Joseph Nkasa, although that side of his life is rarely recognized, will go down in the history of Malawi as one of the remarkable ‘from rags to riches’ stories.
Born in a poor family in Mayaka, Zomba district, Malawi’s old capital city, Nkasa grew up a poor boy. According to his autobiographical song, ‘Umboni Wanga’ (My Testimony) off his album ‘Lamulo Liposa Mphamvu’, he says his father was a basket maker. The source of income was not enough and resulted in what he called ‘a pathetic life’.
In 1996, as a twenty seven year old man, Nkasa decided to make a move on what he had become to like, music. As a boy, with his friends, they used to play with a homemade guitar that one of them made out of the skin of an alligator. That made him forget about his poverty and slowly started giving him the messages that would later appear in his songs.
He made a daring move and released his first album in 1996. The album did not make it and was never heard on the radio. Among other things, promotion was not well managed since he did everything on a low budget and he did not involve then established people. But that did not make him give up. Between the years 1996 and 2000 he released five albums which did not make it.
For him it was failure after failure. Music then was defined through an album. The practice of releasing singles, as it is now, never happened. An artist had to endure the process of coming up with at least ten songs for an album and take himself to the public. That was what he went through with his little finances.
But he still had a dream. The music that did not make it, found in the five albums, Nkasa has always kept a tight lead on them. Some of his friends have suggested that later in his career Nkasa reworked on the failed songs and made them into hits. Just as he did it in the period between 1996 and 2000, in 2001 he once again decided to make another try. Little did he know that this would be one of the important moments for him as well as music in Malawi.
With Pastor Grey Samani, Nkasa recorded his sixth album, ‘Wayenda Wapenga’, during late 2001 at the BMC and Jussa Studio. Pastor Samani also paid for all the expenses on the recording and production of the album. He had seen the talent and the hard work in Nkasa. But his help did not only help Nkasa to realize his dream, it did more than that.
The album became an instant sensation with songs like ‘Tsoka Sasimba’, ‘Njala’, ‘Umbanda’ and ‘Mtima Malo’. The work stood on its own from the then trending type of music in Malawi.
It was still reggae, and at the time when Balaka reggae was the most popular type of music in Malawi, and also when producer Chuma Soko was alive and making some of the greatest albums from his Blantyre base. Nkasa saw a gap and twisted the existing sound to create his own brand of reggae music which would later be called after his home area, Mayaka reggae.
The music was a bit fast than most songs then. The message was also different as he took a counseling voice and it went well with his self-given stage name, ‘Phungu’ (Counselor). Nkasa made his name at the time when music giants like Lucius Banda, Billy Kaunda, Charles Nsaku, Mlaka Maliro and Evison Matafale were at the peak of their careers.
‘Wayenda Wapenga’ set the path for several artists years later. People like Thomas Chibade, John Malunga and Moses Makawa would later form their careers using his style of music. Although these were successful, Nkasa still remained unbeaten in terms of message and impact. He was the founder of the music and there was no way another artists could have been better than him.
The album, with its socio-economic lyrics changed the voice of music in Malawi. While Balaka music leaned towards politics, especially with the man who popularized the genre, Lucius Banda, Nkasa kept his music out of politics. He rarely sung directly to political leaders and concentrated on making the society right.
About the writer: Wonderful Mkhutche is a speech writer, a political scientist and a manuscript editor and developer.