Jane Cornwell meets the troupe who sell barbecued mice on the streets of Malawi and make beautiful music on the side
There were all the usual epicurean delights on sale at WOMAD Charlton Park this year. But no one, as far as one could tell, was selling barbecued mice kebabs. Indeed, the only likely candidates – an eight-member troupe called the Malawi Mouse Boys – were too busy blowing everyone away with their distinctive three-part harmonies, frills-free guitar and percussion accompaniment. “It was the first time they had been outside Malawi,” says esteemed record producer, Ian Brennan (Tinariwen, Lucinda Williams). “Prior to the visit they’d never performed on a stage of any kind, or with any amplification.”
Back in Malawi, on a dusty rural freeway, the band’s members famously earn a living by selling mice-on-sticks to hungry travellers. One such musician, Alfred Gavana, was taking a guitar-break when he was spotted by Brennan, who happened to be driving by.
Musical history is littered with stories of right-place, right-time moments. This one is another. Impressed by Gavana’s high, pure gospel voice, Brennan asked if he could do some recording. When he did, Gavana was there with a band that included lead singer Zondiwe Kachingwe and (unofficially) assorted dogs, chickens and children.
Malawi Mouse Boys performing in a field at WOMAD 2013
The resulting debut album, He is #1, is the first recording ever to receive an international release in the Chichewa language. It has also been hailed as one of 2012’s most uplifting and joyous releases. With songs that recall early ska and dancehall, and vocals not unlike those of South African township gospel, the Mouse Boys praise God (the ‘#1’ of the title) in ways authentic, charming and, well, God-given.
They delivered three sets at WOMAD, their original songs embellished by whistled refrains, ukulele-like guitars, Coke-can thwacking and the clapping and cheering of a crowd giving love to an act on its way to international stardom. “To see them transform into full-blown showmen over the course of just three shows in less than 36 hours was one of the most arresting and beautiful acts of growth I’ve ever personally witnessed,” says Brennan.
“He is #1 was the best-selling CD of the entire WOMAD festival,” he adds. “They had to turn people away once the stock ran out. The band said the whole WOMAD experience was life-changing, and a miracle.”
The Malawi Mouse Boys will tour the US and Europe and release a follow-up to He is #1 next year. In the meantime, they will be selling their mice-on-sticks – chicken-flavoured, apparently.
He is #1 was a Top of the World in #85 (July 2012) and their follow-up album is due for release next year