The popular dance of mbumba in the 1980s

(This article was first published in 2001.)


A term In Chichewa language (Malawi, eastern Zambia. central Mozambique) referring to a person”s allegiance through kinship (literally: “za umwini munth” about the ownerchip of a person). If a male person”s sister marries and produces children, all her children constitute the mbumba of her brother whom they will address malume (= maternal uncle). And he will be the mwini-mbumba (= the owner of the mbumba), all those children will be his mbumba. The matrilineal social struture of the Achewa brings about this kind of bifurcation. It cannot be that the man in question would call the children of his elder or younger brothers mbumba ayanga (= my mbumba), he would call them ana anga (my children). In this society parental power projects from the malume to the mbumba. A man in the “owner” of his sister(s) children.

The vocal music of political content which came to be called mbumba music must be understood in this context; it rose to prominence during the era of the first president of Malawi: Dr. Kamuzu Banda who ruled the country from 1964 to 1994. To pay respect to the women of Malawi who supported him at political rallies, – with the Picture of the president printed on the popular cloth (nsalu) women wear, singing and dancing,-he began to refer to those women as mbumba. They were, symbolically, president Kamuzu”s mbumba, and he acting like their uncle (malume). Because ot the president”s use of that term, this word eventually began to be feared. Any one who critisized those women wearing the president”s picture and singing political songs associated with president Kamuzu”s government would risk to be reprimanded, even punished by the party who arranged for those cloths to be manufactured.

Gradually the term mbumba was given any kind of songs that were used to praise the leader of the country, and which were. regularly sung at meetings and political events, in which he appeared. These songs were then called nyimbo za mbumba (= the songs of mbumba). But the songs themselves came from many different performance groups; for example there were songs that had been borrowed from mbotosyg, a genre of song from northern Malawi, or from chintali, a dance with songs by women, men playing drums, from southern Malawi etc. All these sources were borrowed and integrated Into the mbumba style, with their original words replaced by words of praise for the achievments of the president. From the moment the name of the president appeared in those songs, they were no longer referred to the original genres, but called mbumba songs. With the change of government in Malawi, in 1994, the genre nyimbo za mbumba has disappeared from the public; but recordings are still available on cassettes.


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