Arts and Culture

Travelling African musician triumphs in music awards

Percy Zvomuya

The nomination of Erik Paliani for a South African Music Award (Sama) for his debut album, Chitukutuku, is a triumph that goes beyond the music.

The nomination of Erik Paliani for a South African Music Award (Sama) for his debut album, Chitukutuku, is a triumph that goes beyond the music. The album contains a trail through all the countries that have moulded the sound of the Malawian-born guitarist and producer—Malawi, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Zimbabwe, South Africa and Zambia—so in that sense the nomination is a triumph for the region.

“There is one Southern Africa that is emerging, whether we like it or not. This album is a CD about Southern Africa and I would like it to be presented as such,” he said in soft-spoken tones.

Paliani was born in the late 1970s in Malawi, where he lived until he moved to Zimbabwe as a teenager. He later settled in South Africa.

He is a Southerner in a musical sense, a devourer of music from what is called in diplomatic-speak the “global South”. Some think of him as a jazzman, others as a rock musician. His debut album shows these influences but there is more—a potpourri of the sultry sounds of the DRC, the drum beats of Malawi, the groovy accents of Zimbabwe and the jazzy tones of South Africa. He flies at a low altitude over all these territories, almost scraping the top of the towering trees, in a ndege (Shona and Chewa for a plane and the title of track number four), stopping in the DRC, Zambia, Mozambique and several other destinations.

Chitukutuku is a 10-track CD with a spirit that hovers at an unnamed place over Southern and Central Africa. If this album were a person, bureaucrats would probably call him stateless.

In the title track Paliani sets down in soft accents the migrant’s angst at finding himself away from home and familiar people. It is a remake of a hit from 1950s Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) by Wilson Makawa, a Malawian musician who worked on the copper mines.
The song Ndege begins with a mellow guitar and the soft blasts of horns that follow the call-and-response format. It is laid over an expansive bass sound that always threatens to overwhelm the song. Riding over this sound, at times in a hiccupy voice, Paliani wails about his travels.

His rich sound is owed in part to his band: Mauritius-born Denny Lalouette on bass, Cape Town-born David Klassen on drums and vocals, Tlale Makhene (born in Soweto and raised in Swaziland) on vocals and percussion, East London-born Harold Wynkwardt on keyboards and Garrick van der Tuin from Holland is the sound engineer. With such a motley crew backing him, the sound doesn’t carry the passport of any country—it is always looking towards other climes and gesturing at other approaches, yet somehow manages to remain the sound of Paliani.

There are times when he shows us his ancestral roots. The drum-based interlude Ma Born-Free is a case in point. The song, based on the template of sacred nyawo dance and ritual, is repetitive and ancient. But most of the songs don’t have this primal feel; he has domesticated the sound, fused it with modern styles. You will find his music oddly familiar. One day his Mauritius-born bassist came up to him after intense otherworldly journeys. “This music, I know it, it’s like home, but I don’t know which home.”

Paliani’s father, a “collector of African music” and a judge, personally knew Dr Nico (Nicolas Kasanda, a Congolese musician and soukous pioneer). It was in the family lounge where the young Paliani first got his musical bearings.

“School was at home,” he says. “My dad approached music from an intellectual point of view. He was my first teacher—he taught me how to read and write music. If he’d grown up in a different era he would have become a musician.”

In the 1990s, after finishing high school in Malawi, his parents dispatched him to Zimbabwe for further studies (his grandmother lived in Harare). While studying he was also an amateur musician.

When we talk about his CD, Paliani says: “The CD represents where I have been.” Take, for instance, the song Dr Nico, a jazzy song he penned in honour of the great guitarist.

It’s not a slavish tribute and, although the Congolese accents of Dr Nico are in the neighbourhood, Paliani avoids the kwasa kwasa feel one would ordinarily expect from such a project.

He has peeled away the Cuban sound and replaced it with something closer to Ernest Ranglin’s reggae jazz accents.

But where Ranglin helps us escape with his party sound, Paliani gives us a party with a conscience.

Attend the 17th annual MTN South African Music Awards on May 20 at the Teatro and on the piazza at Montecasino, and on May 21 t the newly erected Sama Dome and on the piazza. A range of packages are available. Watch the live webcast from 8pm on both days t www.samusicawards.co.za or on SABC1 on May 21


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