The Antisocial Commentator

Daliso Chaponda @ Robins Park Hall 01.28.12

Music has always been integrated into every aspect of African society, but there were some traditional professional artists who specialised in the production of political artistry.  These professionals were called ‘izimbongi’. 

Acting as both praise singer and critic, the traditional role of the izimbongi was to mediate between the people and the chief – at times melodic, at times melancholic, the izimbongi enjoyed the poetic licence to orate on any perceived abuse of power with impunity.

But what of the “modern-day izimbongi”?  I interviewed four politically-minded Malawian performers to find out if they are articulating adulations or lamentations as of late, and if the impunity that the traditional izimbongi enjoyed still safeguards the crucial courtly genre.

The Witticist – Daliso Chaponda

Malawian-born Daliso Chaponda has been performing comedy since 2000 as an open-mic amateur in Canada, performing material “mostly about sex and being an African in North America. He gradually began doing more comedic social and political commentary as he became more confident, and launched a one man show called “Westerners Calm Down” in 2008 to address issues such as the global financial crisis.

It is when criticizing the king that the izimbongi found the greatest scope for his wit – an essential quality for finding the balance between verisimilitude and vulgarity.

Malawian-born UK- based comedian Daliso Chaponda walked that line on Jan. 28 when he performed at Robins Park Hall in Blantyre as part of his “Antisocial Commentator” comedy tour, titled such “because to a lot of people the role of an artist is to be a social commentator.  I often talk about subjects that make people uncomfortable, hence ‘antisocial’.”

In his set Chaponda compared the public stripping of women to trying to fix a leaky roof by taking the whole roof off, and addressed shortages of fuel and forex, domestic abuse, the deportation of the British ambassador, gay rights abuses, strikes, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, radical religious beliefs, molestation and even a letter he had received from the Malawi Censorship Board (MCB) warning against a bit on the change of the national flag or “flag 2.0.”

“We were a rising nation, we were an emerging nation, hence, we were a rising sun.  And now we have established ourselves on the world stage, so now we are a full sun.  And I was just thinking, that with all the fuel shortages and all the power cuts from ESCOM, we should replace it with an eclipse,” he joked despite the MCB dispatch.

While Chaponda said he was initially worried after receiving the MCB letter, he added that “after a few moments [he] was extremely amused.”

He said limits to freedom of expression do exist in Malawi, but that “years of performing have given [him] the confidence that [he] can talk about sensitive issues in exactly the right way that [he] amuse[s] but [doesn’t] offend.”

“As long as the joke is actually funny, I think comedians can talk about anything,” he said.

“When you laugh at a monster, you defang it.  I think laughter is the healthiest way to respond to problems.”

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About karissagall

Karissa Gall is a Canadian journalist.

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