I have said before that my time at UCLA was like a giant musical all-u-can-eat buffet. And just when I thought I couldn’t possibly pack one more ensemble into my schedule, they sprung the “year of African music” on me, and brought Donald Kachamba to teach for a quarter. Donald was from Malawi, an African country that lots of people haven’t even heard of before. He was famous for the style of music he and his brothers played, “kwela” music, which involved guitars, tin whistles, a one-string bass, shakers, and singing. But the fun part about this style of music, right away, is that nothing was taken at face value. The guitar was modified to have only five strings instead of six (who needs that pesky A string anyway?), the tin whistles were played with the mouthpiece shoved deep inside the player’s cheek (and the player was required to tilt his head to one side), the bass was a wooden crate, about knee-height, and was played like the washtub bass you find in American jug bands. Donald told us that before they could afford the luxury of wooden crates for their one-string basses, the folks in his village used to just dig holes (resonating chambers) around the place and throw a wooden top over them and play over the hole. Apparently the chief put a stop to this when it got to be that there were large holes causing a hazard all over the village.
I find it difficult to describe Donald, and I guess that’s because as soon as we all started really getting to know him, it was time for him to fly back to Malawi. In that one quarter, we rehearsed as much as we could, put on a great concert, and recorded a cd. And there were times in our rehearsals when it seemed we weren’t even going to be able to perform one song, let alone a whole program. The melodies were simple, the rhythms were simple, the instrumentation I’ve already described above… simply enough… But get a bunch of students in breakneck fast-paced cram-it-all-in Los Angeles to focus their attention on music stripped down to its simplest beauty? That’s quite a task. Donald did it, though. He worked with us with such gentle patience… And when we finally started to get into the music, I think that’s when we could start to see how the music, the love, the kindness, the simplicity, the enlightenment, all just seemed to seep out of Donald’s pores.
Knowing Donald helped me understand music in a new way, and even showed me a completely different way of approaching life. Again, hard to describe, and hard to put into words… But I’ll share the music instead, and hope that some of it comes across.
This is from the cd we recorded with Donald, which was recently released by the UCLA Ethnomusicology Department. I’m either playing shaker or babatoni (one-string tea-crate bass) on this track. It reminds me of how we never really knew when to come in with the singing, or how many times to sing the line. Donald had some zen way of knowing, and it was really just up to us to get there with him.
“If you make a mistake, be careful. Jesus is coming.”
“Olakwa Samalani Yesu Akumbwela.”