Refreshingly unencumbered material, and better for its rough edges.
David Katz 2012
Before you balk at the name, check the back story. These eight friends have worked together since boyhood, crafting songs when business was slow. Their day jobs: selling mouse kebabs to passing traffic on Malawi’s roads, since food shortages have made field mice a delicacy.
But what about the music? He Is #1 has a refreshingly unencumbered sound, a lack of technological interference allowing the honesty and authenticity of the music to shine through.
When Kunvera opens, what you hear is what you get: an a cappella track steered by the pleasant tenor of Zondiwe Kachingwe, supported by a strong chorus of peers. Can’t say what the lyrics are about, other than that the title means “To Hear”, but one gets the sense we are dealing with something positive, as the voices work together to draw us upwards.
In contrast, Ndathamanga-Thamanga (“Going Here and There”) is led by the gruffer voice of one Jameson Lufeyo, whose style edges a little closer to that of Mahlathini, but the effect is somehow equally uplifting.
The disc’s title hints at the devotional focus of most of the songs, with Kunjoya Mwa Jesu imploring us to “Rejoice in the Lord” and Ndiwa Bwino telling us that “He is Good”, the latter delivered via broad vocal harmony, backed by a choppy rhythm guitar, and muffled, bouncing bass.
Mtsilikali (“Solider”) places some reggae undercurrents behind the constant references to “Jesu”, and Wabwino (“It’s Good”) is delightfully rough. Listen closely, and behind Gerard Haju’s wobbling lead you may hear the crows of a cockerel.
Parallels have been drawn with American gospel records of the 1930s and 40s, but there are also strong regional influences, as heard in the vocal harmony traditions of the Shona and Bantu, amongst others. Plenty of tracks are rough around the edges, which keeps everything a bit more real.
Producer Ian Brennan has already brought a tasteful ear to plenty of inspiring material, including Tinariwen’s Tassili album. Good on him for bringing the Malawi Mouse Boys to the attention of the wider world, as this one is definitely worth investigating.