By Andrew Magill
Stories of AIDS literally came to me in a dream. I remember jumping out of bed and emptying dozens of ideas onto the page -- a performance piece about AIDS... music...t elling the human story through music... wait, what if there was film? I was so excited I didn't go back to sleep.
So what is Stories of AIDS? Mau a Malawi: Stories of AIDS is a concept album that I wrote with one of Malawi's busiest musicians, Peter Mawanga, with two goals: to raise awareness and kick-start some programs for vulnerable youth affected by AIDS through album sales. Both of us had heard plenty of misinformation about AIDS and Africa and I was frankly ready for a new kind of discourse. Everything seemed to be statistics, no human faces-no stories. Our idea was to collect stories from everyone - cabinet ministers, sex workers, orphans, grassroots activists - and write songs that were the musical interpretations of each personality, their emotions, and story.
With the help of a Fulbright-mtvU grant, I was afforded the opportunity to travel to Malawi and record a ten track album featuring more than twenty musicians from there and the U.S. We were fortunate enough to have a first class studio in Malawi but recording remained a challenge. Imagine having the power cut repeatedly in the middle of a great track by the national power company, always strapped for energy. "We better go get a generator," suggested our fearless engineer Tristram. So the next day we got permission to use the studio's generator but wait...no gasoline. There was a national petrol shortage. So we finagled a truck to transport a diesel generator but it of course broke down on the road en route, as it ran out of fuel.
Considering the unpredictable power, it's amazing we even got to lay down some tracks, much less some intricate and beautiful arrangements. The songs were inspired by narratives I recorded and transcribed. That was a project in and of itself. We got more than 25 narratives, which sometimes meant 13-hour bus rides to remote parts of Malawi to fetch what sounded like an amazing story. I was something of a "story-chaser."
From that sleepless night three years ago when the project first made its introduction to me in my brain, we are on the cusp of the project's international launch. Mau a Malawi: Stories of AIDS will premiere on Friday, Oct. 14, 2011 at Memorial Hall in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, at which point it will be available online for purchase. Jon Haas, a friend from college ended up coming over for five months to shoot a documentary film on the "making of" and this show will be the pinnacle moment of that film. We are merging his film footage with dramatic monologues taken from the original narratives, dance, and live music by the Malawian musicians themselves. The evening's performance will be one seamless multimedia show featuring the voices and faces that constitute our album.
It's odd how things come full circle. We're about to launch the exact show that overwhelmed my dreams.
For more on the Fulbright-mtvU fellowship, check out fulbright.mtvu.com.