Interviews May 31, 2023
Keturah brings Malawi roots to the world stage

Keturah is a young singer from Malawi with a cherry-sweet voice and an easy gift for songwriting. Her journey from a small village to a Los Angeles recording studio, where she created her self-titled debut album from Hen House Studios, is the stuff of story books, as she explains in this interview. The resulting album is a lilting, mostly acoustic set of 10 songs that channel the bubbly, guitar-driven vibe of rural African pop styles like Zimbabwean sungura and Kenyan benga. Elsewhere there’s the swing of old-school South African jazz. Keturah sings with warmth, confidence and a certain innocence, her voice at times reminiscent of a young Miriam Makeba, and at others, the deeper tones of the late Chiwoniso of Zimbabwe.

As it happens, Keturah was aided by a former colleague of Afropop Worldwide. For many years, French filmmaker Luc Deschamps lived in New York City, documenting African music concerts for a local access television broadcast. We met often on the N.Y.C. scene. But then Luc moved to Malawi where he went on to work for a school for orphans. At the Jacaranda Cultural Center in Blantyre, Luc encountered Keturah and was instantly taken by her voice and outstanding talent. Now that Ketura’s album is out, Luc helped arrange for Banning Eyre to interview her from Blantyre over Zoom. Keturah’s English is a bit idiosyncratic, so we’ve done some light editing for clarity. Here’s their conversation.

Banning Eyre: Luc, how are you? It’s been a long time since we met in New York.

Luc Deschamps: Long time. That was a different life for me.

I imagine so, yeah. Well, good for you for finding another one.

But you see, my love for African music has kept on, and I’ve met a lot of artists, including this young lady.

Happy to meet you, Keturah. I've been enjoying your CD. [holds it up]

Keturah: Oh, look! Well, actually we have not seen the CDs yet.

Luc: They're still coming to Malawi.

Keturah: It looks beautiful.

Well, you'll have many copies soon, I hope. So you guys are in Blantyre?

Luc: Yeah, we're in Blantyre, at the [Jacaranda] Cultural Center in Blantyre. So we have the school for orphans. That's our main campus, and then we have different campuses of schools. We have a preschool, we have a vocational school. We do a lot of music, and have an after-school program for the children. And Keturah has been coming to teach the children. But we met at the cultural center. She came one day for a show here.

That sounds great. I would love to visit.

Yeah, you should come down.

Well, thanks, Luc, for setting this up. Keturah, I guess to start, you should just tell me your story a little bit, how you became a musician, and then we'll get to the album.

Keturah: O.K. First of all, my name is Keturah. I'm a cultural musician from Malawi. I grew up in the village in the district called Mwanza. I used to do music with my uncle, because he was a guitarist and he used to go in the street to perform for people, and sometimes I would back him up. So that's when I learned music at the age of nine. We used to go in the market in many places doing music with my uncle, and then later on, he passed away. Of course, that really got me. I was sad because I used to go everywhere with him doing music. And then two years later, I started again composing music. And then that's when I convinced myself that, “No, I don't have to stop here, the legacy has to go on. I have to continue from where he stopped.” So that's when I chose to do music at the age of nine.

So when you did music with your uncle in the market, what kind of music were you doing? Was it traditional music, folk music, music you created yourselves?

It was a traditional music. We used so many things with local instruments, like bottles and pieces of metal, just playing in the street and singing traditional songs.

Was this the Chichewa language?

Yes. That is the language here in Malawi. But where I come from, people didn't really believe in music. They didn't believe that music can take you somewhere. We would sit around sing as a group of people, as a family, under the tree, singing together. But then what people didn't believe is that music would take you somewhere where you can be exposed. I have composed a lot of songs concerning my story, and there was this day, someone told me, “I heard your voice and I would love you to put some vocals in my song. So I will take you to the studio.”

I said, O.K. I didn't even have an idea how the studio works, because we were just performing live in the street. So he took me in studio and then I was surprised: “Wow, so this is how people compose and record!” That was something strange to me because I had never done that before. And so when I heard my voice, I was amazed. And him, he told me that, “You know what? You could go far.” And then I was trying to ask myself, “Why is he saying this?” Because I was thinking that O.K., I make music in the street, perform at home, but people who go far performing on big stages? No.

He lived in a different place from where I was. He was in the capital city of Blantyre, which is the capital of Malawi. And then he called and told me, “I would love you to come here and do two or three songs with me.” But then I thought, “I don't even have transportation. I've never even been in town before.”

How old were you when this was happening?

I was eleven. I had never been in town. And then he just remained quiet. I asked people, “How can I do this?” And people told me that you have to travel to Blantyre. There are good studios where you can get a good recording. So I had to walk all the way from my village to Blantyre, the capital city of Malawi, just to record. I had a relative in Blantyre who I contacted. I said, “I would love to visit the studio in Blantyre.” And he said O.K., because I was desperate. I really wanted to listen to my voice because I was in love with music. But I had to travel from Mwanza. I think it's 92 KM, and I had to walk.

Wow. That took a long time.

Yes. So I had to walk on foot because I didn't have transport money. And people were telling me, “You can get lost. There's nothing you can do with this music. Just sit here and sing together with us. There's nowhere you can go.” But I've heard people singing in radios, calling their names, and it was so amazing. Sorry. My English is not that good because I grew up in the village.

It's fine. Don’t worry.

So that's when I traveled all the way from Mwanza to Blantyre. When I go to my auntie's place, they were even surprised. “How did you manage to come here?” I had some money for the studio, which was very much cheaper. It is local and very much cheaper. Then that's when I started recording as an artist.

Photo by Randi Malkin Steinberger
Photo by Randi Malkin Steinberger

So you went there to record those songs. Were you able to find a place to stay?

Yes, then my aunt was living in Blantyre with the same uncle. O.K., thank you. I had never been in Blantyre before. But you know, when you are desperate, you go. People will tell you stories. “You go this way.” Which way should I take?

So you're staying with your auntie now in Blantyre. You had never been in the city before, but the experience in the studio made you feel like, O.K., this is the right thing.


What were the first things you recorded?

It was traditional songs. They weren’t mine. I was just helping this other artist. But in the studio in Blantyre, lucky enough, when they heard my voice, they said, “No, you know what? We are going to work with you. You are not going to pay anything.” Before going to Blantyre, I knew that I would have to pay some money. At my home we were farmers, but I used to keep a little money, just a little money. I could not afford the transportation. I had to keep the money for the studio and for food. I'm on my way. I can manage.

So when I go to the studio, they said, “You are not going to pay anything. We are going to do this because we love your voice. We love you and we are going to record you for free.” So that's when we recorded two songs of mine.

And this was when you were just 11?

I was 11. Now I'm 27.

So what happened with those songs? Did they get played on the radio?

Yes. When I recorded, the producer said, “O.K., I'm going to help you. I'm going to give these songs to the radio presenters. They'll play the songs.” I went with him to the radio stations, and when they listened, they loved my songs. I was lucky. Wherever I went, people loved what I did, which was to me was an honor. For me, it was all about performing in the street with my uncle. I didn't expect that people would love me. For the first time, I thought: “Maybe I can do this.” And then when we went to the radio and they were playing my songs, my people would come around, “We are listening to the radio and that is you singing!” It was amazing. It was a great feeling. “Wow, this is a great achievement.”


Even the whole village, they were surprised. “How did you make it? How did you come to this extent that we can hear you on the radio?” Then from there, I was called by someone I didn't know. I received the call from someone in my village who had a phone. This person told me, “We will pay for transport. We will pay for accommodation if you come here to Blantyre. We want to interview you on the radio, and if you have three more songs, we'll pay for the songs.” I was offered as a deal, but it wasn't that big deal. I was still working with those local people. But I really appreciated it, so to me, it was very big. The next step was for me now in Blantyre, and when I came back, we started recording other songs.

Then I had like six songs. And then they said, “O.K., with these six songs, we would like for you to start performing in some small venues. We want to introduce you to people.” And then when my auntie saw that, she said, “O.K., since people want you here, I think you have to start living with me here.” I really wanted to be in Blantyre because that's where I saw the way forward. I wanted to experience a life in Blantyre, because I've lived in the village, and it was a bit tough. Life was different. But then what I loved, what I really wanted was in Blantyre. So that's when I started my music journey.

Photo by Jeremy Steinberger
Photo by Jeremy Steinberger

Let's fast forward. How did you make this album? I know you worked with the folks from Playing for Change. How did that happen?

I started staying in Blantyre, and now my brother came and I started staying with him. Then I found this person who wanted to manage me. So when I was doing music, I started gigging. I was honored to perform at Jacaranda Cultural Center. Lucky enough, Luc [Deschamps] saw me, and then they [the Jacaranda people] came to me, and said, “Wow, we loved your performance. We would love you to come back and perform again.” That's when we started communicating. They asked me questions about my story. When we met, we talked about my dreams, and then Luc said, “I know this producer from U.S.A. He's on of our board members. [Harlan and Randi Steinberger are both on the Jacaranda board.] So we have to talk to him and see and send him your songs and see if he would like to work with you. If he says yes, you are O.K. to go travel from Malawi to U.S.A.”

To me, this was really amazing, but I couldn't believe it because, well, before, I've had a lot of people that have promised me big things, but they didn't come true. Later on they disappoint me. So I had given up on everything. I just said, “O.K., I'll just be a singer.” Whenever people want me, I'll go and come home. But then a few weeks later, they called me and said, “Guess what? We have a good news for you. The producer is really interested in you and he would love to work with you. So you have to travel from here to U.S.A.” It was like a dream, I'm telling you. For me, that was my first time stepping out of Malawi. I couldn't believe it until that day that I went to the airport. It was really a dream come true.

I remember, I had this song that I call “Munditengereko.” It means “Take Me There.” It talks about a dream. In the song I say that I have this big dream, but I can't reach it. I don't know how. I'm not capable. I believe that my dream will come true, but I cannot do it on my own. If you help me, if you give me a hand, I believe that I can do much better. So, to me, this was a dream come true.

As I understand Luc flew you to California to create the album with Harlan and Congolese guitarist Jason Tamba, who is wonderful, by the way.

Yes, to Los Angeles. [Venice, more precisely.]

I'm looking at some of the musicians listed on your album. There’s Jason Tambo, Magatte Sow on percussion, Prince Diabate on kora, even the great Zimbabwean guitarist Louis Mhlanga. And then Mark Johnson from Playing for Change. Mark also helped out with the production, I see. So are these all musicians that you met in the United States?


Interesting. So what was it like recording with musicians that were new to you?

The good thing was that Harlan understands African music. He listens to African music. It wasn't that hard to work with him. But the hardest part for me was that the studio there was too big. It was like me upgrading from somewhere. Because here we have studios, but they are not like that. So that was my first time recording in a big studio. It's not like a one-take record. No. There it was different. It didn't even take time to get along with the people because they had already listened to my songs. They were prepared for me before I got there.

And you were happy with the way they played your songs?

I was really excited. I was so happy, to be honest. And for me it's a stepping stone. I think it's another very big step.

Let's talk about some of the songs.

O.K., there is this song called “All the Way from Africa.” It's a song based on my experience. So this is me. I've come as who I am. I brought me to you, and I hope you accept me for who I am. So I came all the way from Africa. Since I have come to your place, you too have to come back to my Africa to visit and to see the beauty of Africa.

That one has an English title. These other titles are all Chichewa, right?

Yes. There's this song called “Sukulu.” Sukulu means “school.” Like I said before, I've grown up in the village where people don't really believe in education. They believe in achievement. In my village, you have a marriage and you have a child. That is an achievement. We don't really see an outside world. We don't give space to see, to explore, to learn new things. We are just us. In the village, whatever we believe is what we believe. Many people, they are being blinded by the past. Sometimes life has changed. So this is a song I composed based on my experience as well.

There was a time that my family wanted me to get married, when I was young. When people believe that marriage is everything, they think you have to get married early without even going to school. In that song, I express myself saying, “Look, she's just a young child.” Mostly it happens to us women where they stop us from going to school. Or maybe they will find someone older than us, maybe or 20 or 30, and they want us to marry that person. They force us into early marriage. You are killing the dream of this kid. You have to let this kid achieve what she has to achieve. She is the future of the country. If you educate her, you educate the world.

So most of these songs drawn from your personal experience, and they have these messages or lessons inside them. What about the lead track, “Ku Nyumba?”

O.K., “Ku Nyumba” is home. It tells someone's story; it's not my story. When I came back from town I went again in my village where I stayed for a few months. There was this woman who was old and used to come to beg. She used to come to my house because when I have something, any little something, I would give it to her. So there was this day I asked her, “Where do you stay and who do you stay with?” She was very old so I wanted to know this. I felt like maybe I should be visiting her.

She said, “I stay alone.” So I asked, “Don't you have children? Maybe they can fetch water for you or do some other things for you while I provide the little I can?” She said, “No, I stay alone. I do have children. They are even big. They are working for certain organizations.” So I was surprised that if they are working for an organization, why are you like this then? Why are you begging? And then she started crying, and I felt so bad and I knew that there was a story behind it. She said, “My children stopped coming to see me because they think I'm a witch. They think that I would kill them because they believe in witchcraft.”

So she was abandoned by her children, because she's a witch. That's what they thought, but I didn't believe that. And to be honest, it was something that made me sad, and I had to compose a song about it. Of course, the song didn't come the same day, but when I came back after listening to her story, it kept on bothering me. Imagine that. I was raised without a mother, and for them, they have a mother and they have abandoned her. It really made me feel sad.

You were raised without a mother?

Yes. I lost both my dad and my mom when I was young. I was staying with my brothers in the village, and my uncle, like I said. So to me it was really something that pained me when I heard her story. I kept on asking myself questions, “Why would a child reject, abandon their own mother just for stories?” Because in Africa even when people don't really have any evidence about a person, sometimes you would hear stories that they are killing a person because that person is getting old and they think that person is a witch, which is not right. You see, you have to always remember where you're coming from. That is who you are and you have to respect that.

I think if the mother was a witch, those children would have been dead. But they grew up and they became somebody in life. And then they start pointing fingers at their mother and saying, “No, you are a witch.” To me, that was really unfair and that was untruthful.

That's a powerful story. You have a song on this album that is an ode to Willie Nelson. It’s a waltz, and sounds like something he might have written. And his long time harmonica player Mickey Raphael plays on the song. Tell me about that.

Yeah, about that song… By then, I didn't even know Willie Nelson. But then they said, “O.K., you have to sing this song, and we will invite Willie Nelson to be in the song.” But I never met him. [Though, she did attend one of his concerts the day after she arrived in the U.S..] But then I listened to the song, and I was really amazed. I composed the song right there. It was a new experience for me because it's country music, I guess, with an African touch.

I understand that country music is quite popular in much of Africa. I know it's popular in Kenya. And did you ever hear that on the radio when you were living in Blantyre?

Yes. In fact, I've never done country music, but I love listening to Don Williams. The instruments are a bit different from ours, what we had in the village. But I loved listening to country music, so for me to sing it wasn't that challenging. Even Dolly Parton. I love her voice, I love everything about her. So I was even excited to sing a song in country music.

Well, next time you come, maybe you'll get to meet Willie Nelson, I'm sure he’d enjoy what you do.

I would love to.

I once met him, very briefly. He's a great man. So do you have plans to come back and perform with Playing for Change at some point?

That's my wish. I would love to come back and perform.

Well, if this album does well, I'm sure that will happen. It's really nice to meet you and to discover your music. We've been covering African music for 35 years, long time, and we haven't heard very much music from Malawi, so it's nice to find you, and it's a beautiful album.

Thank you so much. Bye bye.

Credit: Artves Photography
Credit: Artves Photography

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