The Malawi Mouse Boys is a band of eight members - a group of young villagers who have been playing music together and writing songs since they were children. 'He is #1' is their first album a collection of rootsy and authentic songs of faith and love, reminiscent of the rural, southern sounds of mid-20th century American gospel music. The album is produced by GRAMMY winning producer, Ian Brennan, and is released on IRL on Monday 28th May 2012. Landlocked Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world and when not strumming on their rudimentary guitars made from recycled scrap-metal parts, these young musicians make a living selling the local delicacy - mice on sticks as snacks for passing travellers - hence their name. This is the first time their music has been out of Malawi (in fact the first ever release in the language of Chichewa outside Malawi) and the purity and earnestness of their voices is both enchanting and moving - as if these 14 songs have been discovered in a long lost time-capsule. Ian Brennan, producer of Tinariwen's recent GRAMMY winning album, 'Tassili', and three-time GRAMMY nominated, has worked with Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Kyp Malone & Tunde Adebimpe (TV on the Radio), Flea, Lucinda Williams, Jonathan Richman, Richard Thompson and more. For Brennan the experience of working with The Malawi Mouse Boys was extraordinary: "With vocal-powerhouse, Zondiwe Kachingwe, 22, playing Sam Cooke to 27 year-old Nelson Muligo's stonecold Keith Richards, the only real obstacle to catching lightning-in-a-bottle musically with these eight young men were the tiny spiders that kept crawling into the hard-drive and crashing the mobile system as I recorded on the clay-ground beside their hut." Line-up: Zondiwe Kachingwe (vocals), Alfred Gavana (vocals, guitar), Gerard Haju (drums), Laurence Mpombe (vocals), Austine Banda (guitar), Nelson Muligo (lead guitar, vocals), Jameson Lufeyo (vocals), Patrick Muhondo (bass, vocals).
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.
Find more music at the BBC This link will take you off Amazon in a new window