Monday, January 19, 2009

Engaging, Creative Oldies

Tsiku lina mwana wina akusewera
Ndi anzake adawauza, ine makolo anga nditawafunsa za sukulu
Akuti ukayambabe chaka cha mawa
Tsiku lina mwana wina akusewera
Ndi anzake adawauza ati ine mayi anga ndikawauza za sukulu
Akuti ukayambabe chaka chammawa

Chakudya amandipatsira pa ndekha
Chakudya amandipatsira ine pa ndekha
Kuwafunsa akuti palibe chifukwa
Nanga ndi chifukwa chiyani
Amandisiyanitsa ine ndi anzanga?

Anzake anamuuza si mayi ako
Mayi ako anamwalira
Pompo anayamba kulira
Anakauza atate ake
Mukanditule kwa mayi anga
Ndikakhale nawo.

It is a powerful song, beautiful and creative, too.

The four minute, 54 second song is titled Mwana wa Masiye. But throughout the three stanzas, Robert Fumulani does not mention the term mwana wa masiye (orphan). Yet even if one were listening to the song without knowing its title, they would still conclude that the persona is an orphan, lamenting lack of motherly care.

This kind of composition is creative and scarce. It makes music a journey of thoughts, at mental and physical levels. Fumulani sings through a child playing with friends who go to school and, most likely, ask him to join them at the nearest primary school as it is the beginning of a school year.

One day the child, not named in the song, reports back to friends that on asking parents about school, they say ‘wait until next year’. Fumulani does not say what the child’s friends say in response to the parents’ answer. But the child goes on to say he or she eats alone. When he or she asks the parents why this is so, they down play the discrimination.

Yet a question lingers on in the child’s mind: Why am I separated from my siblings?

It is a question whose answers the child can search and not find any time soon. The question raises a number of issues, too. One, that eating is a social event; people eat while talking and food earns its real meaning of sustaining life from dialogue and friendship.

Two, that food is one area that separates care given to different people. It happens all over, even at church and mosques where pastors and sheiks eat the best while ordinary members, whose contributions buy the best food, eat the least quality of food.

This is also a lesson that children, even the youngest, notice what goes on in families, hence they discuss the treatment experienced by one of their playmates. These are children under the age of 10 who have to go to school in Standard One.

One day, the persona gets an answer to his questions. Some of the playmates say something about the woman: She is not your mother, they say. Your mother died. There, the child cries and goes its father and asks to be guided to the mother to stay with her. This is where the song ends.

"It is a powerful song," says Pierson Ntata, a sociologist at Chancellor College in Zomba.

The song, he says, is probing the question of motherly love: Is it the biological mother only who can care for a child the way they should be treated? This is where Fumulani manages to set the agenda, which is what music is supposed to achieve.

Some songs are predictable. Listeners are told the whole story, even the conclusion. Such songs are closed and there is no room for deep thought. Fumulani and Alan Namoko and some musicians of their time, avoided such compositions. They treated music as poetry, not prose. Namoko, for example, has a song on orphans.

Ana amasiyewo,
Ana osiyidwa,
Opanda mayi awo,
Kodi kwalera kwake amatero?

Namoko does not say how they are being raised or not being raised but listeners are left to suggest that the child is in trouble following the death of a mother. "This is one strength of these musicians," says Ntata.

Asamaleni ana amasiye,
Musatemere mmanja ana amasiye.

This is almost the whole song. Namoko does not say much. He simply gives an example on food and asks a question: Is this the way to raise orphans? Namoko is not judgmental; he does not prescribe how children without parents should be treated. That is for listeners’ thought.

Both Fumulani and Namoko understand orphanhood as death of a mother, that even where a father is available, such children are orphans. This is a question of the value of a mother in the musicians’ societies.

Back to Robert Fumulani’s song. The child asks to be taken to its mother for it wants to stay with her. The child does not understand death, that the mother is no more. It is too small to understand death, the end of life which starts at birth. The child does not know really where the mother is gone to, that she is rotten in some grave within the area or far away and that the father married another woman.

This is where the song ends, with a request—to be taken to the mother, wherever. Fumulani does not tell his listeners the answer; the child is not told ‘no’, he is not told ‘yes’. Listeners sympathise with the lad but do not know what happens next.

Fumulani’s orphan does not know where the dead go: that at death they become cargo without value in terms of customs and immigration; that in real sense it is the vacuum they leave that becomes valueless in the lives of the young left alone without motherly love.

Fumulani’s orphan lacks parents who can bond with him; instead, the child finds bonding at the play ground. Fumulani’s persona is one who asks to be taken to its mother because the child is confused; it does not understand fate; it is asking itself ‘why me?’ as if there is someone it wanted it to be. The child does not see any better place than where the mother is gone.

A careful reading of the song reveals brilliant composition. The child asks to be taken to its mother—perhaps beyond the hills, across the river, or behind the forests—which is an impossibility. But this is a climax of a desire and Fumulani does not tamper with it. He leaves it as such; he leaves room for deep thought.

Anzake anamuuza si mayi ako
Mayi ako anamwalira
Pompo anayamba kulira
Anakauza atate ake
Mukanditule kwa mayi anga
Ndikakhale nawo.

The final image of the song is not an action but a request from the child to be guided to the mother. The child, practically, is waiting for an answer. The father is speechless. The listener is in deep thought—and there is a sense of a good future, room for the father to influence the stepmother to reconsider the child’s position in the family.

The conclusion is ambivalent, and holds out a bit of hope, just some hope, however faint. Little wonder such skills at composition are needed in the modern Malawi characterised by hopelessness resulting from puzzling challenges like poverty, violence and HIV.

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