Back stories don’t get much more heart-warming than the journey Malawi Mouse Boys have taken to becoming recording artists.
A group of eight friends from the impoverished African country who have written songs and performed together since childhood, they honed their craft when things were quiet in their day jobs selling – wait for it – mouse kebabs to Malawi’s motorists at road sides, harvesting the unfortunate rodents from nearby corn fields. Apparently a major delicacy on the mean streets of Lilongwe and beyond, you couldn’t make them up.
Discovered in their homeland by leading American world music producer Ian Brennan, their debut album He is #1, recorded in the field, first shared the gentle, ramshackle gospel of The Malawi Mouse Boys with a wider audience. Sang in their native Chichewa language with the minimal accompaniment of homemade instruments ranging from recycled guitars to hitting two stones together, it was a charming introduction that showcased the group’s natural cohesion and harmonic sweetness, and was recognised by winning Songlines magazine’s Top Gospel Album award for 2012.
A second collection, 2014’s Dirt Is Good, offered up more of the same, suggesting that for all their likability, this is a band who will ultimately struggle to develop beyond their rustic roots. New record Forever is 4 You confirms this theory. Despite having toured extensively around the world, including WOMAD appearances, and having access to state of the art recording studios, Malawi Mouse Boys still sound exactly the same as when they first emerged from their rural villages.
Opening track Chisomo (translated as Grace) sums up their strengths and weaknesses. The blend of raggedly mellifluous guitar strum and raw yet undeniably soulful vocals, led by the honey-voiced Zondiwe Kachingwe, certainly has something, but at barely a minute long it’s a fragment rather than a proper song. It’s a pattern that repeats itself frequently on Forever Is 4 You (what’s with the boy band album titles, incidentally?) and, while a breath of fresh air back in 2012, it’s starting to sound a little samey.
But if one is willing to accept the record’s shortcomings, it’s hard not to be won over at times by the innocent simplicity of Malawi Mouse Boys. Ndiyenda Nkuunika (I Walk In The Light) is an irresistibly jaunty tune. In contrast, hearing Joseph Nekwankwa audibly break down after singing Umasiye Wanga (My Loneliness), which reflects on his being left as an orphan after the death of his mother while he was a small boy, is genuinely moving.
This ability to express real emotion is perhaps best realised on the handful of longer tracks on Forever Is 4 You. The melancholy Ndatope Nawe (I’m Tired Of You) proves they can sound sad and world weary as well as upbeat and sunny, while Yasowa Mzeru (That’s Not Wise) features perhaps their most complex vocal harmonies, with a host of backing vocals offering a hymnal counterpoint to the storytelling authority of the lead. But these highlights cannot fully compensate for tracks such Kuliwa Kwambewa (The Crying Of The Mouse), a frenzied 45 second orgy of bizarre squeaking and thumping that sounds like a particularly bad drug trip.
It’s not realistic, or indeed desirable, for a group like Malawi Mouse Boys to transform themselves into a polished Western act, and it is harsh to criticise them for sticking doggedly to the type of music they grew up with and clearly love performing. Nevertheless, a third helping of the same recipe does leave a sense that it’s time to consider updating the menu a little, although they’ve come a long way since the mouse kebabs.