MAWANGA & BYSTROM
Peter Mawanga and Trevor Bystrom have never been in the same room together. In fact, for the duration of their unlikely friendship, the two have never even been on the same continent. And yet, despite the ocean between them, the duo has managed to emerge from COVID-19 lockdowns with a collaborative EP as delightful as it is unexpected, one that fuses American and Malawian culture into an adventurous, inventive, and deeply moving testament to our shared humanity.
“Music is the universal language,” says Mawanga. “We live in a global village these days, and songs have no borders or boundaries.”
Mawanga & Bystrom is proof of that. Recorded remotely at Bystrom’s studio in Holmes Beach, Florida, and Mawanga’s studio in the East African nation of Malawi, the six-track EP is a celebration of connection and unity, mixing traditional Malawian rhythms and instruments—like the nsansi (thumb piano), visekese (shakers), and marimba (xylophone)—with contemporary American folk and rock music to craft a sound that’s at once foreign and familiar, joyful and meditative, playful and profound. The songs here are relentlessly optimistic, insistent on brighter days to come and the primacy of love, and the performances are buoyant to match, overflowing with intoxicating, effervescent energy. Mawanga and Bystrom split the writing and share the vocal duties on the collection, which is delivered in English, Chichewa, and Shona, and the two trade off verses as if they’ve been collaborating their entire lives, their voices blending with an instinctual ease that belies the great distance separating them. Neither would describe the process as easy, of course, but both will say without a doubt that it was more than worth the considerable effort to craft not only a remarkable record, but a lasting friendship.
“Peter comes from a completely different world than me,” says Bystrom, “and he’s lived a completely different life. But as we found ourselves going through quarantine together and learning about each other’s experiences and families and cultures, we realized just how much we actually had in common.”
Born and raised in Florida, Bystrom developed a passion for world music at an early age, falling in love first with the sounds of the Caribbean and later immersing himself in the work of a wide array of African artists. At sixteen, he began performing live and writing his own songs, blending folk, blues, rock, and soul with an eclectic palette of international influences and wrapping it all up in lyrics calling for peace, understanding, and equality.
“I’ve always just loved exploring music from different cultures,” Bystrom reflects. “One of my favorite things as an artist is to hear a piece of music where I have no idea what’s going on and then try to take it apart and figure out how it works.”
Growing up on the other side of the world, Mawanga developed a similarly adventurous attitude towards music as he learned to sing and play guitar and keyboards through school clubs and church choir. In 2002, he released his debut album, City Life, to widespread acclaim, quickly becoming a nationwide sensation in Malawi, where he came to be known as “the voice of the voiceless.” Over the next two decades, Mawanga would go on to release several more albums, record and perform with a variety of international artists, and tour the US and Europe multiple times over, bringing his “Nyanja vibes” to the world and utilizing his talents for a myriad of charity and activism projects with children and refugees at home.
“I consider myself a musical explorer,” says Mawanga. “I’m always trying to use music to learn about other people’s cultures and to connect them with my own.”
So when Mawanga got a Facebook message out of the blue from Bystrom, who’d come across his music online and suggested they try collaborating, he was intrigued, to say the least.
“I started listening to his songs on YouTube and I was blown away,” recalls Mawanga. “I asked him to send me what he was working on at the moment, and he shared a song called ‘Some Day.’ As soon as I heard it, I knew that I could add some Nyanja vibes.”
At Mawanga’s request, Bystrom stripped the track down to its most basic elements, leaving room for Mawanga and some of his local bandmates to recontextualize the arrangement with instruments and rhythms inspired by the traditional music played up and down the shores of Lake Malawi. The result was an utterly exhilarating Afropop gem all about perseverance and resilience, one that exceeded both artists’ initial expectations, and when COVID lockdowns hit soon after and forced Mawanga and Bystrom off the road indefinitely, they decided to continue their intercontinental collaboration.
“I sent Peter a few more song ideas of mine, and he sent me a few ideas of his, and we just got to work,” says Bystrom. “He wrote verses on my songs, I wrote verses on his songs, and we ended up with something that was a true 50/50 split.”
That shared vision is clear from the outset on Mawanga & Bystrom, which opens with the tender “I Care For You.” Written by Mawanga in tribute to the frontline workers medical personnel (including his wife) who have sacrificed so much throughout the pandemic, the track finds both men swapping vocals as they meditate on strength and compassion and the need to lift up healthcare workers in meaningful ways. “You should get more than just words and gratitude,” Bystrom sings over Mawanga’s hypnotic chanting and dazzling guitar. “I’ll fight alongside you for wages and livelihood / Because you care for me and I care for you.” Like much of the EP, it’s a song rooted in the ties that bind us despite whatever outward differences we may seem to possess. The breezy “Listen” implores us to open our hearts and try to better understand our neighbors, while the swirling guitar and horn-fueled “Katiswe” reckons with the fragility of life and the hidden dangers lurking in the things we love the most, and the mesmerizing “Asleep At Night” oscillates between the peace and anxiety that comes at the end of the day. It’s perhaps the airy “Umoyo,” though, that best encapsulates the spirit of the record, with Bystrom singing, “We may live in different worlds / But we’re all the same.”
“The word umoyo means life,” says Mawanga, “and I wrote that song about the human experience, which is the same no matter where you live. People laugh, they cry, they fall in love, they celebrate, they mourn. Malawi is one of the poorest nations in the world, but it’s also known as ‘The Warm Heart Of Africa’ because it’s a peaceful place free of war and conflict. Even though people are living on less than a dollar a day, they still laugh and find happiness.”
And even in the midst of a global pandemic, Mawanga and Bystrom managed to find ways to connect, to create, to spread joy and love. They hope to meet in person and perhaps even perform live together someday soon, but in the meantime, they’re already inextricably bound through song and, just as importantly, forever united in their friendship.