There are few instruments that can ghost-whisper intimacy quite like a strumming acoustic guitar, and few vocalists who can channel the delights of melancholy like the warm cello-timbred voice of Maluwa. Even those who like their music light and frothy will still enjoy having the blues shook out of them by this talented indie vocalist.
Mentored by Vernon Reid (legendary guitarist from Black rock band Living Colour), Maluwa finds her groove in echoes of jazz singer Cassandra Wilson’s meditative note-stretches and folk pioneer Odetta’s earthy tone. Having grown up in both Los Angeles and the Catskills, the Malawian-American’s songs explore weighty subjects against a moody folk-rock backdrop: the effects of passive racism on thwarted self-esteem in “The Other” (“They only see two colors/Who is considered beautiful and why do they call her ‘the other’?”); the emotional inventory taken after a bitterly departed love affair (“Pleasures of Invention”).
A melting pot of musical influences shapes Maluwa’s first album, 2005’s Seeds of Change. (Her sophomore effort, Sands of Africa, is forthcoming.) “I listened to Nina [Simone]. In high school I hung out with Rastas and listened to a lot of Bob Marley,” she says. My pops [an African historian] always had classical music on while he was reading and writing. As a child, I would dance to African drums while my father went off on his research, and some of the [Zambian] elders would tie this cloth around my waist and show me how to move.”
Maluwa’s socially observant songs point back to her childhood, having grown up with parents who were avid world travelers. “I was born in Malawi during my parents’ time in the Peace Corps,” she remembers. “My mother was [a political organizer in New York], always fighting for young Black men that were picked up for no reason.
“I grew up upper middle class, but always needed to see how ‘my people’ lived. The isolation of the poor from a society that is always pushing and shoving ‘status’ down their throats energizes me to act when it comes to the needs of the people. It’s not easy swimming upstream. Music can be loud but silent at the same time. I just can’t die in that sugar-coated silence.” — Sun Singleton
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