A brilliant musical mind

John Anderson Mwesa has been described as both a progressive cultural nationalist and ethnomusicologist. As the latter, he and others like Mwesa Isaiah Mapoma and Joseph Ng’andu followed in the footsteps of Hugh Tracey and Arthur Morris Jones, who made some of the earliest known recordings of Zambia’s traditional music in the mid-twentieth century.

Mwesa’s greatest musical triumphs were in his specialty, choral music, achieved with the Heritage Singers choir, which he moulded into an accomplished vocal ensemble. In infusing the choir with his personality, he borrowed heavily from traditional music in his choral arrangements. 

Believing in the co-existence of tones and chords, he was always looking to promote Zambian music, without completely casting away its western counterpart. He consistently aspired to Zambian harmonies and tones, often arguing that church music as commonly sung during worship was not ethnic, but merely western music translated into Zambian languages. 

This strong desire to incorporate music that reflected Zambian harmonies, tonalities, melodies and instrumentation is seen in most of his vocal arrangements from the mid-1980s to the late 1980s. 

To the ear untrained in the richness that ethnic tones and rhythms bring to choral music, singing a song with all these aspects made it sound too ‘African’, Gregorian and to some like the music used in spirit exorcism. 

Outside the Seventh Day Adventist Church, where he became an elder, Mwesa drew a lot of admiration for his signature use of the silimba, the Zambian xylophone, in his choral work. Within the church initially, he faced a measure of resistance in a Christian body that was not ready for – and continues to resist – the use of traditional instruments.

Much of the resistance the Heritage Singers choir faced within his church was as a result of the music ideas he pioneered. To make good music, Mwesa believed there should be no restriction in the instruments or harmonies used. He was a strong advocate for the use of instruments deemed ‘African’ such as ingoma, silimba, or namwala, the Tonga ‘talking drum’. 

In advocating for the retention of the natural tones and harmonies of a particular Zambian tribe in his choral work, he was, perhaps, hugely visionary. Mwesa believed natural harmonies and tones should be sung as they are by a particular tribe, or could be modified to co-exist with other harmonies in a synthentic, synergistic and symbiotic manner. 

This idea included using African instruments to accompany songs whose parts were arranged using western harmonies. Because of these ideas, some of his music sounded different from what the ordinary Zambian SDA congregation was used to. 

Mwesa embraced diversity, taking on musicians even when they belonged to other churches. He believed that the musical milieu, bringing people as close together as possible, was a place for helping those with personal weaknesses get better. Thus, some members of the Heritage choir were not staunch Adventist – sometimes non-Adventist at all – and oftentimes people, who, by others’ standards, were not “good enough” to sing in church.

Within and outside his church, Mwesa’s choral arrangements used 7-part harmony to great effect to extend the music score. Usually, he arranged women’s voices for the first soprano, second soprano and the alto. Men’s voices were arranged for first and second tenors, baritone and the bass. He built the chords carefully in a diatonic, harmonic progression. 

Sometimes the women sang alone while the men stayed silent or offered a background accompaniment and vice versa. And then the choir would burst out in a ‘tutti’ – singing together in different parts, producing a phenomenal sound. The 7-part harmony added variation to many songs, and was a thing of uniqueness and lasting beauty. He widely used call-and-response in his arrangements to emphasize the meaning of text and to break monotony. Zambia had rarely heard such choral music before.

Among Mwesa’s notable arrangements are classics like ‘Mpingo wa Mulungu’, an arrangement in which he used 7-part harmony, with call-and-response at the beginning alternating between female and male voices. The choir occasionally sings together, but the melody is maintained by different parts. The female and male choruses complement each other. In this arrangement, Mwesa produced a pleasing artistic work without losing the lyrical and thematic ideas. Others of similar arrangement concepts are ‘Aisa, Aisa’ and ‘Eko yaba I mpanga’.

In his ethnomusicological genius, he arranged ‘Leza Mupati wa tuma mumuni’ as would be sang and harmonized among the Tonga people. He had analyzed the music sung in Southern Province during funerals, village festivities and other ceremonies and concluded that the Tonga often sang in unison with occasional splits at cadencial points or phrase ends. This split was sometimes a one-bar or two-bar phenomenon. And so he replicated this kind of harmony in this song. Therefore, even though this was a song praising the Creator for providing light, because the harmony was identical to the native way of singing and harmonizing, some people accused him of bringing music used to exorcize spirits in the villages into the SDA church. 

Another was ‘Tukaya kula kumulu, uko kwalesa’. This Bemba song runs on a monotone with very little melodic and harmonic variation. He decided to arrange this song with the harmony as sang by the Bemba people. Because the Bemba harmonize in almost strict parallel intervals, the song reminded some people of Catholic chants and his critics accused him of importing Catholic music into the SDA church.

Three other arrangements stand out as classics, all relating to his fascination with the mystery of life. ‘The Canticle of the Creatures’ (Oooo mwebantuse!) was a masterpiece he composed and arranged in 1984 for the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF). He composed and arranged ‘Ntantame ine ntantame’ in 1985 shortly after the death of his father – an arresting arrangement that closes with a stunning orchestral finale. The third is ‘Amano yakwa Lesa ya cila umutunse’. All three classics share a similarity in that they balance African and western harmony in a synergistic manner without having one overriding the other. 

Some of the seminal performances by the Heritage Singers choir under Mwesa’s directorship were on the Tiyende Pamodzi song with Dr. Kenneth Kaunda, the group first recording the song with Zambia’s first president in 1985 just before The Commonwealth Expedition 13 (Comex). The idea of Comex was founded in 1965 in England by Sir Lionel Gregory. 

Mwesa worked with Sir Gregory and Dr. Kaunda to bring Comex 13 to Zambia in 1985. Before that, the Heritage Singers had been participants of Comex 10 (India).  The idea behind Comex was to bring people from various Commonwealth countries together to break barriers such as race, culture, creed and poverty.

Comex 10 welcomed the first national contingent from Zambia joining equal contingents from Canada, India and the United Kingdom. Co-ordinated by India, the programme included the inauguration of the Green Pennant Awards by the Duke of Edinburgh, hosted by Times Newspapers at the Commonwealth Institute in London. Mwesa also composed the PTA/Comesa anthem, building the chorus of this anthem on a melody from another song, but composing the music for the stanzas and lyrics.

In 1980, when the National Music Awards were announced, his Heritage choir emerged Best Choir of the Year. Others who won awards in that year were Dr. Kaunda (Outstanding contribution to the development of Zambian music);  John Mwansa’s ‘Mukamfwilwa’ (Best Song of the Year); The Witch (Best Band of the Year); Teddy Chilambe (Best Folk Musician of the Year); Muriel Mwamba (Best Female Vocalist of the Year); He-She Mambo (Best Male Vocalist of the Year); Spokes Chola Band (Best Rural Band of the Year); Madzi-A-Moyo (Most Promising Band of the Year); ‘Songs of Praise’ by Mikomfwa Baptist Church Choir (Most Popular Single of the Year); Big Gold Six (Most Presentable Band of the Year), and ‘Vamahala Vinatha’ by Nashil Pitchen Kazembe (Most Popular Single of the Year). 

Mwesa was also a gifted music teacher who developed music teaching methodologies that suited the Zambian school system. By using Zambian songs, he demonstrated how to teach musical concepts in a simplified and easily understood manner. These methodologies were compiled into a text book that was very helpful to teachers of music in Zambia and in some neighbouring countries. He served as an Inspector of Schools for music and also spent 10 years in Kenya from 1996 as chairman of the music department of the Eastern Africa Baraton University (EABU). He developed Rusangu University’s department of music on his return from Kenya and died on 7 December 2011 while serving as the university’s dean of the school of science and technology as well as humanities and social sciences.

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