Malawi Flashback: Music 4 Malawi Teacher Training
24 April 2013
For the past three weeks, we have been living in a small village in South Malawi watching our Komai Music dreams come to life. Our first week was spent retrieving our instruments, meeting with government officials, holding teacher and musician interviews, building a stage, and preparing for our team of 13 to arrive from Australia, Canada and America. In the second week, our two Komai Music Coordinators flew in from New York and joined Africa-renowned ethnomusicologist Waliko Makhala to kick-off our intensive teacher training course. Our Komai Music team of 11 Malawian primary school teachers and musicians were taught lessons on the 200+ types of traditional Malawian music, Western theory and notation, songwriting and recording.
Check out what our Komai Music Coordinator Max Jaffe had to say about his experience thus far.
Zo’ona, my madalas. My friends. Zikomo kwambiri. Thank you very much. Komai’s Teacher Training program was a success beyond anyone’s expectations, which at this point is par for the course in this program. Success beyond expectations. The time between first meeting our team and the first day of class with the young learners felt like an eon when you consider the sheer volume of growth, learning, sharing, and inspiration that took place. And in reflecting on this training program, I am beginning to understand that what made it successful was so much more than these things. It was so much more than successfully imparting the knowledge we’d hoped to impart, and it was so much more than the teachers and musicians absorbing that knowledge and giving us more in return than we could have hoped for. It was so much larger, and at the very same time, so much simpler. It was a connection. That’s all. But trying to make a connection is all too elusive in our Western Rat Race, let alone in a country where the language barrier is not insignificant. If anything, the connection I speak of seems to be getting willfully shoved to the corners of our modern lives.
What the people of Malawi have taught me is that if you really want to make an impact, make a connection. Sure, financial aid is very helpful – nay, necessary. These are a very poor people. But they are a very happy people as well, and it is obvious that it comes from the connectivity they have with each other. When you don’t have a screen to bury your nose in, when you don’t have a job that takes up all your waking hours, your survival instinct tells you to say hello to your fellow man and give your bambo a hug, even if you’ve just met. And the connection starts to flow with ease. It’s ripe for plucking. You see it in the schoolyard and at the orphanage, kids standing casually with their arms around each other, holding hands, giving each other piggyback rides. It is a beautiful survival instinct that must kick in when you are orphaned, and I see it extending through adulthood. And so giving people money may help them get a meal today, but they still won’t have food tomorrow. Giving someone a hug will truly sustain not just him or her, but you as well. And that is where the heart of the matter lies - impact going both ways. When the connection is strong and you can focus on what makes you the same as someone else instead of what makes you different, doors become not just unlocked, but unhinged.
That is what has happened here through the efforts of Komai. It is palpable, practically tangible - you can stick out your tongue and drops of its pulp will drip down and nourish you. But the amount of practical work that was done was remarkable, and I’m sure that was a major factor in fortifying this connection. We spent the first two days under the tutelage of Waliko Makhala, an ethnomusicologist/musician/guru who shared a sampling of his breadth of knowledge of Malawian music and history. Did you know there are over 200 different styles of Malawian music!?!?! I think there are, like, four in the U.S. This time spent learning about the local culture and its proximity to my arrival in the country was like a musical welcome mat, and it helped me feel like just one of the crew, as opposed to apart or above. We spent time every morning playing together as a group, and Waliko took the lead. I learned a number of traditional rhythms quickly, and I could quickly feel the connection happening.
This brings me back to my earlier point of the language barrier. With a drum, I learned that I didn’t need to speak Chichewa, that McFarley (the drummer of our group) didn’t need to speak much English (he doesn’t), and that we could still have deep communications and feel a strong bond. And so with this bond beginning to form, I led the class through four days of Western music theory. At times it was very challenging, and the challenges almost always stemmed from a language barrier between a student and myself. But as soon as I’d play what I’d written on the board, or someone else with better English would provide a translation in Chichewa (and at the same time, show to me that they had truly learned what I’m teaching), I would see the light bulbs turn on in all the students’ minds. We covered a lot in four days, and I felt a pride for their progress that I can’t say I’d felt before.
The program was then handed over to Masauko Chipembere, our third of three music coordinators, and he created a safe space for creativity and taking risks with his workshops on singing and songwriting. On the very first day of his three days, he asked everyone to go off into their own space for 20 minutes and write a song. Sounds crazy, I know. But what was crazier was that everyone did it, and they wrote really good songs too. Maureen, one of the teachers who was probably the shyest in the entire group, came back with a song that I’ve now had stuck in my head for a week. Johnstone, another teacher, wrote a song that I found myself singing in the shower the next morning. I could sense their anxiety about the assignment, their nervousness in singing alone in front of a group. But I also sensed the connection that was reinforced that day. It was practically built anew. We were witnessing a transformation within the group in real time as we shared our songs with each other, what they meant to us, how they sounded in our heads, etc., and it was then that the sameness of us, the wonderful oneness, was taken from intellectual obscurity to spiritual physicality.
So now I reflect. What I’m left with, aside from nearly an entire album’s worth of material from the Komai Music Teachers, is this connection that I will never not feel with these people. My madalas, my bambos, my amayes. We’ve since had some opportunities to spend time together outside of the classroom environment, and I can tell that I just made a few lifelong friends in the process. The training, the education, was a two way street that is still being paved. It will be a major thoroughfare that can take you longer distances than previously thought possible. And the people laying that pavement, my madalas, have more than enough creativity, knowledge, passion, and vision to give Komai Music the legs it needs for the long haul.