On Monday, January 09, 2017, a nostalgic Lucius Banda, through a Facebook post on his account, reminded his fans of the year 1997.
He was twenty seven years old then, released his fourth album, ‘Take Over’, and more importantly, had made one of the major decisions of his life, career and music in Malawi: He formed his own Zembani Music Company after flourishing under the wings of his parent band, Alleluyah.
He recalled one of his masterpieces from the album, ‘Mulandireni’, largely, a Kamuzu Banda tribute but with mentions of other fallen known people like his friend, Paul Chaphuka, the Nobel Laureate Catholic Nun, Mother Teresa, Nigerian Afro-singer, Fela Kuti, Princess Diana of the United Kingdom, and the Zairean dictator, Mobutu Seseseko. The song was befitting the positive legacy of Kamuzu Banda. After three decades in power, Kamuzu Banda left two sides of himself and either of it shows up depending on who you are talking to.
But the biggest news in the post was the announcement that he will be coming up with an album that will remind us of the old Lucius Banda. Since 2003, Lucius Banda successfully attempted a change in the sound of his music. With Balaka reggae, the music that brought him and a host of others into the limelight, losing its steam, he started slowing down his sound and removed the signature keyboard sound.
Such endeavors, and also lack of them, had ended the music careers of several artists who had clung to the Balaka beat. But it was different with him. Songs like ‘Tina’ in 2002, which were unlike him in both message and beat, since Balaka was never known to be into love songs, propelled his career. It was easy for people to easily accept the new him. And that was the Lucius Banda we experienced for the next decade.
Before 2003, Lucius Banda was simply a man who took whatever was in his mind to the studio, released it and let his words do the mission. Although he was into politics, and clearly hard on the former ruling Malawi Congress Party (MCP) and soft with the then ruling United Democratic Front (UDF), he was not the kind of man who delved into party politics. It made him have the authority among people. He was the objective voice.
But in 2004, when he contested and won the seat of Member of Parliament for Balaka North under the UDF ticket, he had taken himself into the risky party politics and effectively divided his fan base. His political career made him lose his objectivity and eventually became a UDF mouthpiece. But he had mastered the ways of Malawi music such that amidst such career risk, he continued making political songs that people loved.
But the beat remained non-Balaka, and for the subsequent albums, he had abandoned using IY studios or his brother, Paul, as music producer. He sometimes could record in South Africa just to make sure that he came out sounding according to his times. Music in Malawi has changed, especially from 2005. Balaka reggae, the once dominant sound was over. What we now call urban music was rising, together with Chileka and Mayaka music, being led by the Black Missionaries band and Joseph Nkasa, respectively.
Balaka reggae had too much depended on Lucius Banda. When he abandoned it, there was no other way it could survive. But it was not deliberate of him. He was simply looking for more ways of making himself relevant in the changing times. That is the legacy he holds in Malawi music; he knows how to maneuver through the times and still maintain his top spot. Urban music is doing well these days, but Lucius Banda is still around topping the charts with the young generation, doing music shows that attract large audiences, being asked for collaborations and releasing anticipated albums.
But he has promised to take us back to the good old days in his 2017 album. Will it be possible? To begin with, never underestimate his intelligent mind. He was the one behind the popularization of the Balaka beat. He knows its ways and where he left it. He can easily go and give it back its lost soul. But it should be stated clear that we do not have a clear understanding of ‘the old Lucius’, as he said.
His music can be divided into two parts, from 1993 to 2003, when he sounded Balaka, and from 2003 to present, when he successfully experimented on the new sound. If he is talking about the old Lucius Banda, it means the pre-2004 one. And one thing to be noted is that if he is planning on this, he will have to work again with the people that used to make it possible for him. Among these can be his brother Paul, Coss Chiwalo, Foster Chimangafisi, Felix Jere and not forgetting the female backing voices of Eliza Kachali-Kaunda.
More to that, Lucius’ message has been changing with the times. From 1993 to 2003, the political climate had a heavy influence on him. Malawi had just become a democracy and his music then was largely on how the society and the leaders were responding to such changes. He analyzed the environment and made sure the debate between multiparty democracy and one party still remained in people. The fact that he had no political party then made his message relevant.
In 2017, while an active member of a political party, he cannot go back to this moment. But he has proved to be a man who knows his society well and can rise up and give people a powerful analysis. Being active for two decades in the music industry, contesting as a member of parliament, winning, being jailed and coming back to win the seat is enough experience on its own.
The announcement has come at the right time. Just as people had gotten used to the Balaka beat then, they have also gotten used to his present beat. Any change to the past will give people a new Lucius Banda, and expect the album to be successful. The fortunate part of his mission is that almost all the people who used to work with him in the Balaka beat days are alive and active.
If his plans are to sound like how it was in 1998, people like Paul Banda, Coss Chiwalo, Foster Chimangafisi, Felix Jere and Eliza Kachali-Kaunda should be ready to get back into the studio and pull a vintage work. People are having high expectations on this project. With what he has proved us in the last two decades, there is no doubt that if he still understands hi past sound well and uses the right people, Malawi will once again witness the old Lucius Banda.
About the writer: Wonderful Mkhutche is a speech writer, a political scientist and a manuscript editor and developer.