Friday, February 13, 2009

Dan the sax maestro


After watching the Malawi Army brass band during parades in Lilongwe, little boys used to go back home and form their own ‘bands’. It is easy to imagine the little boys, with drums made from tins, ‘police caps’ from cartons and empty Chibuku packets making up for boots, walking about the streets of their township and doing renditions of such popular songs as Ku Chichiri Sindidzapita.
No one could imagine that one of those little boys, playing songs just for the fun of it, was making the first steps in a long journey to music. No one could ever imagine that the little boy who was so much given to playing a ‘trumpet’ made from a pawpaw stalk would grow into one of the greatest saxophone players to come out of the Malawi soil.
Dan Sibale looks back at those early years with a tinge of nostalgia on his forehead: "We used to have fun watching the Army band and we formed our own band and mimicked the music they played. I played no other instruments than the trumpet made from a pawpaw stalk."
From that child play, Dan evolved into a choir singer who used to enjoy watching American gospel kingpin Ron Kenoly’s saxophone antics. That admiration grew more when a friend who was based in America brought him a saxophone.
"I joined a choir in 1989. I started playing keyboards in 1991. All this time, I enjoyed watching Kenoly play the sax and I used to think that one day I will play that instrument. In 1998 I started playing the flute and in 2001 a friend who was in the USA sent me a sax. I took it to (music tutor Wyndham) Chechamba who taught me bits and pieces of the instruments. I didn’t have much trouble since I already knew how to read music," says Dan, who got a Grade 3 Royal Schools of Music Certificate in Piano in 1998.
Today, the 33-year-old is in an excellent class of his own, having mastered an instrument not many Malawian musicians can play: the saxophone. Apart from Sidney Banda who plays the sax in America little is known of other Malawians who play the instrument. You can’t expect less from a musician who spends seven hours every day blowing to master his art even to higher heights.
I first saw Dan play the sax with Manyasa, the tightly-knitted band that used to back Wambali Mkandawire. It was one biting cold June night in 2002 at the French Cultural Centre but we were warmed up by the music. Coincidentally, that also happens to be Dan’s most exciting show.
"It was a great show for me. It was the first time Wambali was performing in Malawi backed by an all-Malawian outfit. I take music as communication. You can’t hear the language in the lyrics but why do you think people tap their feet and nod their heads when good music plays?" wonders Dan, an avid fan of Kaya Mahlangu, a sax player who performs with the South African jazz maestro Hugh Masekela.
His presence at Manyasa was not by chance. He was referred there by one of the great producers to happen to Malawi: the late Chuma Soko. In 2001, after practicing how to play the sax for three months, Dan first performed with the LAC, an outfit formed by the Soko brothers Lameck, Amos and Chuma. The following year, Chuma introduced Dan to Wambali, the musician he believes taught him to be organised in music and work hard at whatever you are doing.
Of late, Dan’s place on the Malawi music scene has been felt by those who follow the musical exploits of Lucius Banda. Dan has brought a new lease of life to Lucius’ music. With Dan’s sax, the music is taking a more Afro-centric turn, the kind of music that goes across the Malawi borders. That, for Dan is the direction Malawi music must take.
"Malawi music is not there yet. Malawian musicians must know why they exist. We have to grow in everything we do. We must learn to fuse our local music from the villages and other foreign genres so that our music crosses our borders. We should not be satisfied with satisfying the Malawian audience only. Music is universal and we must not confine ourselves to the motherland," affirms Dan, who has also performed in Zimbabwe, South Africa and the United Kingdom.
For him, the worst that can happen to Malawian music is to be where it is at the moment in the next five years. "We should not be stuck. Musicians should take every opportunity to learn new things. They must have an open mind. They must learn and rehearse because the world out there is looking for nothing less than excellence," says Dan, a second born in a family of seven.
He admires the music exploits of Eric Paliani, the Malawian who has produced for South African great stars like Masekela and Zamajobe and features as a guitarist in the South African movie Catch a Fire. He also respects youthful musician Tiwonge Hango and Lucius.
Being where he is, one would think it is time to relax and enjoy the fruits of his sweat, somehow. But not for Dan, this is just the beginning. He plans to release his debut album, Phunziro, this year.
"I am working on my first album. I formed the Malingaka House, an outfit that will back me in the album on a Malingaka/Mega Studio label," Dan affirms, looking over my shoulder, as he caresses his lush beard.
His eyes, for sure, are transfixed on the horizon I can’t see; the same distant horizon he fixed his eyes on when he was playing with other kids in the Lilongwe neighbourhood. If he evolved from a pawpaw trumpeter to a great sax maestro, it is hard to imagine where he will be next, before he reaches that horizon.

1 comment:

acacia said...

yeah this guy is really amazing i recommend you hear him