The first time I heard myself singing on Malawi Broadcasting Corporation, I almost fell out of the barber’s chair. I was getting a haircut near the market in Balaka, a town seven miles south of my own village, when “Brush the Flies Outta Your Babies’ Eyes” came blasting from the radio in a nearby shoe cobbler’s stand. I was stunned. What was even more amazing was to hear it played again within the next 15 minutes.
The barber turned to the rest of his customers in his tiny open-air shop and said, “I heard that song played at least six times yesterday. Who is that European singing with The Jazz Giants?”
Another customer said it was a guy named Jack who was with the Peace Corps in Malawi. The DJ confirmed it by announcing several times that the song was being performed by Jack Allison and the Jazz Giants. I was a stranger in town and I didn’t speak up. It was truly unreal to hear myself singing on the radio…and twice in one day. I wondered if my tune would catch on.
So how did I start my recording career?
When I arrived in my village as a public health volunteer in January 1967 I had a couple of years of voice training but I had never written any music. The Peace Corps physician, Dr. Lee Ellison, encouraged me to write jingles for our Under-Fives’ Baby Clinic, a health education project about nutrition, protecting water supplies, building modern latrines, vector control, and other health challenges in Malawi.
I told Dr. Ellison I was a singer, not a composer. But I did think about the idea and three months later while attending a Peace Corps debriefing conference at a modest resort on Lake Malawi, I tried making up my own song. I was languishing in my first tub bath since my arrival in Malawi and I saw in my mind’s eye a poster I’d recently put up in my village clinic reminding mothers to brush the flies from their babies’ eyes to prevent pink eye.
Spontaneously I started putting the Chichewa words to an original tune. A few weeks later I was riding my motorcycle through Zomba and I heard this band playing on a veranda. I’m all about music so I stopped and asked the lead guitarist if they’d record my song, Pirikitsani Nchenche—“Brush the Flies”—with me. It was The Jazz Giants, Malawi’s most popular African band and they agreed.
On the way back to my village I wrote Ufa wa Mtedza—“Peanut Flour”—which became the #1 song on the Hit Parade in Malawi for the next three years. The gist of the translation is “Put pounded-up peanut flour in your babies’ maize porridge and feed it to them three times a day if you want your children to be healthy.”
I became a celebrity in Malawi. People recognized me everywhere I went. Other Peace Corps volunteers were quite gracious and supportive and asked, “What’s it like to be a star?”
I wrote 16 educational songs and jingles which also became popular with Malawians. The three “winners” were “Rabies Prevention,” “Fertilizer,” and “Boil Your Drinking Water.”
Wanting to test the record business in Malawi, a representative from Phillips Record Company in Holland approached me about allowing Ufa wa Mtedza, the “Peanut Flour” song, as side-A on a 45-rpm record. Astonishingly, it sold out, all 10,000 copies, within seven days—in the poorest country in the world. I was undone when royalty checks came flooding in.I shared these funds with other Peace Corps volunteers for development projects in their villages. By my close of service I had enough left over to bring a Malawian student to a college in the United States.
Twenty-five years after leaving Malawi, I returned to record the album, Nyimbo za EDZI which means “Songs About AIDS.” That CD garnered over $30,000. We used those funds to help feed Malawian children whose parents had died of AIDS.
Since 1967, my music has raised over $167,000. My wife, Sue Wilson, and I have donated all of those funds to various charitable organizations, as we are doing with the proceeds from my memoir, “The Warm Heart of Africa: An Outrageous Adventure of Love, Music, and Mishaps in Malawi.”