PictureThe mfumu's house. Can you see the beautiful pergola behind the flag in the center? My tent is to the far left at the edge of the picture.
MAY 18: Joe certainly knows a lot of people in these villages!  As we pass on the footpaths, he greets those he knows.  There is no “Hi!”  “Hi!  Talk to you soon,” here.  One must ask how each person in the group has spent the day, inquire as to family, and ask where one has been and where one is going and why.  There are cell phones, but not many have them, and there simply is no guarantee people who meet on a pathway will see another any time soon.  This fact makes it very important to briefly stop what you are doing and to catch up when the chance comes.  It does make voyages longer and backpacks feel heavier, though.

When we get to Mataka it is clear that this will be quite different from Chigoma.  The mfumu’s house is not near the center of town, though it is closer to the church than was Chigoma’s chief’s house.  The family seems rather shy and tends to keep more or less to itself, though all are friendly.  Everyone tends to be friendly here, it seems.

Around 4 we went to the church and found several things going on.  First, a fairly rowdy group of adolescent girls was gathered near the front entrance step to the church.  One had a very young baby (teenage motherhood is certainly not uncommon here).  Another girl’s boyfriend or husband was inside, squatting at the doorway of the church with a little boy of about two.  The young man was drunk, but I understand him to ask me if I know Chichewa.  I answer that I do, but slowly.  Judging from their junior high glances and general demeanor, I think many of them are saying unkind things about me, assuming I won’t know.  Of course they are right.  Joe is shaking his head.  It’s all a little uncomfortable.

At the side entrance to the church, two things are happening:  first, there is a hard dirt field that serves as a soccer pitch, where a practice is going on.  Right next to the church’s side entrance, a group of about twelve is huddled around a very large amplifier and speaker.  They have told Joe that they are having a meeting.  We soon find out that this was the choir that has been meeting regularly in preparation for tomorrow’s time.  The rowdy girls had been in the choir but quit a while back. Upon learning that there was to be special training, they had returned to re-join the choir to get the special training.  The conference was to decide whether to let the girls back in the group or not.  This being a very delicate matter in any place, let alone a small village where everyone knows everyone, we leave them to their deliberations.  We return to eating our own dinners once again: tonight is potatoes and reconstituted soya (a sort of dried tofu one can buy in markets, packaged in what look like chip bags).  I like it very much, but I don’t think Joe is fond of it at all.    

PictureMataka choir. Mrs. Chunga, choirmaster, is at the front right.
MAY 19: After a breakfast of tea, raw peanuts and biscuits [coconut shortbread cookies], we head to the church for the morning’s service.  Actually, the first bell calling everyone to church rang a little after 8.  The second bell rang at 8:20.  We left the compound at 8:30 and got there ten minutes later.  One last bell rang at ten ‘til nine, and the priest began the service promptly at 9.  How odd the service was scheduled to begin at 8. 

There are probably fourteen of us in the congregation as the service starts, and the choir is there, seated on the front right, again facing the altar.  Men sit on the right side of the congregation, women and children on the left.  Most children leave after about ten minutes to go to Sunday School, held under a nearby tree.

The mfumu walked to church with us.  He has his own special seat, a large high-backed chair such as a priest might have, at the very rear of the church right in the center of the aisle.  Before the service began, the choir was practicing along with a young man who had brought a battery-operated keyboard along with the amp and speaker we had seen yesterday.  The speaker has flashing lights that alternate red and blue when the keyboard is pressed.  The keyboard has a transposition function as well as the usual stock drum licks and midi voices.  He is trying out many different rhythms, timbres, keys and volumes.  Throughout the service, the choir faces the altar, never the congregation, except for the offertory dance when they are not singing.  This dance is done in the aisle facing toward the congregation, then back to their seats.

The priest simply announced that the service would begin, and it did.  The opening piece was not really a processional, more an opening hymn.  Everyone was already in place, after all.  Much of the service was sung or chanted, except for the Old and New Testament readings, including the Gospel; and of course the sermon was spoken.  During long periods of singing, the choir or congregation consistently go sharp.  At some point, the keyboard player simply flips the switch to modulate up a half step and keeps playing.  I am learning that sharping is inherent in the style here.

After the Bible readings, there is a very long announcement period, with three apparent testimonials of blessings bestowed (with frequent pointing to the cross), two announcements regarding a town committee concerned with infant nutrition and care, and then the moment I have dreaded: the request for newcomers to come forward and introduce themselves.  I try my Nyanja, and Joe only has to re-translate a little from my Chichewa.  I feel a lot better now that that is over!  Lily and Joe also have to introduce themselves, and then we sit down.  We are the only newcomers.

By the time announcements are over, the church is packed, with people seated on the floor.  People had been drifting in in small groups all along, but I hadn’t really noticed how full the place was until I had to get up in front of everyone.

The assistant priest delivers the sermon, with active participation from the congregation, some of the sermon being question and answer.  After the sermon, we have the passing of the peace, the prayers of the people (sung), the offering, and all other such items one expects before the communion.  But just before the priest would begin the actual communion narration, someone announces how much was in the offering: 2000 Kwacha!  The congregation applauds.  Lily, Joe and I gave 700 of it.  After this announcement, someone in the choir stands up and begins to question Lily and Joe over the fairness of the festival the previous year and the qualifications of the judges!  It seems this choir won almost every year but last, and choir members want answers.  Lily and Joe stand and calmly answer his and the next person’s questions.  Obviously, this festival is a serious matter in these villages.  The congregation is beginning to get restless and starts to murmur opinions.  Suddenly, the mfumu arises from his chair and tells everyone that just because a choir has won in the past does not guarantee that it will always win, and that the group must practice hard and see what happens!

And with that, the keyboardist starts to play, everyone rises and files out.  Church is over.  Several of the choir members, including the ones with the questions, greet the three of us warmly.  This was probably the strangest conclusion to a church service I have ever seen.  The service was just under three hours in total.

I am now wondering what this afternoon’s rehearsal will bring….


The afternoon’s rehearsal begins more or less on time at 1:30 – really!  The choirmaster from this morning is not here, but another one is: the first female choirmaster I have met: Mrs. Chunga.  We work four songs together, with breathing and posture (in what I can see is going to be a continual topic), some tongue position and mouth shaping, some dance, and some placement of the choir – in staggered rows as opposed to files.

The choir learned the refrain to “Chauta” pretty well, and they requested learning the verses tomorrow.  It was a good rehearsal overall, even though the church was once again packed, this time with children who didn’t get to witness the soccer game outside between Mataka and Likoma, which was cancelled at the last minute when nobody came over on the boat.  I’m hoping tomorrow morning’s rehearsal will be a little less audience-heavy, so we can hear ourselves think!

MAY 20, a.m.:  I am very anxious to get going this morning, but based on our previous experiences the other two are understandably not in a hurry.  I am thinking Mataka is different from the other choirs, based on their serious meeting of two days ago and the fact that they were at the church at eight for the service and that we began on time for our rehearsal together yesterday.  We arrive at 7:50, and sure enough, the choir is waiting for us.  I feel a little embarrassed, but there is nothing to do but move on and start the rehearsal.

This morning we reviewed breathing and tongue position.  We also worked on facial expression and consistency of movement.  By now I have figured out how to charge my iPad on the solar backpack and can now use it to record and show videos.  The larger screen makes it a much better teaching tool than my phone was in Uchesse.  It is going to be a common characteristic among choirs here that they look at me puzzled when I mention expressivity and consistency.  After all, they are really feeling the music and dance!  Then, I show them the evidence.  This clears things up, and we begin again, with renewed energy and expression, not just internally but externally.

As I am learning the style of choral leadership here, it is clear that this group respects Mrs. Chunga.  She has only to start a dance for a piece, and within one step, the choir has joined.  I have seen it take several steps in other villages, sometimes with multiple attempts to begin.  She lays out the pitches clearly for all parts and provides a clear beginning (often done here by snapping the fingers a beat or two before all parts enter) and a clear stopping point.  Nonetheless, when rehearsal is over, she asks me if she is doing well.  It is clear she is something of a pioneer.  I doubt she gets much feedback.  I tell her she is doing very well and that it is obvious the group holds her in high esteem.

Mataka will provide two more soloists for the verses of “Chauta,” and the choir performs the entire piece on its own at their request before I leave. This is something I had hoped might happen:  I really wanted the massed choir piece to be something that might be useful to the individual choirs – within a church service or even for the ensemble’s enjoyment.  In Mataka, at least, that appears to be realized.    


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    A choral conductor walking cheerfully over the world...


    May 2013