Meet Malawi's Katawa Singers via the Retrospective 'Ufulu 1991-1997'
The electro-gospel choir, Katawa Singers, are legendary in their native Malawi, and the retrospective Ufulu 1991-1997 helps show why.
5 January 2020
The idea of an unassuming group of musicians with some talent and a novel idea, inadvertently becoming legendary, is a universal one. Yes, record labels and social media companies are clawing back control and market share, continuing to produce market-tested, carefully-curated, ready-made "instant stars". But the notion of those whose fame is inadvertent, almost incidental, remains a poignant one.
In the late 1980s, Auden Nthala and two of his friends formed Katawa Singers as a means to raise money for their Presbyterian church in Mzuzu, a regional capital in the southeast African nation of Malawi. Expanding their number to 15, they organized and played festivals, with the earning going toward a new temple. By the time the temple was funded, Katawa Singers were well on the way to attaining a national audience. It was the beginning of a decades-long career that would find them becoming a Malawian institution with multiple hits and awards to their name.
Though Katawa Singers began as an acapella group, Nthala soon began incorporating electronic instruments as a means to reach a younger audience and mesh with the wider Mzuzu music scene. That was a revolutionary move for a Christian gospel group in Malawi at the time. In 2015, Nthala told the Malawian Times the group's greatest achievement: "We were the first group to play electric musical instruments in church, a move which opened a new chapter in gospel music. We re-defined music revival; we initiated the departure from a conservative way of worship."
Ufulu is labeled as a retrospective covering Katawa Singers' output between 1991 and 1997. In reality, though, nine of the 11 tracks are from the three breakthrough albums they released beginning in 1995. Nthala wrote everything, save for a rendition of "Kum-Ba-Yah" and one other traditional hymn.
Much of the music on Ufulu sounds like what is broadly categorized as Afrobeat. Songs like the title track and "Tadzipereka" feature upbeat, syncopated rhythms and gentle staccato guitar lines that are hallmarks of the style. Of course, though, everything is centered on the voices. Most everything is sung in unison by the entire coed choir. That results in a communal power that is bright, energetic, and life-affirming, even though nearly all the lyrics are in the native dialect. What sounds like budget-level Casio keyboards and drum programs, chattering away reliably, only adds to the charm and charisma.
Ufulu is less engaging, if no less charming, on the songs that veer toward straight synthpop. "Wela Welako", with its synth stabs and poky electro-bass, sounds like a lot of Western pop music did in the early-to-mid 1990s, which means it is now sorely dated.
What is truly sad about this compilation is the quality of the recordings. Though they have been remastered, they were obviously made on rudimental equipment in the first place. The resulting lack of dynamic range is unfortunate, but the effect on the choir itself is almost tragic. The drum machine hisses and chatters at the top of the mix, while the signing is often distorted and clipped, as if it were being played at max volume over a tiny, rattling speaker.
At least to these Western ears, the sound quality makes Ufulu more of a historical document than a listening experience. Which is too bad, because even so, the enthusiasm and faith of Nthala and his choir are perfectly clear.