This is the story of how I traveled more than 1500 kilometers on 5 buses for 37 hours (each way) to spend three days in Malawi, a small country to the south of Tanzania that borders a very big lake. Before I left Dar es Salaam, that it was small and southward was about all I knew about the country. But in the course of a week I managed to go from the northern border of Malawi to its southern tip and back again, seeing vast stretches of baobab forests, creased mountains, low and vibrant green tea fields, and the shimmery expanse of Lake Malawi, sometimes smudged by the smoke that drifted from charcoal fires burning in front of thatched-roof mud huts by the shore. If you’re going to make this trip, you’d better hope you get a window seat.
Bus travel over East Africa’s winding, crevassed roads is not for the cautious, queasy, or weak-hearted. But when a renowned broadcaster and accomplished producer agrees to let you tag along while he lays the groundwork for a music digitization project in a neighboring country, how could you say ‘no’?
Sigbørn Nedland of the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK) has been to East Africa on more than 50 separate occasions. “I’ve been bitten by the bug,” he says, and just as much as the continent has left its mark on him, he’s reciprocated, helping to produce numerous CDs of East African musicians, featuring African artists on his world music show “Jungeltelegrafen” (The Jungle Telegraph), establishing one of Tanzania’s first commercial recording studios in the late 1990’s, and more. His most recent project, made possible by funding from the Norwegian Embassy, is to begin the digitization of the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation archives and to release the best of the tracks to help encourage young Malawian musicians to create new music inspired by their own musical heritage.
I heard about Mr. Nedland’s project during the University of Dar es Salaam Ethnomusicology Symposium at the beginning of August. I reached out to him immediately, hoping that we’d be able to share stories and strategies as we worked on our projects. We exchanged a few emails, but when I clamber aboard the hulking green coach bus at the Ubungo bus terminal I have never heard Sigbørn’s voice or even seen a picture of him. But he has agreed to let me tag along and I have decided to rely on the implicit trust that springs up between music-lovers and travelers. I’m glad I did, because when we meet each other for the first time at the hotel in Lilongwe, it feels like greeting an old friend after a long time apart.
Our first day in Lilongwe we visit the Ministry of Information and meet the Director General of the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation. Early the next morning we jump in a shining white embassy car for the four hour trip to Blantyre. Most of the ride is through rural areas, dotted with huts and the occasional Catholic church, which are all beautifully stain-glassed and manage to look at home on the red Malawi clay. Compared to the sleepy capital of Lilongwe with its monolithic government buildings and low, sprawling town, Blantyre seems to be its busting commercial counterpart. But like other African cities I’ve visited, unexpected flora and fauna sometimes appear to remind you of just how far from home you are. A woman carries a live chicken under her arm. Bright purple jacaranda blooms flutter in the wind.
The Malawi Broadcasting Corporation is a large, concrete building with satellites and antennaes jutting from its flat roof. Inside, the long corridors are lit by natural light from open windows. And, just like the Tanzania Broadcasting Corporation in Tanzania, the MBC is home to a large collection of critical cultural content — radio recordings from the early-independence history of the nation all on analog carriers that are quickly becoming obsolete in the digital era. Imagining the musical legacy of a country sitting on reel-to-reel tapes and dusty vinyl is one thing. Actually seeing it, smelling the old paper, touching the edge of an LP record, reading the faded type of a catalogue card– it crowds the room with souls of the past, and the air nearly buzzes with the stories you know they could tell.
John Banda, the librarian, wears a dark blue pressed suit that is too big for him, which makes him seem like a young boy dressed in his father’s suit. He tells me he has been with the station longer than any of his colleagues, a point of pride for Bruno Nanguka at the TBC as well. It’s no wonder these men hold on to their jobs– to guard and keep these fantastic collections is an honor and privilege, not to mention they clearly find it fun. He pulls out a reel from the wooden shelf and reads the description inside: “This one is from 1974. Oh yes, this band is a good one!”
Next we leave the library — these tapes and records are still used for broadcast — and visit the archive room. The reels here are stacked high, some of them lacking boxes, magnetic tape spooling down to the ground. I even stumble over some reels that are scattered on the floor. One of the two rooms of the archive is not even accessible because more shelves are blocking the door. The work will be cut out for Mr. Banda, Mr. Nedland, and the team that will seek out the gems of this collection and give them new shine.
After our tour, we shake hands with the staff members we have met. They say goodbye with the characteristic warmth and gentleness of the Malawians, and it strikes me how well the country has lived up to its nickname: the warm heart of Africa.
On my last day in Malawi, which is only my third, we visit the offices of COSOMA, the Copyright Society of Malawi. They are administering the larger “cultural scheme” funded by the Norwegian Embassy and will play a crucial role in helping to clear the copyright for the songs on the MBC compilation that Mr. Nedland will help to produce. I pay close attention in this meeting, because copyright is by far the thorniest issue surrounding archival access and music release. Digitizing old works only to have them continue to sit locked away because of copyright restrictions is tragic, but oftentimes the sheer impracticality of identifying and tracking down the copyright holders prevents digitized archives from ever seeing the light of day. In the best cases, archives rely on “fair use” clauses that restrict access to credentialed academics who can only use the material for scholarly research. Music once a part of daily life for the entire population becomes a time-capsule for the select few. But by partnering with the copyright society, Mr. Nedland hopes to ensure these songs, once digitized, are heard far and wide, by Malawians and people around the world.
It takes me three days to make it back to Dar es Salaam so by the time I make it home I’ve spent almost twice the time on the road than I have in Malawi. But this long travel gives me time to process the trip, and even more than that, to appreciate it before rushing back headlong into work. At the border between Malawi and Tanzania I leave my wallet in a guesthouse and the receptionist, Gertrude, catches me at the bus stop almost a mile away to return it to me. In Mbeya, a new friend takes me to the train station and we talk about the mythic stories surrounding Africa’s first leaders– men whose self-invention seemed microcosms of their attempts to create nations out of colonies, pride out of an occupied past. The railroad tracks converge as they recede into the distance. In Mikumi National Park, the bus waits as a herd of elephants crosses the road in front of us.
When Benson picks me up at the bus station the sound of Swahili is like a familiar old song I’ve been waiting to hear again. I think of the tapes tucked away at the TBC and MBC, the long hours ahead of us in our quest to preserve the music there, and the incredible feeling we will have when we finally get to push play.