Melding Spoken Word Poetry and Theatre in Malawi

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Fumbani Innot Phiri Jr.: Welcome to Critical Stages in Malawian Contemporary Theatre podcast, produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatre makers worldwide. In partnership with Advanc[ing] Arts Forward, a movement of advanced equity, inclusion, and justice through the arts by creating a liberated space that uplift, heal, and encourage us to change the world. I am your host, Fumbani Innot Phiri Jr., a producer, actor, director, playwright, and of course, a freelance journalist.

Critical Stages in Malawian Contemporary Theatre, I interview established theatre artist from all backgrounds to explore the precarious journey of theatre in modern world, defines its problems, and find better solutions to sustain the performing arts in a generation of motion pages. In this podcast, I lead the discussions with established performers, directors, writers who are exploring ways to greet these challenges while their works inspired the community.

On today’s episode, I’m with Khumbolane Chavula, running under the banner Millesimal Poetry. Millesimal Poetry is a Malawian-based poetry brand pointed by and promoted by Khumbolane Chavula. Millesimal represent the voice of millennium generation. You can say a voice of performing arts in Malawi. Millesimal Poetry productions incorporate the different genres of performing arts, such as spoken word poetry, music, and, of course, theatre, that incorporates drama and other dancers in the process.

So Khumbolane Chavula run the banner of Millesimal Poetry. He’s a Malawian spoken word artist and entrepreneur, and creative actor, and theatre motivation writer, and a speaker. He holds a bachelor’s degree in social science economics from the Catholic University of Malawi. He has worked with Solomonic Peacocks Theatre, a vibrant theatre in Malawi, based and branded as an actor and as a community theatre facilitator for five years. Currently he produces spoken word poetry under the brand name Millesimal Poetry.

So Millesimal Poetry represent the voice of millennium generation, a voice of performing arts. Using the Millesimal platform, Khumbolane Chavula has inserted poetry in the voice. Khumbolane Chavula intend to use the voice to create different strands of performing arts in the Malawian entertainment industry by combining different genres in arts: spoken word poetry, music, rap, theatre, drama, and dance.

Alright. First of all, I would like to know more about your artistic background as Khumbolane Chavula. Who is Khumbolane Chavula?

Khumbolane Chavula: All right. Well, Khumbolane Chavula is a spoken word poet right now. But I would say Khumbolane Chavula is a motivational speaker. Khumbolane Chavula is an actor. Khumbolane Chavula is an entrepreneur, and a spoken word poet, to be more precise. Well, my journey comes from a background of ATEM Drama Festivals of… I’ve been in the industry for ten years now.

Fumbani: Oh, wow.

Khumbolane: As I was calculating, in fact, I was like, “How long have I been here?” Then I noticed that I spent the five years of my life doing drama and theatre and spent the other five years of my life doing poetry, which now makes me a more spoken word poet than I was before.

Fumbani: Alright. Okay. In those ten years you spent doing drama and theatre, you spent doing poetry, basically, we can say spoken word. And in those ten years within that, what has been your journey and your academic purpose?

Khumbolane: Well, I did my education at Chichiri Primary School, first of all. I moved from Chichiri primary school, got selected to Chichiri Secondary School.

Fumbani: Wow.

Khumbolane: I don’t know. I think it’s God’s hands.

Fumbani: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Khumbolane: Anyways, yeah, I completed my form four Chicihiri Secondary School in 2012. But then, quite unfortunate, I had to repeat my form four at Maranatha. I must have loved drama more than I did with my education.

So my parents were like, “We don’t like the grades that you came with. So I think you should redo your form four.” But I would say, after the Maranatha journey, I went to Catholic University of Malawi, where I got a bachelor’s degree in economics, a fresh graduate.

Fumbani: Yeah. You did economics?

Khumbolane: Yes, yes.

Fumbani: But your main field is in the art industry, the creative industry. Why economics?

Khumbolane: All right. I would say economics should have been a calling as well because growing up I used to question a lot of things. For example, let’s say, why are we not creating movies? Why are we not getting ourselves out there? I’ve met a lot of people in the industry that were doing quite well at that time, but then the exposure to the outside world wasn’t as much precise as it is right now.

So when I was applying for economics, I had opted for law because I thought I would make a better lawyer than any other field. I wanted to express myself. I wanted to be a model someday because I wanted to speak out the arts that’s in me. But it turns out economics and law are quite the same profession to speak of. I think, when I went to economics, the most important thing I had to learn was how do I model myself as an economist at the same time as an artist?

Because I never really knew I was getting good at what I was doing until people started recognizing, to say, “I think we love your poetry. You’re doing quite well with this poetry. Can you come perform for us at this particular event?” Then I’ll definitely do that. I remember there was a onetime scenario where I had to travel to Chancellor College for the Steve Chimombo memorial.

Fumbani: Memorial. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Khumbolane: And I was one of the performers at the Catholic University. It turns out, these guys opted for me to go perform and represent the school. All right? And that gave me the motivation to say, “What if I keep doing this? What if I strike a balance between my artistry and the economics that I was then learning?”

So, basically, I got to the point where I had to fuse, and find out that in between my poetry and the economics that I was learning, there’s a thin line called entrepreneurship where I could practice the economics into my artistry. So I can say I’m now a full-time spoken word poet. At the same time, practicing the laws that I learned about economics, and try to bring into the creative industry a world where people should enjoy the entertainment that is being made by Malawians.

How else can we incorporate the theatre into modern means, so that this information that we have should reach out to these people?

Fumbani: All right. So going back to your origin of being an artist: first, we know Khumbolane Chavula as multi-award-winning acted during ATEM Drama Festival. So how was it during those days in secondary schools?

Khumbolane: Well, I would say, it was quite overwhelming, to be honest. I remember how the journey all started. I was a stage setter at some point, but then the motivation behind the stage setting came when I saw my first play. I never really knew people would act and whatnot.

But when I got to the secondary school level, and I saw people acting in the hall, I was like, “I think I could do this.” Then I went and tried out my part, and they gave me… They’re like, “Ah, you should hold a tree in this play. You’re not qualified. You don’t know anything about art. You need to learn from the big guys first,” and whatnot. But I had to humble myself because then I only loved what I saw. I only loved the hype that people had to give the play, the time that we were watching. And then I was like, “I think I can do this. I think I could be better at this.”

So, turns out, as time was passing by, as my years in school were going, they started recognizing, to say, “I think you should take up this role. I think you could be the man acting in this play.” And, to be quite frank, I would go to the competitions and whatnot, not expecting to say we would win, or maybe I would be the best actor in that category anyway. But then for the passion of it, for the fact that we would be a team together, we would want to win the passion that we had to put into the rehearsals and everything, I had to make sure that everything… Okay, I can’t say I was the spotlight of everything. There were other people as well.

But I knew that to be an artist is to complement another person’s art. It is to be with a team of people, to create something magnificent, something that’s really amazing. And for this to happen, there has to be somebody to take up the bigger role. And had to happen that, in those days, I was also the president of the writers of the drama club—

Fumbani: Wow.

Khumbolane: At Chichiri Secondary School. So I would motivate my people. I would motivate people, go call them in the classes, and bring them all together and tell them, “You guys, let’s practice and whatnot.” At the same time, I noticed that I was pushing my arts more. I was pushing to be the best at what I did. It was a craving that I had to satisfy.

Fumbani: And it became a model.

Khumbolane: And it became a model. So I remember, in 2012, when I got my first award, this guy Albert Sharra from Nation’s Newspaper wrote an article about me. He’s like, “Khumbolane, the king of acting.” And I was like, “How can someone who just didn’t know exactly what happened behind the scenes, come to the event, sees me, and notices, ‘Oh, I think this guy is the right guy. I think this guy is the one who’s spicing up the play.’ “And I would say I really loved everything.

Fumbani: And that’s the good skill for being an actor, then they liked you. Of course, you were really exposed than the director.

Khumbolane: Exactly.

Fumbani: So your journey as an actor from secondary school, we saw your face, your movement at Solomonic Peacock Theatre, a professional theatre.

Khumbolane: Right. Very true.

Fumbani: What was this like to jump from secondary school to professional theatre?

Khumbolane: At that point in time, I think I never really knew what was going on. I never really had that anticipation to say, “This is going to be my journey. I want to be an actor.” But then there was a voice inside of me that kept speaking to me, that you need to go further. You need to explore.

And I think, at that time, I was one of the first young signings at Solomonic Peacocks Theatre. So, to me, it was quite a journey, quite an exploration for me, to know that I’m going into the major league now. I’m going into the big names, the McArthur Matukuta’s, and all those big names. And, at that time, I was the center of attraction. I remember there was another theatre club that really wanted to pick me to come to their side. But, eventually, you had to notice that the industry at that time—

Fumbani: It was tough.

Khumbolane: Which was the better place to go? Who are going to shape your career in acting, your career in theatre and whatnot? So Solomonic, at that time, it had everything. It had everything. It had all the best people that I knew, that these guys are the best in the industry and whatnot. So I got really excited. It was quite a journey at Solomonic.

Fumbani: Yeah. So when you were a part of Solomonic, you performed quite a number of productions, commercial performances and community performances, like theatre for development.

Can you take us through that journey? How critical it was for, how it was… The best way how to source funds for the productions? How to earn donor element? How the gate collections were? Can you take us through the journey?

Khumbolane: All right. To be quite frank, at that time, I wasn’t paying really much attention to the funds, to what’s bringing the money to us and whatnot. What I really wanted to do was to be in an environment where I’m able to express myself, where I would be the best at what I’m doing, and I would improve.

So I won’t touch much about the fundings and everything, but I would say it was quite an experience. Because I remember the first time I had to go to the field. So it was a two weeks journey. Right? We were going for theatre for development. We were going to sensitize people at the lower share of Malawi, the lower side. So I packed my bags, packed my expands, a very big one. I’m like, “Since we are acting and we’re staying there for two weeks, I think I should get all the clothes that I can and whatnot.”

Fumbani: That excitement?

Khumbolane: That excitement, you’re like, “Ah, it’s going to be quite an amazing journey” and whatnot. So you get there, and you find out that the job is not like it seems. You’re not supposed to be changing your clothes every day. What you have to change is you into the costume, of whatever play that you are having at that moment. And then you are going directly into the villages to campaign, to sensitize these people.

I think the most important part of this process was to lend the way of life that people are experiencing outside of Malawi, outside the world that I belonged to. Because, to be quite frank, to be born in an urban area in Malawi, you are quite privileged, unlike other people. So you’d get to know that the poverty levels in our country are quite extreme. You’d get to places where vehicles don’t have to go. The only means of transport that you have is a bike, or maybe you have to walk by foot, but it’s a journey, two hours journey or whatnot.

So it was quite a life changing experience for me. I had to adjust to certain levels of life, to say, “If I am an artist and I wanted to give out this information to these people, I have to bring myself to their level.” Because that’s the most important thing for them to understand, to say, “We are in the same shoes. We are not different. As much as we are bringing the information to you, but you are the main information that we have to get out of here.”

Fumbani: So on your own context, people regard community theatre as just in contemporary element of presentation than commercial theatre. On your context, can you try to give us an elaboration about community theatre? How best it is? How good it is?

Khumbolane: All right. I would say there’s so many means of disseminating information. Right? But I would say, you get to a place, and then nobody knows you at that place. You are just you guys with your play. Right? You just walk up to your market and you start acting. Everybody’s surprised “What’s going on?” and whatnot. And then people start gathering around, to try to see what’s really happening there. And they find out that it’s a play.

You are turning the mindset of people, to show them that theatre itself is one of—I would say it’s the best way—to disseminate information. It’s the most creative way you can give out a creative message to somebody to learn. And I would think what we really need to do at the moment is to think outside the box of that theatre. How else can we incorporate the theatre into modern means, so that this information that we have should reach out to these people? Right? Yeah.

Art is supposed to trickle down generations. It’s supposed to go beyond the artist himself. It’s supposed to go down to the last person that would live on earth, to see all this artistry there.

Fumbani: All right. So they are the five years. Now we have the Millesimal Poetry.

Khumbolane: All right. I would say, before Millesimal Poetry came about, I was still Khumbolane Chavula. People would still recognize me as Khumbolane Chavula before all this. I would say Millesimal poet is my next journey. It’s the journey that I am taking now.

I’ve been asked this question so many times. What do you mean “Millesimal?” Tell us, what’s Millesimal Poetry? Why are you calling yourself this? We know you as Khumbo. Why the sudden drastic change? Khumbolane: Millesimal is a synonym to millennium.

Fumbani: All right.

Khumbolane: I’m only twenty-three years old, but I’ve managed to finish my degree at this time.

Fumbani: Wow.

Khumbolane: Look at where Malawi is coming from, and saying a twenty-three-year-old has a degree now, it’s more like something that’s new to the world. Right? Most people haven’t yet adapted to this fact. So I’m quite young. At the same time, I’ve completed the highest level of qualification.

But, despite all this, I had to define myself. So, in defining myself, I had to know where do I belong? Right? We’re calling this the millennial era. How can I find the best way to send message to my generation? How can I inspire the next generation after my generation?

Because art is supposed to trickle down generations. It’s supposed to go beyond the artist himself. It’s supposed to go down to the last person that would live on earth, to see all this artistry there. So Millesimal poet is a generational poet. He’s sending the message to the next generation, sending a message to my generation, that art is…

Fumbani: Yeah. Okay. The Millesimal Poetry, right now, because of these generation, as you said, most poetry artists, they’re diverting their movement of poetry into spoken word. Every poetry artist I’m seeing right now is saying, “I’m a spoken word artist. I’m a spoken word artist.” How unique is your work?

Khumbolane: All right. I’ll bring you back a little bit. I said I’m Millesimal Poet, but I’m just a poet, right? I’m just Millesimal. I’m just in the Millesimal era. But Millesimal Poetry is now the definition of the art that I’m making.

Because the difference between me and every other spoken word poet is the incorporation of theatre into my poetry. Like I’ve said, the first part of my life, the first five years of my artistry journey is drama and theatre. It has a background in drama and theatre. And this next five years was about poetry, poetry, and poetry. But now I’m looking at how best can I fuse my poetry and the background where I’m coming from. How best can we find where it links? That’s why it comes Millesimal Poetry.

Because when you look at Millesimal Poetry, I’m not Millesimal Poetry. I’m just a poet. I just write my materials and recite. But the music, the background, the theatre, the dance, the element of surprise in a poem is what I want people to see. When they look at my poetry, they should feel a nostalgic feeling that they had every time they had to see ATEM stage plays, every time they had to see theatre, or Kwathu Drama Group, that type of thing. I wanted to bring that element back, both visually and live on stage.

Fumbani: So I can little feel the element that you are taking this poetry element on the next level. So, wow. What are the challenges as you’re creating these? And what are the challenges to your audience, to the society, basically, for performing arts?

I want people to understand the poet at the same time understand the poem.

Khumbolane: All right. The major challenge that we are facing in arts at the moment is that appreciation. People haven’t learned that art is value. Art is like worth. It’s like you’re giving people an entertainment, and they have to pay you for that entertainment. They have to give you something in return to what you are giving them. Right?

So, it’s really been hard for people to adapt to these new ideas, for people to adapt that, “Okay, I’ve recorded a piece. I’m releasing it. Are you going to buy my piece?” Right? People have to get to that point, to say that this artist took his time to prepare this type of entertainment, so that we are entertained. Let’s pay him back this value. Right?

So, the major challenge is that one, that people haven’t yet appreciated the value that we are creating, especially, let’s say, spoken word poetry. Because spoken word poetry, like you say, is just a newly discovered venture. Most people are just looking at poetry as, “Ah, I’m a poet because I write, and I recite, and people come and they appreciate what I’m doing because it’s art.”

But then spoken word poetry is beyond poetry. Spoken word poetry is theatre. Spoken word poetry is dance. Spoken word poetry is storytelling. It’s about people getting to know the poet, people getting to know the poem. But the poet is as important as the poem. And so are the actors in the poem, as important as the poem itself.

So to bring all these people together, let’s say, let’s create a video, right? And I bring actors, I bring choreographers, I bring directors and whatnot all together, is a fund that I alone cannot manage to give it out. So you try to bring in other elements, to say, “Let me sell my poetry.” But people haven’t yet appreciated to say, “I want to buy your poetry.” Because people think creating art is as cheap as it sounds. They think you can just wake up today, and I’ve recorded a piece. But they don’t know that there’s studio fee there. They don’t know that for you to bring out the transport fees for people to come to you, to help you out with your poetry, what it took.

So, apart from that challenge, the other challenge is basically personal. Some people really need to support you, but then they feel like, “No, he’s still an underground person. He’s not supposed to get this far.” Yeah, that type of thing. But the major problem that we have, both theatre-wise and poetry-wise, is that people haven’t yet appreciated that people can create. For example, I would say, if you look at right now, the condition that we are living now, you’d see that COVID has come in to change the way businesses were operating.

Fumbani: I was about to come to that.

Khumbolane: All right. So I’ll just—

Fumbani: So you can—

Khumbolane: All right. Oh, okay. Because COVID is here, it has forced us to start thinking differently from how we were thinking back then. Because then I would definitely create a show where I would get some funds, get collections and whatnot, and then fund some projects that I have. But the problem now is that you cannot invite more than a hundred people. You can’t invite more than fifty people.

Because now we are in a state of national disaster, right? We’ve been hit so hard with the disease, and it’s getting worrisome. So I would say, as we are trying to figure out these new ways, why don’t we come up with a modern way where theatre can be watched on television? Why do we come up with modern ways, where the theatre moves from the stage, and it becomes something that you see on the internet, right?

Fumbani: Like visually?

Khumbolane: Yeah, visually. You see something and you’re like, “Oh.” You feel invited to the show. You feel part of what’s happening. Right? And to find these modern ways, it means we have to find sources of funds—

Fumbani: Find. Yeah.

Khumbolane: … where we are able to pay videographer, able to pay choreographers, to come together and say, “Let’s create something that people would be entertained at home.”

Fumbani: And I think, as you have stated, that we can go visually. We’re going to use television to expose our talent. Not just exposed, but we need to get something from it. And this is one of the challenges most of the artists in Malawi are facing, but specifically theatre artists and poets. And what idea do you think can be the best way of getting something from your performance?

Khumbolane: All right. Well, I will speak on behalf of Millesimal Poetry. I would say I’ve gone visually now. I’ve weighed my options. I don’t think my poems should be played on radios anymore. I think my poems need to be seen visually. I want people to understand the poet at the same time understand the poem. I want people to know the story behind the poem and understand, to say, “This is the message that this guy was trying to sell.” Right?

And, people, we collect memories. For example, we have memories of our stage days back then, how ATEM used to feel and whatnot. It’s that excitement in art, that excitement that reminds you that this was those particular event that you went to, and you saw something that you weren’t expecting. Why don’t we bring that into videos?

So right now I’m working on a project to say, “Let me release videos where people get to know the poet.” And maybe in future, release the audios where people can buy it, because of the memory that they have on the videos that I created. And, in fact, because you’re creating a video, it means people would go back to that video, and watch it and rewatch it, if the video is really that entertaining.

Fumbani: All right. Now, you have explained about this journey of the Millesimal Poetry, the journey of you into theatre. So the genesis of theatre has been an element for you to be the way you are as an artist, a spoken artist as Millesimal Poet. I can say, how are you going to incorporate theatre into your work?

Khumbolane: All right. All right. I don’t think that’s a tough one. But then I’m like, “Let me catch my breath.” Right. Basically, when I look at theatre, I start to understand each character on their own. Right? I understand that we can come up with a play right now, involving two guys—you and me—a play, right?

But each one of us is also a poet. Each one of us is going to recite a certain chunk of lines, and we are going… Together, when we are coordinated, it’s going to make the piece look like a play. Right? So when I look at my theatrical journey, I had to sample myself out of the play, right? Put myself away from the stage, away from the spotlight, and try to create my own spotlight out there. So to say, how are you going to bring theatre into your poetry? You’ve heard of miming theatre, right?

Fumbani: Yeah.

Khumbolane: You don’t have to speak. You just have to show your actions. And people really understand the concept behind it. We saw Charlie Chaplin, that he did that. You would laugh at things that… He doesn’t have to say words. Mr. Bean wouldn’t say anything. But then they would create a memory in our minds, to say, “Oh, that was really amazing.”

So I want to try out that element. I want to try out the element of object theatre, the element of miming theatre. I want to try out bring in actors into my poem, that are going to tell the story itself, even if they had to take me out as a poet. But the story has to make sense.

Fumbani: Wow. Wow. This is really nice, and it was a great chat. You see, Millesimal Poetry has an element, whereby most of the youth outside will be in a reflection of becoming spoken word artists, to see a right channel to go through. So, Khumbolane Chavula, it was nice having you.

Khumbolane: It was amazing that you had to host me. If you haven’t—

Fumbani: You’re welcome. You’re welcome.

Fumbani: Millesimal Poetry has recently released a t-shirt branding. We can create a voice. For more information, follow Millesimal Poetry on Facebook, and subscribe to the YouTube page, Millesimal Poetry. And you can also email Khumbolane Chavula on KhumbolaneChavula@gmail.com. Also, via social media pages, Khumbolane on Twitter at KhumbolaneC; or LinkedIn at Khumbolane Chavula; Instagram, Khumbolane Chavula. And you can also email direct Khumbolane Chavula at KhumbolaneChavula@gmail.com.

Fumbani: Thank you so much for having a show with us. This has been another episode of Critical Stages in Malawian Contemporary Theatre. I was your host Fumbani Innot Phiri Jr. If you’re looking forward to connect with me, you can email me at FumbaniPhiri@gmail.com.

This episode is produced as a contribution to HowlRound Theatre Commons. You can find more episode of this series and other HowlRound podcasts in our feeds—iTunes, Google Podcast, Spotify, and wherever you find podcasts. Be sure to search “HowlRound Theatre Commons podcasts” and subscribe to receive new episodes. If you loved this podcast, post a rating and write a review on those platforms. This help other people to find us. You can also find the transcript of this episode, along with a lot of progressive and disruptive content on howlround.com. Do you have idea for exciting podcasts, essay, or TV event that theatre community needs to hear? Visit howlround.com and submit your idea under the commons.



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