A sucker for curious instruments, Simon Broughton catches up with Malawian musician Gasper Nali and his home-made babatoni
Believe it or not, Gasper Nali’s one-string bass is nearly three metres long. He’s just released his second album, Zoona Malawi, which translates as ‘It’s True, Malawi’ which perhaps suggests some incredulity about this extraordinary instrument. Certainly Nali was a striking figure at this year’s WOMAD festival, performing on his unique, home-made babatoni. “I taught myself everything from making it to making music with it,” he says.
There’s a great tradition of home-made instruments in Malawi. Speaking in Chichewa he explains that “musicians often make their instruments because they have the talent and factory-made instruments are quite expensive. Even a Chinese guitar is several months’ salary.” And it’s certainly not possible to buy a babatoni off the shelf.
The instrument Nali was playing at WOMAD is recently made so he can leave it in the UK, because it’s so big it had to come as air cargo – with complex paperwork for tax, export and wood and skin fumigation. But the instrument is an impressive piece of work with a third of an oil drum as sound box, covered on both sides with cow-skin. A long eucalyptus pole painted yellow and black pierces the oil drum and carries the one string which is made out of wire from a car tyre.
Nali plays it with the soundbox on the ground to his right and the ‘fingerboard’ resting on his knee. He hits the string with a stick in his right hand and stops it with a beer bottle as a slide in his left hand. The strings often break. This happens during the WOMAD performance and also on the first track of the album! “The thickness of the wire is perfect, but the friction with the bottle sometimes causes it to bust. I’ve tried thicker wire but it doesn’t sound so good,” he says. So he’s travelling with 79 strings in reserve! They stopped making the old beer bottles, with thicker glass, about five years ago and the new ones crack. But he’s got a few old ones saved at home.
One of Nali’s videos of him playing by Lake Malawi went viral and his first album Abale Ndikuwuzeni (reviewed in #115) had him playing with Chapasi Black (djembé and percussion) and Mattias Stålnacke (guitars and keyboard). But the new album is Nali solo on the beach and its simplicity is perfect. His voice is bold and backed by the buzzy bass of the babatoni. Although he’s marked five playing positions with numbers on the fingerboard, he largely sticks to three notes and accompanies himself with a foot-pedal drum.
A young-looking 38, Nali lives in Nkhata Bay on the western shore of Lake Malawi where he plays every two weeks in the Mayoka Village restaurant. He started in 1997 in a trio with his younger brother and cousin, but tragically they both died in 2002, one from epilepsy and the other from cerebral malaria. But on his own Nali is something unique: the one-man, one-string babatoni man.