Music

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.

Ufulu: 1991-1997
Katawa Singers

1000HZ

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.

Related Articles Around the Web
5
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Books

How the Template for Modern Combat Journalism Developed

The superbly researched Journalism and the Russo-Japanese War tells readers how Japan pioneered modern techniques of propaganda and censorship in the Russo-Japanese War.

Film

From Horrifying Comedy to Darkly Funny Horror: Bob Clark Films

What if I told you that the director of one of the most heartwarming and beloved Christmas movies of all time is the same director as probably the most terrifying and disturbing yuletide horror films of all time?

Music

The 50 Best Songs of 2007

Journey back 13 years to a stellar year for Rihanna, M.I.A., Arcade Fire, and Kanye West. From hip-hop to indie rock and everywhere in between, PopMatters picks the best 50 songs of 2007.

Music

'Modern' Is the Pinnacle of Post-Comeback Buzzcocks' Records

Presented as part of the new Buzzcocks' box-set, Sell You Everything, Modern showed a band that wasn't interested in just repeating itself or playing to nostalgia.

Music

​Nearly 50 and Nearly Unplugged: 'ChangesNowBowie' Is a Glimpse Into a Brilliant Mind

Nine tracks, recorded by the BBC in 1996 show David Bowie in a relaxed and playful mood. ChangesNowBowie is a glimpse into a brilliant mind.

Music

Reaching for the Sky: An Interview with Singer-Songwriter Bruce Sudano

How did Bruce Sudano become a superhero? PopMatters has the answer as Sudano celebrates the release of Spirals and reflects on his career from Brooklyn Dreams to Broadway.

Music

Inventions Conjure Mystery and Hope with the Intensely Creative 'Continuous Portrait'

Instrumental duo Matthew Robert Cooper (Eluvium) and Mark T. Smith (Explosions in the Sky) release their first album in five years as Inventions. Continuous Portrait is both sonically thrilling and oddly soothing.

Music

Esperanza Spalding and Fred Hersch Are 'Live at the Village Vanguard' to Raise Money for Musicians

Esperanza Spalding and Fred Hersch release a live recording from a 2018 show to raise money for a good cause: other jazz musicians.

Music

Lady Gaga's 'Chromatica' Hides Its True Intentions Behind Dancefloor Exuberance

Lady Gaga's Chromatica is the most lively and consistent record she's made since Born This Way, embracing everything great about her dance-pop early days and giving it a fresh twist.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Street Art As Sprayed Solidarity: Global Corona Graffiti

COVID-19-related street art functions as a vehicle for political critique and social engagement. It offers a form of global solidarity in a time of crisis.

Music

Gretchen Peters Honors Mickey Newbury With "The Sailor" and New Album (premiere + interview)

Gretchen Peters' latest album, The Night You Wrote That Song: The Songs of Mickey Newbury, celebrates one of American songwriting's most underappreciated artists. Hear Peters' new single "The Sailor" as she talks about her latest project.

Music

Okkyung Lee Goes From Classical to Noise on the Stellar 'Yeo-Neun'

Cellist Okkyung Lee walks a fine line between classical and noise on the splendid, minimalist excursion Yeo-Neun.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.