Words by Nigel Williamson
The Malawi Mouse Boys take their name from how they make their living when not playing music – selling mice on sticks as snacks to passing travellers. They’ve never been outside Malawi and their debut album is the first recording in their Chichewa language ever to receive an international release; it was produced by noted rock producer Ian Brennan (who helmed Tinariwen’s last album Tassili). The number one in the album’s title refers to God and several of the songs bear titles such as ‘Jesu’, ‘Kunjoya Mwa Jesu’ (Rejoice In The Lord) and ‘Cuyenda Noi Jesu’ (Going With Jesus). The sound they create is transcendent, pure and full of a moving spiritual simplicity that will melt even the most cynical heart. All eight members sing and their vocals have reference points both in South African township gospel and the field recordings of sacred harp shape-note singing made by the Lomaxes in the southern states of the US in the mid-20th century.
Although the producer took the recordings he made in the group’s village back to the US for mixing, he has made no attempt to add a Western studio gloss to the simple guitar and percussion accompaniment, even when it verges on the crude. To do so, he concluded, would have been culturally dishonest. Indeed, to have adulterated these recordings would have destroyed the heartfelt spirit which provides the album’s charm. Brennan’s production for Tinariwen won them a Grammy award. Wouldn’t it be fabulous if he were to pick up another one with the Malawi Mouse Boys for the year’s best – and most unusual – gospel album?