Producing Southeast Africa’s Malawi Mouse Boys
IN THE PAST DECADE, I have had the pleasure and honor of recording bands such as Tinariwen in the Sahara region of southeast Algeria, the Good Ones in Rwanda, and the Malawi Mouse Boys in, well, Malawi. The latter two represented the first releases outside of their own countries in their respective languages: Kinyarwanda and Chichewa. Not coincidentally, Chichewa was rated by the BBC as the most musical language in the world, phonetically, after Italian. Here is an anecdotal account of one of my field-recording forays that resulted in the Malawi Mouse Boys’ debut record, He Is #1…
It was just around the corner from the Packand-Go coffin shop that any trace of music was found in Malawi, on a tiny stretch of road that marks the only place where the tradition continues of selling barbecued mice-on-a-stick as snacks for passing travelers. Literally working around the clock whistling and waving their wares at oncoming traffic, the Malawi Mouse Boys spend the downtime of their days (and nights) beside the highway strumming rudimentary guitars made from recycled scrap-metal parts. Until then, I had crisscrossed almost 2,000 miles along the bumpy dirt roads and undivided, two-lane main highway of this tiny, agricultural and landlocked country before a single instrument of any kind had been sighted.
Subsisting in one of the poorest countries in the world—the average income is less than 40 cents a day, and life-expectancy barely surpasses 40 years of age— with nearly the highest rates of AIDS, the populace seems poised just one-gram of protein a day away from revolution. This group of young villagers have been writing songs of faith and love since they were young children. The purity, earnestness, and passion of their voices harken back to an earlier and more trusting, pre-“modern” time.
A homemade acoustic. That’s some soundhole!
After spotting one of the members beside the road strumming a guitar, I made a hasty u-turn and introduced myself. Following some negotiation through a translator, a recording session was set up for later that week. What had started out as a plan to record one singer-songwriter snowballed into a full collective of eight musicians playing handmade and recycled instruments (the hi-hat was made from two bicycle gears, for example), piling into the overloaded truck.
People talk of one-stoplight towns. Malawi could be called a one-stoplight nation—a place where shoes remain a luxury item. There is no road into the Mouse Boys’ tiny village as cars never go there, so the band had to improvise a way through the brush. The only real obstacles to catching musical lightning- in-a-bottle with them were the tiny spiders that kept crawling into my computer’s hard drive. Yes, dogs, chickens, and children are audible in the background. But the great thing about animals and kids is they always bark, chirp, and/or whine in time to the music.
On a strictly technical level, the challenge with homemade guitars is not only the lack of amplification, but also the lack of resonance due to the absence of a soundhole (or in the case of their acoustic, there was more hole than instrument due to its missing most of its side pieces), and the less-than-pristine quality of the materials. When someone is using a rock for a pick and mismatched bailing wire for strings, tone becomes relative. The bass guitar here was recorded with a lavalier mic taped to the body, and the corrugated-tin guitar was recorded with a shotgun ribbon microphone to hopefully warmup the metallic timbre. With this guerilla type hit-and-run recording, a key is committing to a course of action and improvising solutions on the fly.
Ian Brennan is a Grammy-winning music producer, songwriter, guitarist, lecturer, and published author.