Given his tremendous musical output, it is hard to believe the Malawian-American musician Masauko Chipembere just released his first solo album, Masauko. It came out in June 2019. The album is about liberation, love, resilience, activism, giving voice to the powerless, a usable past, and connecting the world of his ancestors, Malawi, with that of his childhood and youth, Los Angeles. But a forthright review wouldn’t do justice to what he has achieved here. To get a full sense of the complex, remarkable world where Masauko’s music comes from, you need to know the man.
This means that you have to start before he was born, with the story of his parents, especially his father, the late Henry Masauko Chipembere, to whom he dedicates the album.
In 1954, 27-year old Henry Masauko Chipembere graduated from South Africa’s Fort Hare University and returned home to colonial Nyasaland. The territory, now known as Malawi, was landlocked between Mozambique and Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). Nyassaland and its people were governed by the British as part of a federation with Southern Rhodesia. The British maintained power via a mix of paternalism, Christian missionaries—who preached obedience to colonialism and liberation in the afterlife—and a local African elite of indirect rulers. While in South Africa, Chipembere had joined the ANC Youth League of Nelson Mandela, which was radicalizing that country’s largest liberation movement. (Even in this, Chipembere stood out: He was one of the first non-South Africans to join the ANC Youth League.) At Fort Hare, his mentor was Z.K. Matthews, a professor and legendary ANC leader. Masauko captures his father’s dilemma:
My father wanted to stay and fight the apartheid he saw growing in South Africa. But Z.K. Matthews told him to go back to Malawi. Matthews felt the federation was simply apartheid heading north. He told my father to take what he was learning in South Africa about protest and struggle and apply it to Nyasaland.
Chipembere was understandably restless when he got home. Soon he immersed himself in the independence struggle for Malawi. Though he quickly developed a reputation as a leader, Chipembere felt himself too inexperienced and too young to be in charge of the independence movement. He and his closest comrade, Kanyama Chiume, were in their early 30s. So, on the advice of Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, they convinced an older Malawian medical doctor, Hastings Kamuzu Banda, to lead the movement, though Banda was living outside of the country. Banda had studied in the United States and Scotland, and had publicly condemned a colonial plan to merely reform British rule in the region. He also had an air of authority which was needed to convince elder Malawians, especially chiefs. “We needed some grey hair,” Chipembere later wrote in his biography, Hero of the Nation. For the next few years, Chipembere shuffled between doing the grunt work of revolution and spending time in prison for his politics. By July 6, 1964, Malawi was independent, partly due to Chipembere’s organizing skill. Banda’s party—the Malawi Congress Party (MCP)—won the independence vote outright. In the new government, Chipembere became Minister of Local Government and Education.
The honeymoon did not last long as Chipembere soon clashed with Banda over the latter’s growing authoritarianism, personality cult and rightwing politics. Far from transforming Malawi, Banda supported Portuguese colonialism in Mozambique and Angola, South African apartheid and retained colonial British officers in key positions in Malawi’s military. Banda’s increasingly corrupt regime also failed to implement necessary social and economic programs to alleviate the poverty and degradation wrought on Malawians by colonial racism. In September 1964, Chipembere left government in support of other cabinet members who were removed unfairly by Banda for attempts to question his totalitarian leadership. Chipembere made a classic speech as he left parliament in which he said:
… history takes long to declare its judgement. The scoundrels of today may be the heroes of tomorrow, the villains of today may be declared saints tomorrow, it may be after their death. So, although today I am condemned, I may be declared a traitor, I know that ultimately, however long it may take, my stand will be justified.
Banda ordered him arrested and he went underground. By the next year, Chipembere was leading an armed rebellion against Banda’s regime. The rebellion failed because Banda was tipped off and had his military and police prepared.
Exile became Chipembere’s only option. After a brief stay in Tanzania where he linked with other liberation movements and leaders, he ended up in Los Angeles, where he was eventually reunited with his wife, Catherine Ajizinga (a political activist in her own right), and their five children, who were smuggled out of Malawi six months after Chipembere fled. In LA, Chipembere became a professor of history at Cal State University-Los Angeles and began his doctoral work at UCLA. But he never lost his sharp political insight. A lecture to students at the University of California-Santa Cruz in 1970 displayed Chipembere’s clarity in tying together critiques of colonialism and third world authoritarianism. Discussing migrant labor in Southern Africa (Banda’s government was acting as a recruitment agency for South African mining companies on terms undermining workers), Chipembere told his audience that, “… supplying South Africa with cheap labor means perpetuating her economic and therefore military superiority which is used to keep the Africans of South Africa down and poses a threat to the rest of Africa.”
In September 1970, Chipembere and Catherine Ajizinga’s seventh and last child was born (and the only one to be born in the US—their 6th child was born in Tanzania). They named him Masauko Glyn Chipembere, after his dad. Sadly, young Masauko would only spend a short time with his father who passed away from complications related to diabetes on September 24th, 1975. This was just two days before Masauko’s 5th birthday.
In Pasadena, the Chipemberes lived down the street from the famed South African musicians, Caiphus Semenya and Letta Mbulu. Like some of their contemporaries—Hugh Masekela, Abdullah Ibrahim, Sathima Benjamin and Miriam Makeba—the Semenyas had left South Africa in exile in the mid-1960s and settled in Los Angeles. Mbulu had completed five albums by 1977 and with her husband had made a name for herself working with Quincy Jones on the soundtrack music for the TV series Roots.
By serendipity, their son Mosese attended Catherine Chipembere’s 24-hour daycare (a first in Los Angeles to provide 24-hour care). When Letta and Caiphus were on tour, their son stayed at the Chipemberes. Masauko often swam in the pool at the Semenya house, and crucially, took in the musical lessons. There he heard songs like “Angelina” (later a cult classic) coming from Caiphus’ studio even before it was released. Caiphus Semenya also bought Masauko his first record player as a child. This is how he got introduced to music, his older brother, Vita, brought home from college: Bob Marley’s Exodus, Steel Pulse’s True Democracy, The Clash’s Sandinista, and UB40’s Signing Off. You can still hear those influences in Masauko’s music, which is a unique mixture of Southern African traditional music with jazz, folk, funk, hip-hop, reggae, and what became known as World Music in the late 1980s.
Whether he planned to or not, in connecting with the Semenyas, Masauko was continuing his father’s regional and pan-African politics, especially linkages between South Africa and Malawi. As Masauko recalls: “In Steve Biko’s I write what I like, he mentions that he was not inspired by events in the United States as many would have suspected, but by events in places like Malawi in the 1960s.” For Masauko, this means essentially that pan-Africanist consciousness was circular in nature: “Matthews inspired my father to go home and fight. Later, Biko was inspired by the successful resistance he had witnessed in Malawi as a youth. I believe one of our huge problems in the region is the failure to see how all of these struggles have always been connected.”
If young Masauko was picking up politics from his mother and the Semenyas, he was also being shaped by Los Angeles. The late 1980s and early 1990s was a particularly violent and oppressive period in the city for black people, culminating in the LA Riots of 1992, when the city’s black population orchestrated an uprising against the brutal LAPD after the Rodney King beating. During this time, Masauko also received his musical education in an LA scene that included Ben Harper, Leon Mobley, Primus, Jellyfish, and Freestyle Fellowship, among others. Like most LA artists, Masauko started by playing a mixture of rock, funk, ska, reggae, and hip hop. Bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Fishbone and Jane’s Addiction were the standard; collectively they didn’t sound like anyone else. Especially Fishbone. Masauko had met their keyboardist Chris Dowd at age 14. “He literally gave me a list of music to go study: Sly Stone, Don Drummond, U-Roy, Funkadelic, The Meters, The Skatalites. He told me straight up that if I wanted to make my mark in music I couldn’t be a copycat. I needed to go to the roots of the music and create my own sound. Best advice ever given to me by an elder musician.”
In the early 90s Masauko’s band Skin brought down the house at the Whiskey A Go-Go, a famed rock venue on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, scouted by record executives. Masauko was rewarded with a record deal by RCA Records through Bruce Flohr, who also signed Dave Matthews at that time. A few songs were recorded but never released because RCA changed presidents and recruited a new batch of artists.
If Masauko’s world was changing fast, so were politics back in Malawi. In 1994, the by now 96-year old Kamuzu Banda had finally stepped down as Malawi’s President after thirty years in power. A mixture of factors—the end of the Cold War, old age, a restive population and regional contagion—had caught up with him. The winds of change were blowing all over Southern Africa. Even South Africa was politically free. Catherine Chipembere announced her return home from exile after 30 years in Los Angeles; to help put an end to the Kamuza era. Leaving behind her seven adult children, she was invited to run for political office upon her return. Her inclusion in the UDF government was a sign to many Malawians that the reforms were irreversible. The Chipembere name brought credibility to the party opposing Banda. She was elected to the country’s Parliament and served as Deputy Minister of Education. None of her children were, however, especially keen about going to visit her in Malawi. Except her youngest, Masauko. In 1996, he traveled to Malawi, “That’s when Malawi and the whole Chipembere story became real to me, more especially the thought of my mother taking a flight to Malawi to fight someone who was an enemy of pan-Africanism.”
In Malawi, Masauko stayed for a year, getting to know his mother’s world. She was now a Minister, traveling widely in the region and speaking Chichewa, a language he did not speak. His mother blossomed in her return home. It was in the loneliness of living in his mother’s house, away from his life in the US, that he began playing music with local artists and studying traditional Malawian music. He had a grand idea to develop the local music industry and start a band there, but felt he’d be better off decamping to South Africa, following stops in Mozambique and Zimbabwe, hoping to re-connect with the Semenyas, who had returned to South Africa post-apartheid. And this is how he became a pop star in Africa.
In February 1997, at Jahnito’s, a small jazz café in Yeoville, Johannesburg he met songwriter Neo Muyanga, from Soweto, working as a journalist for local station, Radio 702. They started to perform as an acoustic duo called Blk Sonshine. They chose this name for their band as an affirmation and command: “Black son, shine!”
It made sense that Masauko landed in Johannesburg in the late 90s. It was the region’s most capitalist economy with a deeply embedded music industry. South Africa was also a new country. Black creatives were coming into their own. Spaces were opening up for musicians and artists to try new things. In 1998, Blk Sonshine recorded a self-titled album, which quickly charted. One song, “Building,” climbed to number one on the South African jazz charts. The music was what could broadly be described as black folk music. Kwaito, a hybrid of slowed down house music and hip hop dominated in the clubs and on the airwaves, so the album came out of left field. Kwaito was characterized by sparse lyrics and celebration. There was little time for introspection. Blk Sonshine’s music did the opposite. It widened the horizon for what was musically possible in South and Southern Africa. Blk Sonshine took another decade to record a second album, “Good Life.” But by then, Chipembere and Muyanga had moved onto other projects. Muyanga began a series of university fellowships, explored South Africa’s musical histories and made an opera. As for Masauko, who by now was married and a father of two young children, he moved to Brooklyn, New York, where he performed locally and internationally as well as being part of a scene that included Talib Kweli and Mos Def. Now and then the duo performed together at major concerts, like they did for Nelson Mandela at his “46664” charity concert in 2005, in front of thousands of fans and millions watching on television.
Masauko also played regularly with South African musicians based in the US. One of these was Mongezi Ntaka, the original guitarist for reggae artist Lucky Dube (murdered in 2007) and who currently plays with Vusi Mahlasela, another South African musician. Mongezi is a master of the township jazz guitar style made popular in the west by Ray Phiri (another South African with roots in Malawi) on Paul Simon’s Graceland. Mongezi’s mom is Malawian and his father is South African. Masauko and Mongezi met in the early 2000s:
I saw him play and his vibe reminded me of John Blackie Selowane from Masekela’s band. I told him so. He dug that because Selowane had lived in Malawi when Mongezi was young and was actually a big influence on his playing. We hit it off right away. They are both guitarists who come from township music but can play all Southern African styles.
Like his father, Masauko retained a certain rebelliousness and a desire to travel. After an eight year career as sound engineer at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, countless projects in Malawi with his mother’s organization and his own musical ambassadorship, he and his family took the leap to leave the United States as the Obama-era was coming to an end. With a budding black teenage son and a curious pre-teen daughter, Masauko and his wife read the signs that were telling them that life outside of the US was their best option. With the increasingly depressing atmosphere for black people in the United States (police violence, the election of Donald Trump), Masauko moved his family to Costa Rica. (His wife’s family is from there; Natasha Gordon-Chipembere, who he met in South Africa, is an English professor.) He now lives between Costa Rica, Los Angeles, and New York.
Masauko immersed himself in his new surroundings, learning Spanish by playing with local musicians, and eventually forming a band of musicians from all over Latin America, including Roberto Roque from Cuba and Huba Watson, an Afro-Costa Rican rapper. They began building the concept of “Casa Africa” which were African-based cultural and musical “pop-up” events throughout San Jose, which featured a wide arrange of art from the African Diaspora. Masauko also became the DJ of a jazz radio show called Connections, on 95.5, the national jazz station of Costa Rica. At the same time, he continued to travel internationally, to play music, and eventually, at a concert in Salt Island, Vancouver hosted by the tea company Guyaki, he was approached about recording an album under their new record label Come To Life. In July 2017, he was flown to Malawi with Darryl Chonka, his co-producer and engineer at Guyaki, to meet his Malawian band and rehearse. A week later, the band was flown to Cape Town, South Africa to be recorded. His album “Masauko” was made with a stellar cast of young Malawian jazz musicians, including on lead guitarist and background vocals, Ernest Ikwanga; Sam Mkandawire on keyboards (and background vocals); bassist Chambota Chirwa; and drummer Kyle Luciano Phikiso.
It is no surprise that the ensuing years of traveling between the US and Southern Africa profoundly inform Masauko’s music and politics: “Music is about connection for me. As I have traveled back and forth to Africa over the years, I have found every form of music I learned in the States has some roots in Africa. There is even village music that feels like reggae in Malawi.”
The songs on the album reflect Masauko’s hybrid nature. “Ilala”—on which he shouts out his family name and ancestors—has South American and Southern African sounds mixing. “Birds will sing” and “Building” reprise two songs off Blk Sonshine’s 1998 album. The guitar-driven “Watch this woman” sounds like something Harry Belafonte would have done; in the late 1980s it would have been called World Music. “Chilembwe,” is a homage to John Chilembwe, an earlier revolutionary liberation figure in Malawi who had led a bloody, but unsuccessful , insurrection against British rule in the first decade of the 20th century. It has the same reggae inflections of “Ichi Chakoma” and “Selassie and Chipembere.” The latter songs make explicit the politics of the founder of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) and his father. “Old Shackles” and “Come to Life” have the feel of Soul Brothers’ Mbaqanga. The songs are conscious and the lyrics expansive. From the very beginning of Masauko’s musical journey, he says he understood that songwriting was the medium to give voice to people struggling against inequality and to show solidarity.
Half the songs on the album were written with Mongezi. As a child, he lived in both South Africa and Malawi and brought Masauko tons of knowledge about township jazz, Malawian Kwela, and reggae. He now lives in the Washington DC area. “Mongezi has really been a teacher to me as a child of exile. He was the one always pushing Lucky Dube to add the Southern African touches to the reggae and stay away from imitating Peter Tosh’s sound which Lucky loved.”
In the end, what drives Masauko is, as he emailed to me in October 2019:
Music has a role to play in shaping consciousness back home. This is conscious music. I’m not with the rappers who say they are not trying to make conscious music. I’m trying to hit folks where Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Fela, Bob Dylan, Hugh Masekela, Chuck D., Nina Simone and Miriam [Makeba] were hitting them. I’m not interested in being the next big pop sensation. I’m interested in liberation. African governments are still controlled by old men from the Banda era. The old men are still clinging to power though they understand few of the issue at play in modern reality.
The black son shines.