Audio Mixer: David Odlum.
Photographer: Marilena Delli.
The Malawi Mouse Boys' 2012 debut, He Is #1, was the first record in the Chichewa language to be released outside of their home country. Plucked from complete anonymity by acclaimed world music producer Ian Brennan (Tinariwen), the African group's hardscrabble upbringing in one of the world's poorest countries often feels at odds with the joyful music they make. Prior to becoming an international touring act with appearances at WOMAD and two records under their belt, the four friends scratched out a living selling grilled mice on sticks to passersby on the highway outside of their small Malawi village. For enjoyment, they wrote implausibly sunny gospel and folk songs on homemade guitars cobbled together from spare sheet metal, and used rocks and Coke cans as percussion instruments. Their debut was literally recorded by Brennan in the field outside of a clay hut in their tiny village. Four years on, the Mouse Boys have made multiple treks through major Western markets like New York and London, and yet their music remains remarkably rustic and humble. From the sound of their third album, 2016's Forever Is 4 You, their sparse sound still relies largely on found percussion, the abrasive strums of homemade guitars, and most of all, their rich, soulful vocals. Gospel remains at the Mouse Boys' resilient core and tracks like "Yesu Ndinkhulupirira" and the playful "Mau a Mulungu" highlight their unique harmonic blend and uplifting spirit. More so than on their previous albums, a sense of creative exploration presents itself on experimental tracks like "Kuliri Kwambewa" -- a bright exaltation of a cappella animal noises meant to signify "The Crying of the Mouse" -- and Alfred Gavanala's cathartic guttural hacking on "Mabvu," which translates to "The Wasp." The album's most powerful moment occurs near the end as singer Joseph Nekwankwa gradually breaks down into intense weeping at the end of "Umasiye Wanga," a heartrending song of abandonment he wrote about the death of his mother when he was a child. While it's easy for Western listeners to admire an album like this as a sort of genuine world music artifact, the songs and performances are haunting reminders of the deep, difficult origins of so much Third World music. Given how much press is generously bestowed upon Westerners for whom access to powerful recording and promotional tools is practically a birthright, it's a miracle we're fortunate enough to be hearing the Malawi Mouse Boys at all. ~ Timothy Monger