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UNC student's dream project unites musical cultures and a mission 

Peter Mawanga, recording for "Mau a Malawi"

Photo by Kaitlin Houlditch-Fair

Peter Mawanga, recording for "Mau a Malawi"

Irish fiddler Andrew Finn Magill dreams big. Back in August 2008, when he was still a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill, he conjured a massive, multimedia arts project that could change the public discourse on HIV and AIDS in Africa. "I just think about what's feasible. And I think that's feasible. I love big, complicated projects," says Magill.

It came to him, literally, while he was sleeping.

"I was thinking about what projects to do after college where I could merge public health and music. This came to me one night, and I started furiously scribbling ideas in a journal," Magill recalls.

Now, the sketches of that ambitious dream are about to become a reality. During the past three years, Magill travelled to Malawi to collect dozens of hopeful and inspiring testimonies from people living with the disease, and then set them to music on a concept album co-written with Malawian musician Peter Mawanga titled Mau a Malawi: Stories of AIDS. Magill's journey across two continents to produce the album is also the subject of a documentary film, If My Eyes Could Sing, by fellow UNC alumnus Jon Haas.

The CD's international release on Oct. 14 will be celebrated in UNC's Memorial Hall with a free, 90-minute live performance, at which donations will be collected for Mawanga's arts-based charity, Talents of the Malawian Child. The global premiere includes clips from Haas' film, an eight-piece band made up of local and Malawian musicians, a string quartet, a choir, dancers and actors who will bring to life the stories of 10 people Magill interviewed.

So how does a dream like Magill's come to fruition? First, he won funding from various sources, including a Fulbright-mtvU Grant, a travel grant from the UNC Chancellor's Office and a small business grant from IdeaBlob.com. Many fundraisers by friends and supporters helped cover the premiere's expenses, which included travel costs to fly in musicians from Malawi, New York and California. The show is sponsored in part by UNC's Institute for Global Health & Infectious Diseases, which has been working in Malawi and helped Magill develop contacts there.

"It was actually a music producer and social entrepreneur, Benjamin Cobb, who put the idea in my head to go to Malawi," Magill says. "He gave me a lot of musician contacts. He started PromoteAfrica.org and worked on the documentary Deep Roots Malawi, which Peter Mawanga is featured in. Then I met with the founder and director of UNC Project Malawi at the school of medicine, Irving Hoffman, and Irving put me in touch with Peter."

Mawanga, who lectured last year at UNC on Malawian music and children's advocacy work, is in Chapel Hill helping Magill prepare for the premiere, which involves about 40 volunteer cast and crew members.

"It's really exciting in rehearsals," Mawanga said on the UNC campus last week. "It's turning into a musical. I was really blown away." Mawanga jumped at the chance when Magill first approached him with the idea of recording an album that would give voice to the voiceless—those who are discriminated against in Malawi for having HIV and AIDS but who are breaking the silence and transforming their society. "Mau a Malawi" means "voices of Malawi," and the narratives that form the basis of the songs include those of community activists and cabinet ministers, sex workers and ordinary villagers.

"I just caught Peter at a good time with this project," Magill recalls. "He was already thinking about doing some kind of fusion piece with a social message, so this was perfect timing."

Mawanga calls his own style of music "afrovibes," a fusion of modern African music with traditional Malawian instruments such as marimba and the seed-filled chisekese, a form of shaker. At the concert, he'll play a custom-made acoustic guitar with nylon strings.

"I call it a 'Jozi' [after the person who made it for me]," he says. "I wanted an acoustic guitar which is very thin, because by having smaller dimensions in the body, and nylon strings, it would create a sound which is closer to the original banjo which was found in Malawi." On the album, Mawanga plays guitar and percussion, while Magill plays guitar, fiddle and Irish low whistle. Singers recorded vocals in English and Chichewa, the languages spoken in Malawi.

As it turns out, Magill almost didn't join Mawanga on the album. "Yeah, you know originally, I wasn't even going to play on it, I was just going to be the co-producer," Magill says. "But Peter really loved the idea of musical fusion, and when I got there, he was like, 'No no no, we need you performing on this record.' He insisted, so I ended up writing a lot of material and performing."

Jamming together in Mawanga's home studio, the two created a new sound that goes beyond both "afrovibes" and Irish fiddle music. "It's a very different musical experience that we've created," Mawanga says. "His timing is different from my timing. My traditional beat is very different from his Irish traditional as well as American beat. A violin is not our instrument in Malawi; it's a strange instrument. But the fact that he could bring that to my music, and I could bring my chisekese, my rhythm, into what he's playing, is what created this album, basically."

Ultimately, the two want their music to send a message of hope and to combat negative stereotypes about Africa and HIV and AIDS.

"What you get from all the sources here is the idea that the epidemic is something wholly negative, which it's not. It's actually a tremendous source of hope and inspiration for a lot of people," Magill says. The whole idea behind this project is to show some of those stories of hope and courage."

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