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.
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.