Lazarus: the Malawian busker overturning prejudice about albinism

 Lazarus Chigwandal
Lazarus Chigwandal

On a Sunday last summer, in a small church in Malawi, the congregation listened to a sermon about how all men are equal. A quiet man in jeans and white shirt rose to play a song. He began timidly, sitting at the front of the hall, head bowed over his guitar. But then, a minute into his performance, he stood and began to dance, knees buckling, foot tapping, voice rising, leading the congregation in a grand, euphoric chorus.

When music producer Johan Hugo posted footage of the song to his Instagram account, he wrote: “A few golden times in life something blows you away in such an amazing way you just cry and laugh and shake your head. One of the coolest and most emotional moments of my life.”

The singer was Lazarus Chigwandali, known simply as Lazarus, and was most often found busking outside a branch of Wimpy in Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital. He was known for the rich but plaintive timbre of his voice, for playing a homemade banjo, and for the fact that he was born with albinism.

Since that Sunday in June, life has shifted considerably for Lazarus. He has recorded his first album, Stomp on the Devil, produced by Hugo, and a film about his life just premiered at Tribeca film festival, directed by the Oscar-nominated David Darg. He has performed at the Lake of Stars festival and Madonna is a fan – “A powerful voice of a new generation in Malawi,” she wrote beneath the picture of the pair she posted on Instagram.

“I used to busk, moving from one township to another every day, but now I don’t have to and I feel relieved,” Chigwandali tells me via video call. “Even now I can’t believe it happened. At Lake of Stars, it was the first time I performed to a big crowd and I wished it could go on longer. I wished I could do it all the time. I felt I had been waiting to do that my whole life.”

That any of this should have happened at all was pure chance. Hugo is known for his production work with artists such as Mumford & Sons and Self Esteem, and also as part of the Very Best, his collaboration with the Malawian singer Esau Mwamwaya. He first came across Chigwandali a couple of years ago when a friend played him a short phone video of the singer that had been shot by a tourist. It showed an ad hoc interview with Chigwandali and a couple of songs he was busking on the street. Hugo was immediately struck by a sense of possibility.

“I really liked the music,” he says. “There was something punky about it and hard – it felt very different from a lot of traditional music I’d heard, particularly in Malawi. Lazarus has got a real pop sensibility and a songwriting approach that marries the old way of playing a homemade banjo and kick drum and makes it seem modern.”

He approached a few music industry sources about funding to make a Lazarus record. “But I couldn’t get anything,” he says, “which was understandable – I knew it was a hard sell to take a punt on a traditional record with a busker.” So he approached the LA-based film company RYOT with the idea of making a documentary and simultaneously funding an album. RYOT had seen great success for their 2015 documentary Body Team 12, which followed Red Cross workers in Liberia collecting bodies following the ebola outbreak, and Hugo suspected they might have the sensitivity to take on the story of both Lazarus and those with albinism.

In many eastern and southern African nations albinism is widely and dangerously misunderstood. Many believe it to be contagious, or to be the result of infidelity, or that the bones of those with the condition are made from gold. As a result, many face severe discrimination and abuse. It can also prove fatal – some will develop skin cancer, while others will fall victim to the illegal trade in body parts that has led to those with albinism being hunted, kidnapped, mutilated and killed.

In the village where he was raised, Chigwandali, 39, learned early that he was different. “Even my own friends were segregated from me,” he recalls. “I couldn’t play with them simply because of my skin condition.” It was his brother, who also had albinism and died from skin cancer, who taught him how to play and make guitars. “We used to perform together in different villages and at weddings and functions,” says Chigwandali. “My brother taught me that with our condition we cannot go about work like any other people, so music is a way that we can make a living and also express ourselves. That got stuck in my mind and stayed there even after he died.”

Making the record and the documentary was not always straightforward. Mwamwaya had made contact with Chigwandali, and though he was initially hesitant, Mwamwaya’s sheer persistence and the promise of making an album led him to agree to join Hugo, Darg and their team to record at a lodge outside Lilongwe.

 Lazarus Chigwandal
Lazarus Chigwandal

But a couple of days before they were due to begin, Chigwandali seemed to disappear. He would not answer their calls, and Mwamwaya could find no trace of him in Lilongwe. Mwamwaya’s wife suggested he had got scared, and they eventually tracked Chigwandali down in his home village, where he had fled with his wife and young sons.

He was kidnapped by people who said they wanted him to do a show. A maid overheard them say they were going to kill him
“We realised we’d been so stupid,” says Hugo. “We hadn’t understood the terror that people with albinism live with every day, the suspicion of people’s intentions.” Several people had tried to abduct Chigwandali before. “We learned how he was kidnapped once by some people who had said they wanted him to play a show in Tanzania,” Hugo says. “A maid in the house where they had taken him overheard them saying how they were going to kill him, so she helped him escape.”

When they finally met, Hugo was struck by Chigwandali’s shyness and timidity. “You get a feeling straight away that he’s someone who’s been knocked down his whole life,” he says. “Everything about his demeanour says he’s the underdog. It’s really heartbreaking. For him to come out of his shell took a little time. But that was one of the amazing things with recording and making the film, to see him progressing.”

Over two days at the lodge they recorded 30 songs, and then having whittled that number down, recorded alternative versions outside Chigwandali’s village home. “Crowds of children joined in, so it had a different mood,” Hugo recalls and notes how the singer’s timidity seemed to disappear. “He might have been self-conscious but not with his music, because playing for people is what he’s always done.”

But, as his profile has grown, Lazarus has become an even more visible target for those attacking people with albinism. He still lives in a small house with his wife and three young sons – two of whom have also albinism. When they visited, Hugo was struck by how little they owned: “It has cement floors, not a single piece of furniture, nothing to sleep on, no blankets no pillows, nothing, just a single candle, barely any cooking utensils,” he says. They have now launched a Kickstarter campaign to build him a house with a high perimeter wall and motion sensor lights, a place that will grant Chigwandali and his family greater security.

For Chigwandali, the last year has been “like a dream”. Hearing his album for the first time was a strange and remarkable experience. “I didn’t know my music sounded that way,” he says. “I didn’t even realise it was me!”

When he learned that the documentary would be shown at a festival in the United States he felt a great deal of hope at last that people outside his homeland might begin to understand the difficulties of life with albinism. “I’m deeply religious,” he says. “So every day I pray to God to bless Johan and David and everyone else who was involved in the making of this film, that my story is going to be shown and people are going to come to see it.”

A new EP, Timponde Satana, is out now. Stomp on the Devil will be released in September.

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