Indie-Rockers Islands Introduce Malawian Kids To "Martian" Music

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It’s hard to imagine a more worthwhile endeavour for a musician than bringing the joy and power of music to kids, particularly kids struggling to fulfill everyday needs most of us are lucky enough to take for granted.

So when Montreal-reared, L.A.-based musician Nick Thorburn had the opportunity to visit the African nation of Malawi this spring as part of an inaugural project dedicated to enriching the lives of children through the arts, the leader of acclaimed indie-rock band Islands jumped at the chance.

As Thorburn explains to Samaritanmag during an interview promoting his band’s fifth and forthcoming album Ski Mask (dropping Sept. 17), the Malawian trip was a happy accident. A friend of his knew Katelyn Faith and Amelia Reid, New York based co-founders and directors of Komai, “a social business driven by creativity for cause.

“We design creative ways to implement and raise awareness of sustainable development initiatives through bringing together grass-root organisations and creative talent,” according to Komai’s website.

Its debut project, dubbed Music 4 Malawi: Komai Music Project, was an after-school music education program for children in Malawi.

The pair managed to exceed their fundraising goal of $70,000 and used the cash to build the music curriculum, source equipment, materials and instruments needed to teach, stage community concerts and fly out bands and other musicians to train local teachers.

To that last agenda item, Islands, along with Malawian musician Masauko Chipembere, descended for two weeks last April on Luchenza, a town located in the southern region district of Thyolo savaged by the highest rate of HIV/AIDS in Malawi and resulting in a large population of orphaned children.

“We performed a concert and sat in on classes, visited schools and played music,” Thorburn says of the experience. “The after-school music program in this primary school taught kids about Malawian music, the history of Malawian music and gave them music lessons, teaching them how to play guitars and drums and stuff. So when the program started, we went and kind of sat in.”

In a video produced for Komai (see below) Faith and Reid explain that they launched the program in one school, Mwitera Primary, with 80 students this year and hope to expand throughout the region, ensuring the program is self-sustaining.

“Gaining an education in the arts is imperative. It cultivates communication and problem-solving skills and not only that, it fuels happiness, confidence and a sense of empowerment,” Faith and Reid write on their website.

It was a concept Thorburn — speaking on behalf of bassist Evan Gordon and keyboardist Geordie Gordon who also made the trip — was totally down with. “We were guests that were visiting from afar, so it was a cool thing and a real treat for the students because the kids are so musical and so brilliant and they rarely have guests,” he continues. “It was one of the best experiences I have ever had.

“How many chances do you get to go to Malawi and enjoy it in a way that’s not just tourism? To be there and to have something to do felt good, and not in a congratulatory way. Even though it wasn’t connected to something like clean water, it was enriching people’s lives.

“Music really helps people let their guard down. I mean, they looked at us like Martians. Malawian music is very traditional with some influences like maybe reggae and other music from the region but it doesn’t have the same feel as rock music.

“We were in a very rural village where most people didn’t have access to electricity let alone music from outside the region. So a lot of people were like, ‘What is this music?’ People would approach us and ask questions about it. They had no context for our music.

“But I definitely want to be more involved in building on what’s already there.  The people we met work harder than anyone we’ve ever seen. Just having access to resources and rebuilding a destroyed infrastructure is a challenge but it’s essential to making things self-sustaining. If anyone reads this story and wants my services, I am available.” is an online magazine covering the good deeds of individuals, charities and businesses.