Malawian Ragtime Blues


Text from “Zambian Music Legends” by Leonard Koloko

Wilson Makawa was a Malawian born musician who worked on the Northern Rhodesian copper mines in the 1950s. He had a slick touch on the guitar and performed with Alick Nkhata and his Quartet. Wilson Makawa was a songwriter who effectively brought out Cichewa and Tumbuka traditions in his music. His songs were mostly social commentaries capturing the mood in villages and towns. Among his solo hits were tracks like ‘Bambo Siyaya’ [listen below] – a social comment condemning domestic violence; ‘Chitutuko’ – a patriotic song about freedom and economic development; and ‘Bwera Kuno wachikondi – a love song.

His music was so melodious that it went on to attract younger singers in years to come. ‘Bambo Siyaya’ was reworked by Keith Mlevhu under the title ‘Achimweme’. Another local singer Thomas Mambo did ‘Kumalembe’. Both tracks came through in the mid 70s. Later in the new millenium South Africa based Malawian musician Erik Piliani won himself a SAMA (South African Music Awards) nomination for his album title ‘Chitutuko’, the title track being a remake of the famous Wilson Makawa song. It is a piece reflecting on the migrant’s anguish at finding himself away from home and familiar people.

Wilson Makawa performing ‘Bambo Siyaya’. Audio taken from ‘Opika Pende: Africa at 78 RPMS’ from Dust-to-Digital and Excavated Shellac

Fans of American music may hear a resemblance between Makawa’s playing and the rhythms employed by early ragtime and blues guitarists such as Charlie Patton.

Charlie Patton performing ‘Shake It and Break It’ recorded in 1929.


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