Every cloud has a silver lining and despite of the wash out at this year's rain hit Africa Oye festival, Melstar caught up with the deep rooted Kenny Gilmore. Full of passion he came to the festival to promote the film, "Deep Roots Malawi". Made in partnership with Promote Africa, its the only project so far to showcase the rich, yet often overlooked, musical traditions of Malawi.
When you first talk to Kenny Gilmore, it's like opening a treasure chest that has been kept a secret for a long time. He has so many stories and such a colourful history that each spoken paragraph is like a sparkling stone. His eyes light up and twinkle too. I wanted to know everything at once. I felt a childlike inquisitiveness and I wanted to sift my fingers through every nugget of information as if that treasure chest were real. Kenny Gilmore is a musician from Malawi.
Photo Credit : Deep Roots Malawi - The Sangala Band
He had a number one chart hit in Malawi with his group: the Sangalala band, with whom he toured the country and the world and also played at the Presidential Palace. He's also a professional blues harmonica player after just travelling to New Orleans and living and studying the blues for four years. He has a deep passion for his country and its musical heritage of his country, so much so he is continually frustrated with the rest of the world's lack of exposure to Malawian music. As a consequence, he embarked on the journey of producing a documentary entitled "Deep Roots Malawi" which promotes some great artists and tells the story of Malawian music. With a title befitting a reggae dubplate, I was keen to know its origins, Kenny explains, “They say, if a tree is to grow so tall it must have deep roots. We need to build those deep roots and that's an essential message of the film.”
Photo Credit : Deep Roots Malawi - Charles Mkanthamba
Kenny sees himself as a musical storyteller and his passion and subject knowledge make him a worthy and charismatic presenter. “As a musician I've played in many countries and I find that when you play in Malawi from the very first song, people just dance and compared to elsewhere, that's quite rare. From the start of the song in Malawi, everyone just goes. They understand that music is a celebration of life. I'm lucky enough to have been brought up there.” “I love the sounds of the Malawian music which are linked with really traditional and social values of the country. About half of them revolve around dances. Those dances have a particular rhythm and musicians write songs around those rhythms. One of my favourites has got to be the ngoma which is from a tribal village in Malawi and that particular rhythm is a really strong marching rhythm...
Photo Credit : Deep Roots Malawi - Ngoma Dancers
The thing about this documentary is that I've really worked hard to try and delve into the story of the instruments and the way that music fits into society in Malawi. And I keep asking the question - What will happen now? For modern music in Malawi, will it take these influences and use them to push Malawi to a new level?” I delved further and asked Kenny to tell us more about Malawian music. “ Malawian musicians have really started to dig into their cultural heritage. It starts with the rhythm. You take a rhythm that is unique to Malawi. You take it from a cultural source.. like a wedding and you put music to it and you've got to study it. It's raw, it's hard to manage and if you're an urban trained musician. I think urban drummers are blessed by rhythms coming from rural Malawi. The rhythms from Malawi are really strong, you know, you hear the rhythm and you've just got to move! You disconnect the brain and the body starts moving on it's own. Malawian rhythms are like that, they're really compelling. And they've not been used before in urban music, of course it's been going on in the villages for a long time. It's started to happen. It's lead all kinds of new things going on. There's Hip Hop artists, one called for example is Tay Grin who has started to play Hip Hop and overlay it on traditional Malawian rhythms. It's exciting, musicians are starting to say o.k let's take our own traditional sounds and put them to our music and see what happens. So we're at that initial stage and it's so popular both inside and outside the country, and it's going to be big.”
Photo Credit : Deep Roots Malawi - Gaspar Nali and his amazing guitar
Aside from a committed interest in putting the spotlight on Malawian music, there was also another important reason that Kenny felt he needed to produce this documentary. “If you go to the U.S you can go to the Smithsonian Museum and you can find a recording of Robert Johnson of the Blues. If you're interested in the roots of blues and American music there's somewhere to go. If you're interested in the roots of Malawian music there's nowhere to go. There needs to be and I think this is the start: to have a film about it, to raise people’s attention. The top selling Malawian musician in the country, Lucius "Soldier" Banda said, "we need to give it a name, we need to give Malawian music a name. That's all we need to do and then people will connect to it and say this is Malawian, this is unique. And I reckon it's gonna happen soon.”
If people think of Malawi they should think of music, it's a very musical place.”
Kenny goes back to tell me how the film came about. He's keen to pay homage to everyone who enabled the documentary to happen. The story of how both Benjamin Cobb: creator of promoteafrica.org and Doctor Waliko Makhala: world leading Malawian musicologist got involved was endearing. “I would say it's been a really rewarding thing to do. Making a documentary: it's been an adventure. We were donating our time and our money, camping out in the middle of nowhere, not sure what we were gonna eat, not sure where we're gonna sleep. We slept in the vehicle a lot of the time but we were determined to do it and we were gonna get it done and I'm really pleased with what we've got. My biggest hope is that it will lead to an interest in the musical heritage of Malawi and within the country where people don't know about the roots because of lack of resources and also outside of Malawi, people will start to link Malawi with music. I think that Malawi deserves to have a bit of music attached to it. If people think of Malawi they should think of music, it's a very musical place.”
I asked Kenny about what message he'd like to leave to everyone watching and listening. “There's a lot of musicians and artists in Malawi who are dying to share their art with you and they're just looking for a new audience. And I really encourage you to get in there and find out and when you find out about somebody in the film, go to their web page. Learn about them, listen to their music, get involved. If you can help spread that voice, please do.”
Kenny is now currently based in El Salvador and that's another story about the musical storyteller for later!
Interview by Melanie Horstead @ Africa Oye 2012
Watch it in full here Deep Roots Malawi released on Malawi Independence Day, July 6th 2012 .