Paseli Brothers – Kare Ndinari Wabwino

There’s a stunning lack of early popular music from Malawi available on CD, which is a shame, as it’s wonderfully engaging and strewn with lively gems. It seems as if all the record labels active in southern Africa after World War II – from conglomerates like HMV to local, shop-based labels owned by Indian immigrants – were making records of the pop music from what was then the British protectorate known as Nyasaland.

Hugh Tracey, ethnographer extraordinaire, was right there as usual. In 1948, he recorded tracks by Black Paseli, his brother Barry (or Bari), and sometimes his brother Airini (or Irene) – the Paseli Brothers. These songs were recorded in Harare, Zimbabwe, where apparently the brothers had located themselves at that time, and they were popular enough to have them remembered today. Tracey felt that although the Paseli Brothers played in the “common Southern Guitar style,” they were particularly talented. According to several sources, the guitar and banjo were brought back to Malawi by Malawian soldiers who were serving alongside the British during World War II.

This was not exactly the case with Black Paseli, the leader of the Paseli Brothers. Black Paseli was born in 1921 in the city of Zomba, and during his teenage years was employed by a Mr. Mackay as a handyman and mechanic. During those years, in the mid-1930s, Black Paseli taught himself how to play Mackay’s guitar, eventually becoming adept enough to teach his older brother Barry the instrument. Until 1938, when Black Paseli was recruited to fight for the British, the duo played in then Rhodesia and Nyasaland as part-time entertainers at tea parties and bottle stores. After the war, they became full-time musicians.

The Paseli Brothers were, according to at least one source, the very first Malawian artists to record, and this would be one of their earliest efforts. Their first records were made in Zomba in 1947, recorded on equipment owned by an Indian shop-owner. They became extremely well-known in the region. When scholar and musician K. Mongani Katundu interviewed Black Paseli in 1986, he asked if his records made him famous, Paseli’s reply was: “Yes! So much so that other people’s wives ran away from their husbands to me.”

Tracey translated the title of this piece as “I Shall Never Drink Again” – which you can hear the Paselis repeat during the song. However, on a cassette of Malawian music produced by ethnomusicologist Mitchel Strumpf from the late 1980s, the true translated title was used: “I Once Was A Good Man.” There are also a couple of errors on the label. It states Nyanja as the language, but after I sent it to a speaker of that language (known more commonly as Chewa or Chichewa), he stated it was not, in fact, in that language. Listener John Iwanda wrote in and let us know that the title and first verse are in Nyanja/Chewa, the second verse is in Yao, third verse is in English, and the remainder in Nyanja. Also, despite the label, the piece is a guitar duet, and there is no banjo present.

One of the unfortunate, ubiquitous phrases one hears in the record collecting world is “No one’s ever heard of this stuff!” Well, that’s just simply not true in most, if not all cases. While Black Paseli is unknown in the West, there’s many people in an entire country that remember him, and the performances he made with his brothers.

Paseli Brothers – Kare Ndinari Wabwino

Technical Notes
Label: Gallotone
Issue Number: GE.968
Matrix Number: ABC.3101

Biographical information gleaned from:
Katundu, K. Wongani. (1993). Black Paseli: His Place in Early Popular Malawian Music. In Mitchel Strumpf and Kondwani Phwandaphwanda (Eds.), Readings in Malawian Music: A Collection of Previously Published Articles on Malawian Music (pp. 53-54), Zomba: Zomba Music Society.

17 thoughts on “Paseli Brothers – Kare Ndinari Wabwino

  1. Dear JW,
    Many thanks for this another Gem from you.Do you prefer to present the records as it is from source.Is it not it will be more great if the usual disturbing noise associated with old records is cleaned off.

  2. Lovely, and definitely no banjo! Good point in that last para – collectors tend to make all sorts of unwarranted assumptions, from a very specific point of view. I was digging through a pile of 78s in a local Vintage Emporium (i.e. junk shop) yesterday. All sorts of names there that young collectors might assume nobody’s ever heard of, but who were well known in their time and place. Sadly, on this occasion, nothing that was of even the slightest interest to me!

  3. padmasomu: This is a record that’s in excellent condition, believe it or not. However, it suffers from a low recording and a loud pressing.

    In answer to your question, yes, I do “clean” the 78s that I present here, but I only remove clicks and pops, and equalize the track, either in the transfer process or during cleanup.

    Despite the problems with this particular disc, I don’t believe in removing all surface noise from 78s. Nearly all 78s have surface noise. It is part of their makeup and it should be audible!

    People who clean up their 78s too much, overusing noise reduction software for instance, don’t give us a historically accurate representation of the discs themselves. I’ve heard many instances where over-cleaned 78s sound as if you’re listening to them underwater. While I do clean up clicks and pops that are in essence flaws on the surface of the record, removing actual surface noise can be a bad idea. Only extremely sophisticated and expensive CEDAR software, which needs to be used VERY carefully and with a light touch (in my opinion), can go a beyond basic click/pop removal – and again, I’m sure many of us have heard and read arguments pro and con for CEDAR, and have heard classic examples of noise reduction overuse by CEDAR software. It’s not an upgrade in listening, nor is it digital preservation in the slightest, if you mangle and distort the original recording. So, in conclusion, I embrace some level of surface noise – a 78 just isn’t the same without it.

    1. I totally agree ! Preservation is one thing, but the obsession of a “pure” and “clean” sound is meaningless. So thank you for sharing these records with us in that condition. And thanks for this new post, interesting as usual !

  4. first verse is in nyanja/chewa; second verse yao, third verse english and last two njanja and the ‘i will never drink again.

    paseli brothers were yao – so imagine a frenchman singing in english, that sort of thing

    1. Dear Irene – Unfortunately, there are no CDs or albums in print that feature early recordings by the Paseli brothers. You have to track down the original 78rpm discs.

  5. BLack Paseri is one of the greatest artist though the society does know him much because of the way recordings were stored in those years. I feel he’s the line of Enock Evans, Burton Harry, Wilson Makawa. there’s no records, if available I would love to have one. Nyimbo Za Makedzana played most of the songs by these artists.

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