Malawi’s Muslim artists experiment with new sound

In Malawi, Muslim artists  are abandoning traditional rhythms and are turning to modern genres like R&B and hip-hop.

The change of tune has helped the Islamic musicians attract larger audiences.

However, some Muslim groups have banned some of the songs for what they say un-Islamic.

Among the artists who have taken the country’s Islamic song industry by storm are Ishmael Katawala, Ahmed Pilo and Ishmael Mtenje.

Mtenje’s popularity is owed to his hit R&B tune ‘Ka Hijab’ – which is sung in the local language, Chichewa.   The song depicts a young man who wants a wife who will always wear the Islamic headscarf, the Hijab.

The singer fuses rap with his lyrics, describing the beauty of his dream girl. Malawi’s only Islamic radio station banned the song after it was played for a few days.  It also excludes musical instruments such as guitars, piano, keyboards and drums.

Sheikh Zaid Abdul-Rasheed Bunaya is the head of the Dawa and Compliance department at Radio Islam.

Malawian musician Ahmed Pilo

He is responsible for assessing programs, announcements and songs before they go on air.

“We only allow songs [that are in line with the teachings of Islam], said Bunaya.  “First, the content of a song should be in line with the teachings of Islam, secondly, we look at the tune or tone that portrays picture of Islam.  A musician cannot take for example reggae, or pop music and change other words and mention Islam or Allah.  That is something totally not allowed.”

Radio Islam is still banning Mtenje’s single.  The move attracted frustrationfrom Muslim youths who have aired their concerns on the social networking site Facebook.

Some of them said the ban was unfortunate. But the radio station maintained that the artist should remove the section that includes rap if his song is to be given airplay.

Mtenje has not changed the tune. It continues to enjoy airplay on other radio stations like the privately owned Joy Radio and public broadcaster, Malawi Broadcasting Corporation.

He says he will consider Radio Islam’s for his new tracks.  He says it will be a challenge for him, because he is better at rapping than singing.

“The problem is that I really don’t know how to sing,” he said.  “I only know how to speak out you know as in poetry using some rhymes, I don’t have that melodious voice that I could go sing. So I will try as much as possible to make it not that violent.”

The ban has made artists like Ahmed Pilo produce two versions of his popular hit ‘I am a Muslim’ in which he had featured another upcoming Muslim artist Ishmael Katawala.

Pilo sayshe wants to reach out to the widest audience possible regardless of their religious affiliation.

“My target at first was Muslims,” he said.  “But when I started composing the songs I realized that no, I shouldn’t do it for just Muslims but I should do it for all of Malawi. So I did the songs so that they should attract each and every person. Take for example this song Moyo Ndi Samu Yochotsera (or Life is a Game of Subtraction). When it starts you cannot [determine the message of the song until the end] when you can know that it’s an Islamic song.”

However although Pilo’s new approach is paying off Radio Islam’s sheikh Bunaya is asking all Muslim artists to consult Muslim scholars when writing their songs to avoid being sanctioned by the radio station, like Mtenje.

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