When news filtered through on social media today that guitar wizard, producer and musician Joseph Tembo, would not be crossing over to the year 2020 after succumbing to illness at the Kamuzu Central Hospital in Lilongwe. It felt, for the local musical fan, like a mother losing yet another child.
Earlier in the day, I had been discussing the drying up of supply of good music from local artists and somehow Joseph Tembo’s name came up. Little did we know that he was at that time nearing to hanging up his guitars, the ones he held dearly, for good.
When I later sat down, to put this obituary together, I felt the usual guilt, of bringing people flowers when they can’t see or smell them. Of adulating artist when they die and despising them when alive.
But truth be told, in life or posthumously, as the case now, Joseph Tembo’s artistry is uncontested; Here is a man who at some point dominated the local musical landscape with ease, producing long lasting songs for other artists and also establishing himself as one of the country’s best guitarist, song writer and composer.
Ever since he emerged on the scene with his Sena music that borrowed heavily from another fallen artist, Zimbabwean Oliver Mtukudzi whom Tembo openly expressed admiration for and went on to play with at a concert at the Blantyre Youth Center in his best years, the former parliamentarian demonstrated that music is an art that needs to be understood, to be studied and after doing so, to be played uniquely and not like how everyone plays it.
After the classic Chinafuna Mbale song from the Lucky Stars, Tembo was arguably one of the first mainstream artists to do a contemporary a sena lyrics song that went on to become a hit; Dimingu.
Dimingu the song lamented of an orphaned wayward child, raised by his granny only for him to abandon the grandparent.
Iwee wee weee wee/
Mwananga iwe diminguuu/
Iwee wee weee/
leka kunyoza mbuyakooooo/
Dimingu the song gained popularity as quickly as ducks learn to swim. The onus was then on Tembo to show his fans that he was not a one hit wonder, and he did not disappoint.
He maintained his high standards in his follow up songs. Ndalira the song, A Dailavaya, Samalira, and the controversial Mbudye, which had copyright issues with a musical group from Botswana, whom he later made friends with, cemented his place as one of the best musicians of his generation. In his songs, which he largely produced himself, he continued to evolve, gently sliding from his Mbira to a modern Lulu like Kwasakwasa. In those songs, his trademark guitar never left. In fact, even without vocals, his guitars gave him an identity.
But perhaps what gave Joseph, who always carried with him a smile every time he sang, a unique value proposition was his production prowess and his willingness to take other artists under his wing, to mentor them and produce for them.
Tembo was instrumental in exposing, strangely now, two deceased artists, Andrew Matrauza and Grace Chinga whom he exclusively produced for. For Matrauza, he had almost become Tembo’s twin brother, appearing with him in Music videos, dancing happily together. Matrauza’s music embodied and epitomized Tembo’s production signature.
For Chinga, Tembo produced for her what is arguably the best local gospel album of all time. Udzaimba Nyimbo. Tembo’s footprints were all over album which spewed great hits including Mundisungire Kolona, Wayalula and Anandigula. Everybody would agree these are hits that were not handled by an ordinary producer.
To add to Matrauza and Chinga, Tembo also later gave us Collins Bandawe of Tchekera Maluzi, a song that became a darling of many even later redone by urban artists Saint and Malceba. Add to that mix producing for the Mighty Great Angels Choir and you agree that Joseph, the man with a bible name came from Chikwawa to rein, serve and save his musical brothers and sisters.
It was this prowess that even when the then Mighty DPP, led by Bingu Wa Mutharika needed powerful campaign songs for the 2009 elections, Joseph stepped up and cooked for the party two hits Angwazi Senderani and Tiyende Pamodzi which became anthems for the DPP on its way to a landslide victory.
It would be fair to say however that, after that period, in which he also won a parliamentary seat, Tembo took a step back from mainstream music limiting his main appearances to studio work for other artists.
By then however, up until Thursday afternoon when he closed his eyes for eternity, his contribution to Malawi music had been enough to put him on the pedestal. And as the somber mood envelopes us and the silence creeps in, the sound of the plucking of guitars from Joseph can still be heard reverberating. And faintly, deep down we also hear and sing along to one of his masterpieces:
Kulilila mtundu wangaaaa, wataya walusooooo.