Pamtondo and all that jazz…by John Lwanda

Source: Copyright 1998 John Lwanda (extracted from Making Music in Malawi (In preparation). See also WASI, 10, 1: 17 – 18

Music in my head: Pamtondo and all that jazz

The women’s voices,

bittersweet, communal

a reminder of my lost childhood;

if only, if only I could again

sit under the mango tree,

all innocent and carefree,

and the women singing at the mortar… (Lwanda, 1988)

I am inevitably asked: why Pamtondo? In Europe this question is easier to understand, but in Malawi the same inquiry is rather puzzling.

We all know that most of us are introduced to music at our mother’s breast or when she pounds maize pamtondo with us strapped to her back. Remember the single, double, triple and even, masiku akale aja, (in the good old days) quadruple rhythms they made as they were pounding our staple food, maize:

Amuna amenewa ine aah!

Kumunda saoneka ine aah!

Kunchito athawako ine aah!

Zawo basi ndi mowa ine aaiieeaah!

(Some husband this! You won’t find him in the fields or at work, but where the beer is!)

Many of the musicology books refer to pounding under their work category. The musicologist, Hugh Tracey, for example asserted that herd boys:

“are one of Africa’s sources of original song. The life of these youngsters is full of the intimate knowledge of creatures and their ways.The discomforts of nature and the constant search for food or sweet things. A herd boy’s education is second to none at that age and the pleasures are never forgotten.”

This statement I would have thought more readily applies to the deprivations which women, their mothers, experience daily. In most rural African cultures herd boys – particularly before initiation – straddle the interface between kumpanda (female territory largely) and the various male environs. Far from being the originators of song many herd boys are, in my view, in fact transmitters of new songs from kumtondo to the male bwalo or kumango and, to a lesser extent, vice versa

Tracey himself for example recorded women at Chadza village in 1958 singing songs which included one Akweni.

[Akweni ndatopa! x3 Aieee!] x2

Chiyambire cha dzana kuyendera/kusinjira inu!

[[in true improvisational style one wag is heard to interject:

mwatopa ndi chiani inu bodza lokha lokha]]

Pena ena angadimve ine ndikakhale

Chisoni ndatopa! Akweni ndatopa!

Chiyambire chadzana, kusinjira/kuyendera inu!

Eeh mwina mai anga andimve ine ndikakhale! Aieeh!

What is interesting is that echoes of this long established pamtondo song can clearly be heard in the political songs popular in the sixties and seventies, particularly the one with the refrain:

AMalawi mwayamba, kunyadira Kamuzu, firidomu kwacha!

The women were recorded in 1958. It is unlikely that any of the rural women had heard it from the radio which, then, did not play nationalistic songs. Indeed some older women claim the song has been sung for years.

However, to my knowledge, none of the musicologists I have read have pointed out the large debt owed to women at the mortar by popular musicians. The various rhythms made by the women as they pound are important in popular music in East, Southern and Central Africa. I cannot speak for further north.

As I pointed out in the first cassette we put out in the PAMTONDO series (PAM001), a lot of Malawi male popular musicians owe a large debt to these songs composed at the mortar. If you listen to folk musicians, you will often hear them referring to the rhythm section as kumtondo. A good example of this are Robert Gwirani, the banjo player famous for Tsoka liyenda and Maggie (wayan’gana kumbali, kukhala ngati sukumva) and his guitar partner. Some of the most popular and chart topping rhythms – from Les Wanyika, John Chibadura, Orchestra Shika Shika under Moni Mambo through the Bhundu Boys to Nachil Pichen and Orchestra Mangelepa all show traces of the pamtondo beat.

The current ndombolo beat is no exception, just listen to ‘the women pounding away’ in the background in General Defao, Kofi Olomide, our own Sapitwa or Wenge Musica’s work, complete with the beat embroidery employed by women to break the monotony!

My thesis is that wherever maize is a staple food in Africa South of the Sahara, and where pounding of it takes place, the songs and rhythms created by women as they pound have influenced, and have been appropriated by, popular and folk music to a much greater extent than has hitherto been acknowledged.

It is worth pointing out that the pamtondo beat is distinctive from the 4/4 beat typical of South African or ‘drum machine’ music. The pamtondo beat has a ‘to and fro’ quality to it; typical of interaction between two beats.

Many recorded examples of pounding songs are easily available from Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique, Zambia, Zaire, Angola, Zimbwabwe and our own Malawi. (See for example the OCORA or UNESCO traditional music series). And this phenomenon is not confined to the rural areas. In Zambia, the urban based Nachil Pichen backed by Orchestra Super Mazembe recorded Fupa lokakamiza in which the male singer was heard to say:

‘mundikakamizira mwamuna amene salikukhosi kwanga’

dziwani chikwati chotere pamakhala mabvuto patsogolo’

(You force me to marry a man I do not want, be warned

there will be trouble ahead)

And it was Nachil Pichen Kazembe who declared:

‘nkhani zanga ine ndizambiri ndithu x2

simungazikwanitse ndisiyeni chabe x2

ndifuna kudya ndifunanso kubvala

ndifuna kumwa ndifunanso kusamba

zonse izo mungazikwanitse kodi?

vamahala vinatha kale achimwene

umoyo wamakono ndiwakudya ndikulipira

kayeseni mwayi wanu kwina achimwene x2

[Nowadays life is a cash and carry thing,

how are going to satisfy all my needs?]

The same trend can be found in the work of bands like Kasongo, John Chibadura and the Tembo Brothers, Jonah Moyo and Devera Ngwenya (remember Taxi Driver in which Jonah sings as a woman), and the Four Brothers inMukadzi wepiri (the second wife):..!

Makandiona ndichidana naye murume wangu

Zvino mwaunza musawira

(You saw that things were well between me and my husband

then conspired to slip in your cousin [as second wife]