Amayenge scrambles back

Founded in 1978 as the New Crossbones, Amayenge have been a constant force in Zambian music.

They are inarguably the most travelled, having performed all across the globe, including appearances and famous international musical foras like WOMAD in London.

Their music, folksy kalindula, is without doubt the most easily recognisable of all genres of Zambian music.

Until three years ago, the charismatic Chris Chali was the face and creative force of Amayenge but fears that the band would disintergrate with his death remain just that.

His widow, Alice, keeps the band going and it has just recently produced ‘Dailesi’ its first album since Chali, a soccer fanatic who popularised the Zambian football anthem, ‘Chipolopolo’ passed on.

Their stock in trade, Kalindula, is a style of music that originated among the Bemba-speaking people of Zambia’s Luapula province. It is played on banjos, ngoma drums, chisekese (traditional rattles made from reeds), but modern instruments have been fused in to create a music genre that has become popular fare at local concerts and celebratory events.

For Amayenge, Chali created a style partnered after a common central African tradition of expressing the passion of life through song and dance.

The lyrics are fun, insightful and sometimes even considered bizarre.

It is this uniqueness that helped the band hold its own in the 1980s through the ’90s when Zambian music was swamped almost to distinction by foreign influences like Congolese rhumba.

It is an oddity that although the music itself is identified with the northern parts of Zambia, the band has its roots in the southern Province.

Specifically, in Choma.

Their trial at recording music came in 1979 when still known as New Crossbones, the band released its first single “Ukuilondolola” (introducing myself) which led to their first of eight albums “Ichupo Ne N’ganda” (Marriage and a Home) in 1979.

Since then, the group has undergone some personnel changes with a number of members having either passed on or moved on to other things.

The members that Alice found included Rodrick Siolokolomela, Darius Mwela, Dave Mwale, Loveness kumwenda, John Mwanza, Zondo Zimba, and Chewe Mwelwa._Others were Danny Mofya, Marjorie Kafunka (a singer now based in the United States ), Mwangala Mubiana and Irene Lungu.

It was a tough musical field that Amayenge entered with Zam-rock band Paul Ngozi Family at the height of its popularity and the likes of Rikki Illilonga, Keith Mlevu, Masasu Banda, Fire Family, Shalawambe, The Five Revolutions, the perennial Big Gold Six dominating the landscape.

It helped that Amayenge’s music had a distinctively local flavour that appealed to a certain class of the population.

The band stressed this distinction by turning out in traditional gear for its performances.

At the heart of all this, was Chali, an innovative artiste with remarkable song writing skills and the band’s lead singer.

He turned Amayenge into the band of choice for state functions (ever present at State House events) and it represented Zambia at various world music festivals such as the Pan African youth festival in Libya in 1983.

At the time, the band comprised of such names as Davy Mwape (bass), Maliki Mulemi (rhythm guitar) and Peter Banda (drums). At the Libya Festival, the band won first prize and the right to represent the continent at the world Youth Festival in Russia where they were accompanied by South Africa’s Amandla ensemble.

After their Russian tour, the group undertook a country wide tour of Botswana at the invitation of that country’s ruling party.

By then four dancers in the name of songstress Loveness Kumwenda, Bertha Akimbo, Dorothy Kombo and Mercy Lungu had joined the group. Under the guidance of Chali, Amayenge went on to participate at a number of festivals such as WOMAD in London, and other shows in Korea, Libya, Russia and the United States.

Albums during these tours included Phone, Chipolopolo, Mayenge, Matenda and Bangwele among other singles.

Unfortunately the life of Chris a Zambian music giant came to an end soon after the recording of ‘Dailesi’.

His wife Alice who joined the band 17 years ago, was thrust into the role of band leader.

“I joined the Amayenge when I was very young together with Moses Sakala of the Sakala Brothers. A friend told me that that the group needed someone who could sing and dance, and since I was doing both at home I thought I was perfect for the part,” said Alice, now the band’s longest-serving member.

Alice was first enrolled with the Amayenge cultural troupe, which was a nursery for the Amayenge Sounds of Zambia. The Amayenge cultural troupe provided a reservoir for the main band. Those who met the standard were duly promoted to the main Amayenge and Alice did just that.

“It has been a long road and we have faced some trying times including losing my husband but he would have wanted us to move on with our lives and am certain he is proud of what we have achieved so far,” said Alice known best for her gyrations than vocal abilities.

Produced under Mondo Music Corporation, ‘Dailesi’ was recorded before Chali’s death, but that it came out at all is testimony to the band’s determination to carry on.

Their current project ‘Mangoma Kulila’, tested the band’s ability to survive without Chali’s skills.

From the reaction so far, it would seem that it passed the test.

The release of the album was followed by a promotional tour of Zambia.

The band has also kept up with its international schedule, performing in Zimbabwe during the Redrose Promotions at Aquatic Complex where it shared the stage with Alick Machesu.

Other concerts were held in at Blantyre and Gaborone Chez Ntemba international concerts.

To cap it all, Alice went on to win the best female performer at last year’s Ngoma Awards, the country’s version of America’s Grammy awards.

October 2006
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