Evison Matafale died in mysterious circumstances in November 2001 when he was under the Police custody. The two reggae albums he had released before his death, Kuimba One and Two, in 1999 and 2001, respectively, completely changed the landscape of reggae music in Malawi, for better. They also confirmed Singano Village in Chileka, Blantyre, as the home of some legendary musicians to have ever graced the Malawi stage.
There was so much before him. His death took from Malawi one of the greatest voices it ever had. Matafale exhibited a special fearless character. He was a man full of opinions on politics and religion, for example. In fact, the reason that got him arrested by the Police was his 2001 open letter that criticized the Malawi political system and the failure of President Muluzi and his government.
That is the kind of man who appears in his music as well. He was a conscious human being and used his music to create something good out of the society. Kuimba One and Two were the first of its kind in Malawi and they instantly crowned him the king of reggae music in Malawi, a title he still posthumously hold.
It is half a generation now since his death. Besides leaving songs that are still relevant till this day, the Black Missionaries band, the group he formed months before his death, remains one of his strongest and enduring legacies. As he was about to record his sophomore, he asked his Fumulani and Chokani cousins to form a band and back him up in the studio. He named it the Black Missionaries.
He died just months before some of the cousins had just made their first appearance on the music stage. They faced the challenge of carrying on what had been bestowed upon them; reggae music, the Black Missionaries band, Singano village, and more importantly, the voice of justice and freedom.
It was easy to not give them the chance of keeping the mission on. But while still enjoying the grace of people for Matafale, in 2003, they continued the Kuimba series with a third one. A skeptic view may suggest that for the love of Matafale, people bought and listened to the work. But when one critically listens to the album, it suggests otherwise. The little boys Matafale had recruited had fast matured into men and did all they could to fill the void.
It gave rise to the names of Anjiru and Musamude Fumulani as some of the best vocalists in Malawi music and Peter Amidu as a celebrated bass guitar player in Malawi. People fell in love with the coarse voice of Musamude and as more music kept coming from the band, some started to even suggest that he was better than his mentor, Matafale.
But after the third Kuimba project, the coming of Kuimba Four acted like a transition period for the band. While they had lived to the expectations of people in Kuimba Three, Kuimba Four was the beginning of their own journey and legacy. Some have suggested that the success of the band’s music was the lack of competition in Malawi. By then, Balaka reggae, although fading, was still the dominant type of reggae music in Malawi.
The Black Missionaries were playing their own kind of reggae music, hence the success. If that was true, the coming of Gift Fumulani, their other cousin, as solo artist, broke their monopoly and provided the people some comparison. It is said that the band itself took note of his coming and dominance. The song ‘Unali Wabwino’ in Kuimba Four is rumored to be a critique on Gift’s choice to be a solo artist.
Only them know the truth behind the song. But both the band and Gift continued to flourish in their careers until the latter’s death in 2008. This was the year the band released their eighth Kuimba album, meaning that they had done six since the death of Matafale. The album was also the beginning of yet another journey for the band: Musamude, their band leader and lead vocalist, had died a year before.
The death of Matafale forced them to grow into men. But the death of Musamude threatened to force them out of music. In 2003 they enjoyed the people’s grace for Matafale, but that was not the same with Musamude. There was nothing like the people’s grace for Musamude. Between 2003 and 2008, the band had suffered criticism of playing similar kind of music and diluted message, unlike that of Matafale. If it was to fall, there was nothing much to lose.
The death of Musamude left Anjiru as both the band leader and the only lead vocalist. The criticism of playing the same kind of music became even real and intense after this. The whole album having the voice of Anjiru made the songs to be monotonous. Unlike Musamude, who had a great ability in varying his voice and leading English songs, Anjiru is an equilibrium singer and has difficulties in leading English songs. This was the new reality.
How did they fare? The Black Missionaries band is one of the most complex groups that have ever graced Malawi music. The criticism that it is doing diluted music has worked to its advantage when most people expected to be the reason for its downfall. Times have changed, and again, Matafale was himself. Expecting the Black Missionaries to have the Matafale message of 2001 in a 2016 world is unrealistic. Even Lucius Banda was forced to abandon his trademark Balaka reggae beat to a diluted sound that was mostly characterized of love songs.
It is true that the reggae being played by the Black Missionaries is nothing close to what Matafale used to, and so is the message. But when one is looking at the band, there is more that has to be thought of apart from this. They were not the only ones who tried to carry on the legacy. Matafale’s own half-brother, Toza Kapito, tried to keep on the name of his relative, but did not make it.
For the Black Missionaries band, in 2016, fifteen years after the death of Matafale, remaining the most sought after performers is an achievement that even Matafale can still be surprised of. If he comes back to life and get to know the death of Musamude, the international tours the band has had and the success of their music, he will be a proud man. They may not be playing to the expectations of many people now, but the amazing part of their story comes when one thinks of the shoes they had to fill, and how they made it possible.
About the writer: Wonderful Mkhutche is a speech writer, a political scientist and a manuscript editor and developer.