A Democracy of Chameleons: Politics and Culture in the New Malawi

By Harri Englund | Go to book overview

5.
“Mzimu wa Soldier”
Contemporary Popular Music and Politics in Malawi
Reuben Makayiko Chirambo

Introduction

A simple definition of contemporary popular music would be in the terms suggested by Johannes Fabian: “Expressions carried out by the masses in contrast to both modern elitist and traditional ‘tribal’ culture” (1997:18). Traditional music in Malawi is, however, associated with or produced by the masses, and it has been adapted and appropriated by politicians for entertainment and as a vehicle for their political pursuits. It has become an instrument for hegemony in the Gramscian sense. And the effect of hegemony on national culture is that

class division might not appear to be necessarily conflictional. Rather, the élite, through its cultural hegemony, solidifies its rule by establishment of bonds that transcend class. In manufacturing consent, … cultural hegemony eliminates the masses' ability to conceive of the conceptual tools to challenge the structure of the system. Hegemony keeps alternatives from the public's consciousness; revolution, or reaction against the system, is beyond the range of the mass ideology and thus impossible. More simply put, that revolution is not within the masses' range of consciousness keeps revolutionary movements from developing. (Taffet, 1997:92)

For example, when the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) adapted traditional songs and dances for the praise repertoire for Kamuzu Banda (Nurse, 1964),1 it gave the impression of consent instead of control of the masses who produced the songs. The problem is that such music “tends to be conservative, escapist, or merely vacuous; and in this way it works against the real interests of the people, accepting and reinforcing the values that maintain the status quo” (Barber, 1987:6). In contrast to coercion and repression, the political control of national culture as a means of securing power contributes to stable domination and strengthens the élite's hold on power (Taffet, 1997: 92). It is therefore pursued even by democratic regimes. However, popular music may be different to the extent that it may challenge hegemony by providing outlets for expressing discontent against injustice, domination and exploitation.

Since 1992, popular musicians in Malawi have been trying to challenge political domination and exploitation by the élite. Popular bands and individuals are able to take up the cause for the masses by using popular music as a platform for debate and action against the élite's dominant ideology. I use the concept “dominant ideology” to refer to the élite's idea of the state or condition of the nation which, though often merely reflecting the élite's own condition, is thought to subsume that of the masses too. In the case of Malawi, the élite's description of the state of the nation emphasises self-sufficiency in food, economic viability, the right course for democracy, so

____________________
1
Nurse (1964) discusses how traditional songs were transformed into propaganda songs in praise of Kamuzu Banda and the Malawi Congress Party. A similar situation exists now as politicians in all parties in Malawi seek to use traditional songs and dances as part of political activities, particularly during rallies and campaigns.

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