They are back! But unfortunately, this time around it really feels like they left. If there is a music band that has to deal with the pressure to deliver, it is the Black Missionaries. The Chileka, Blantyre based reggae music outfit has been out equaling its longest time between albums. The last work, Kuimba 10, came out three years ago. But make no mistake, it is not that they lost touch with their ever demanding fan base. There is always something special whenever the band, affectionately called Ma Blacks, decides to go back to their faithful followers with new music.
Every time another Kuimba comes out, people are forced to go back to the period between 1999 and 2001. This was the time when the band’s founder, Evison Matafale, was in his music career before his death while in police custody in November 2001. There is literally no one who doubts that Matafale remains the king of reggae music in Malawi. The Singano village native released his maiden work in 1999, Kuimba 1, an effort that remains one of its kind to this very day. With Kuimba 2 following in July 2001 before his death five months later, Matafale had sealed his legendary status. He left Malawi asking; what could have become of him had death not been so impatient?
For his sophomore, Matafale worked with his newly formed band, the Black Missionaries, comprising of his cousins, among them, the Fumulani trio of Anjiru, Chizondi and Musamude. They were all following the footsteps of their fathers and uncles, the likes of Malawi music greats, Anold and Gift Fumulani, not forgetting Daniel Kachamba. The new Fumulani name and legacy carries were very young when Matafale reached out to them for his music journey. November 2001 happened to them when they were still in their music infancy. But they just had to man up and face the world that was expecting something close to Matafale to happen.
Kuimba 3 in 2003 was it. Then being led by one of the best on session vocalist of his times, Musamude, the Black Missionaries delivered a work that lived beyond expectations. Kuimba 4 came out a year later and it was nothing but a touch of magic. And so were the two subsequent albums before death came asking for one of them again. Musamude died in September 2007. Remembering the pivotal role he played in the band’s leadership and sound, most people saw that the end of the glittering days for Ma Blacks was nigh. Anjiru was given the mantle to lead the band to this very day.
Whenever there is a new Kuimba album, this history should never be disregarded in the narration. It was and will forever define the band, its music and the future. On April 20, 2018, Malawi woke up to new songs from the band. How has it faired? The dissatisfaction with the band’s music started when their subsequent projects started sounding like Kuimba 4. In the previous offer, they somehow sounded like their founder and mentor. Kuimba 4 was their own sound and fans will say that they stayed too long on it.
At the first glimpse of the four promotional songs for Kuimba 11, one would enjoy the pleasure of criticizing the band that it has lost its touch. To this extent, to say that the band is heading for the dead end will make a lot of sense. But somehow, it simply feels good to say that the Black Missionaries band is not as it used to be. That is at face value of the latest music. Even for me, for the first hours after giving it an ear, the feeling was the same. In other words, Anjiru and company were condemned as failures even before they stepped into the studio for their latest release. Even if Kuimba 11 can be interchanged with the highly acclaimed Kuimba 6 which came out in 2007, same songs, most people in 2018 will still say that the band is not delivering.
The strangest thing with music is that, unlike food, its taste cannot be decided when it is being consumed. There are songs that hit you up into a frenzy when you listen to them for the first time. Then there are those that get into you by time and end up making you feel like a fool why it never felt as good as it is. This has been an experience for me with Kuimba 11. It may be sounding like the previous efforts, but one needs to ask themselves one question whenever this thought comes to mind: Exactly, how do we expect the band to sound?
The Anjiru led song, Umboni, leads the whole project for me. The band leader has never disappointed from the first day Malawi heard his voice on a song. He has given it all and continues to carry the outfit through thick and thin. The song, done in a soft and open reggae beat, talks of someone who praises God for making him / her pass through life’s hurdles. Zofuna Mtima Wanga is trademark song. From Kuimba 1 Matafale had the tradition of composing a soft sounding song with a love message. The band did the same with Ngati Umankonda in Kuimba 3 and Ndamusowa in Kuimba 4, for example. The impatient side of us will conclude that Zofuna Mtima Wanga is here for that purpose. It does not sound unusual from the other similar songs and it is definitely an easy skip for someone listening to the whole effort.
M’busa is a song based on the Bible’s Good Shepherd teaching by Jesus Christ. The content aside, it comes out in their often fast reggae beat helped with a good bass guitar done by Peter Amidu and keyboard and also guitar play that forms a bridge between the voices. Anjiru sounds good on this poetic composition but it literally does not feel like something new. This has been a common sound from them and the song has done the job of maintaining what we already know about the band. But it seems fans now have to be used to this trend; Chizondi has once again led an English song on Kuimba 11 just like he did with Mr. Bossman in Kuimba 10. The band is delegating the role of leading songs to the band’s keyboardist and he has not disappointed at all.
Chizondi’s voice on Special Lover sounds well-rehearsed in his deeper delivery than what we were used to Anjiru and Musamude. There are female backing voices for the song, another new addition to the band’s music. Listening to the two Chizondi offers, it will not be zealousness to ask if he can also be groomed into taking the place of Musamude as another equal lead vocalist for the band. It could be that people were used to Anjiru’s voice hence being disgruntled. But there is diversity in the band and that has definitely given it a new shape. Special Lover is a song done on a well-produced beat. Just like Umboni, Special Lover has done the duty of shouldering the whole project.
Yesterday I asked Anjiru how as a band they have weighed in on the feedback after their four songs. The soft spoken band leader had no much to say.
“We really appreciate the love and support from our fans. We do not take it for granted,” he said.
But just as the band does not take its fans for granted, perhaps it is time the fans return the favor. Not out of sympathy, but recognizing how from 2003, a lone journey without Matafale, the band has managed to keep itself alive and strong. It is time we accept that the band has its own kind of sound. Amidst this claim, the question of how exactly do fans want the band to sound comes in again without disregarding the cries for the band to sound different. What has been seen so far is a knee-jerk reaction to the four songs. But if one chooses to go back to the songs, they sound so different and good. We have been given four songs as a starter to the meal called Kuimba 11. Six or seven other songs are on their way and it is only someone with passionate dislike for the band that can choose to dismiss the entire project when the main dish is yet to be served. The band is used to pressure and knows what fans expect of it. Before shouting the dissatisfaction with the whole project, first, listen to the songs again and second, take a sit, relax and wait for what is coming ahead. But all in all, as they say, class is permanent. Ma Blacks has just given life to the saying.