Malawi Mouse Boys: Hunting Mice And Singing In Harmony When record producer Ian Brennan met the Malawi Mouse Boys, they were selling mice as roadside snacks and singing together in church. Now, they've released two albums and toured the U.S.
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Malawi Mouse Boys: Hunting Mice And Singing In Harmony

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Malawi Mouse Boys: Hunting Mice And Singing In Harmony

Malawi Mouse Boys: Hunting Mice And Singing In Harmony

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Malawi is a small, landlocked, mostly undeveloped country in southeast Africa - population is mostly rural and agricultural. But over the past two years, some of its music has begun to reach the wider world, in many ways because of Ian Brennan. Three years ago, the San Francisco-based producer set up a portable studio to record a group of gospel singers called the Malawi Mouse Boys. This year, he brought the musicians to Los Angeles, where Betto Arcos talked to them.

BETTO ARCOS, BYLINE: The Malawi Mouse Boys took their name from the job they had when Ian Brennan found them while driving the back roads of southeastern Malawi.

IAN BRENNAN: In that little stretch of freeway where they live, there's a tradition where they sell mice on a stick as snacks, meals to the passing travelers. And it's quite a labor-intensive task. It requires that they get up before dawn and hunt the mice. And their primary competitor for the mice are wild boars and black mamba snakes, so it can be quite dangerous.

ARCOS: Brennan set up his gear near the road where they were working asked one of them, Alfred Gavana, to play and sing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NDINASANGALALA")

ALFRED GAVANA: (Singing in Chichewa).

BRENNAN: And he played it so quietly it was almost inaudible. But when he came to the chorus, this group of 20 kids that was pressing in, from age 2 to age 18 or so, all kicked in on the chorus in multi-part harmony. And the sun was literally going down, and it was surround sound, and one of the most musical moments I'd ever had in my life.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NDINASANGALALA")

GAVANA AND UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing in Chichewa).

ARCOS: After they recorded that first song, Brennan asked Gavana to invite other musicians to a session in his village a few days later. Brennan spent all day there, eventually zeroing in on a core group.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UTHENGA WABWINO")

MALAWI MOUSE BOYS: (Singing in Chichewa).

ARCOS: The Malawi Mouse Boys grew up singing in the village church, where Sunday services stretched for hours. When Brennan recorded them in May of 2011, the four members were in their mid to late 20s. Lead singer Zondiwe says from the get-go the group had no real expectations. Foreigners had come through before expressing interest but never followed through.

ZONDIWE: (Speaking Chichewa).

ARCOS: Zondiwe, speaking through Joseph Nekwankwe, says Brennan came back with a CD.

JOSEPH NEKWANKE: Ian is not like that. He came back, and he saying, OK, I recorded your songs. Here is your profit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NDAIMIRILA")

MALAWI MOUSE BOYS: (Singing in Chichewa).

ARCOS: The Malawi Mouse Boys make their own instruments. Their four-string guitar was built with sheet metal and tree limbs. They use plastic water coolers and bicycle spokes for percussion. But Brennan says the instruments are secondary.

BRENNAN: Their voices are really the core. They have such a unity that I think is very similar to the Carter Family or the Jackson Five, where it's familial. They've been singing seen together their whole lives - people that have developed their voices literally together; that have learned to listen together; have open their ears to each other and with each other.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KUNVERA")

MALAWI MOUSE BOYS: (Singing in Chichewa).

ARCOS: Getting their voices heard became a mission for Brennan. First, he got the CD released on a British label.

BRENNAN: That no record had ever been released in any, you know, substantial way given a real, fair chance in the world is so absurd when you think about the tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions of records that come out of Los Angeles and New York and London predominately - mostly in English.

ARCOS: Then, last year, he took the Malawi Mouse Boys to England to perform at the WOMAD Festival. It was their first trip outside their country. And they sang in their native Chichewa language to an audience of more than 10,000 people. They also recorded a second album. Singer and percussionist Joseph Nekwankwe says it's a miracle they've come this far.

NEKWANKE: Maybe we can say it's a plan of God. Because to us, to reach where we are now, using these local instruments, is not a joke. Because in our country in Malawi, we have got many people who are using electric guitars and instruments. But they didn't reach America.

ARCOS: Next year, they'll travel to Australia for the 2015 WOMAD Festival. And they hope to come back to the U.S. For NPR News, I'm Betto Arcos.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KUFANANA")

MALAWI MOUSE BOYS: (Singing in Chichewa).

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