocking event even, positively. Something that you would compare with international events of a similar nature.

It was normal, to expect such a rising. The advertising had been on point: posters of a similar design yet with different messages and personalities had heralded the day. 

From the intros of the Spoken Word artists, however, on the material day one could almost get the feeling that the message that it would be the rise of Spoken Word poetry was maybe not the correct phrase. It was catchy, eventually, but not very correct.

The actors, tipping in favour of the male sex of course like in most artistic acts, made one statement clear with the intros: they had been subjected to a demanding rehearsal prior to the event.

Beyond that, the rehearsal, there was the usual stage fright, superficially explored themes and a style too common that you would hardly separate the actors from each other. They were not only children from the same poetry family; rather were identical twins hatched poetic minutes apart.

Somehow the usual host for the Blantyre Spoken Word fests, Yankho Seunda, appeared to already have an excuse for the uncertainty in the acts.

“We started two months ago,” he said in his welcoming remarks to the sizeable audience.

In art, unlike politics, two months is undoubtedly a short time to expect a lot. Thus, the audience certainly had to be kind – it appeared he was intending to say. These acts before them were definitely not rushed but also not very mature.

Monotonous, superficially explored themes
Aside the intros, in which all the nine poets attempted to introduce themselves in a way that would forgivably pass for artistic, the other themes that paraded seemed to merge into a few. One can count them with the fingers of one hand. Even then, not all the fingers would be used.

There is no problem in having a monotonous theme, it might even have been a plan, but it was the superficial way that the themes were covered that was worrisome.

Of course, there was a brighter moment in the thematic coverage when Brian Kalinde and Matthew Chimwaza decided to tackle HIV and AIDS. The wariness with which they broached the subject, combining the knowledge of a doctor and the myth of the common man, would have salvaged the flaws of the rest of the team.

Also, when Mwai Simbota decided to tackle paedophilia with an artistic carefulness – save for the flaws in presentation a careful mind would note – there was a kind of diversity.

Otherwise, most of the works waltzed about an imaginary Africa. A theme they feared to really go into depth to excavate and critically present. They were, in a way, sitting on the shores of a sea whose history they had heard, but not read. Yet they still believed everything they had heard, even the obvious propaganda.

There was hardly any love theme (prevalent in youthful literature), but the emphasis on Africa with neither a clear direction nor from an informed perspective rendered the acts less appealing to the critical mind. The gullible, of course, would have basked in celebration that finally a generation so young was beginning to pay attention to the continent; although one poet opted to present Africa as would Joseph Conrad: as a place where phada and chipako are the favourite – where Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram are yet to be known.

Let’s erect our tents around Q
You can hardly talk about the history of Spoken Word Poetry in Malawi without referring to Q Malewezi. Actually, it is Q who can have the bragging rights that he gave rise to Spoken Word Poetry.

But, Q is not Spoken Word Poetry. He is a part of it. He might be the Chairperson of a movement – if we are to call Spoken Word in poetically political terms – but the movement is not him.

Yet, the Spoken Word Poetry displayed at Kwa Haraba at the ironically named Rise of Spoken Word Poetry was mostly centred around Q. The internationally acclaimed poet is not just a source of inspiration to the young poets, he holds them by almost a hypnosis quality. He is a demi-god such that you could tell from the intonation, the gesticulations, that most of the team were borrowing from Q – heavily.

That identity of the poet, their own, was either lost or completely non-existent.
It is a good thing to have role models, but it is a tragedy to lose your identity and take on the form of the role model.

There were brighter moments, of course, with Rabbi Kondowe defining his own style. Performing deeper and meaningful poetry that was not tailored around the style and presentation of Q. For most, however, it showed that they had detached themselves from learning from others – even those among them such as the host Yankho Seunda – and had all trained their eyes on Lilongwe. On Q.

It was a tragic flaw, for those who have been exposed to so much of Spoken Word Poetry. From home and abroad.

Music rose
It is the case in performing Spoken Word Poetry that music becomes a part. Sometimes, they have to be at par with each other – the music and the poetry – while in other cases the poetry has to be dominant. It is Spoken Word Poetry, after all.

However, at the Rise of Spoken Word Poetry it was music that was nearly eclipsing the Poetry. From Sam Shaba to Agorosso, it appeared that the musicians were well aware of the how and when to interact with the audience. They performed. Not just recited.

Once, when Panacea Phiri partnered with Agorosso for her piece it finally appeared that Poetry and Music were finally agreeing to rub shoulders as equals. The flaw could have been that marriage of an established artist with an up-and-coming. It appeared Agorosso nearly eclipsed the poet. He is established, anyway, with his guitar being unique. The Poet might have planned to ride on the waves of that fame yet somehow it did not work like that. A fellow up-and-coming guitarist for her would have left the audience hang on to her skilful way of playing with words in her piece instead of the guitarist.  

When will this rise be, Poet?
The announcement was that it would be a rise of Spoken Word Poetry, yet certainly there was no rise. It was, of course, more of a routine well-rehearsed performance. Convincing in one breath, disappointing in the other.

Nevertheless, from the passion and the commitment of the actors it was clear that there is an ability and the possibility of them raising the Poetry – the Spoken Word – from wherever they assumed it had been laid to rest.

If the efforts of all the players could be harnessed, the team gets open to other alternatives (accept that there are equally other important players in the field whom they can learn from – both within and without the borders of Malawi), remain open to criticism, hold events and rehearse on a frequent basis as they most likely did for their first ever ‘public performance', something good might come up.

The only big question would be: when will this something good come up? Another two months, maybe.

Still, their efforts now are little uncertain steps. With the positive being that they are still willing to take them, and they lead them into the light – where there are people willing to embrace them. Even with the shortfalls.  


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