His parents could not understand it. How could you pay the bills by playing a guitar? Also, the idea of loose morals associated with musicians didn’t sit well with young Francis Chris Phiri’s parents. This drove young Phiri, known as Lawi, abbreviated from Nzululwazi – custodian of wisdom in the Ngoni language – to work hard on his dream to become a jazz musician, even though he was banned from visiting friends who played musical instruments by his parents, but encouraged to go to church.
“At first church wasn’t fun but when I realized there were musical instruments there, and there was a chance I could practice with the youth group, church became a hideout and a training ground for me,” he says
The church choir helped develop Lawi; he is now an award-winning artist after being named the Best Acoustic Jazz Artist at the Malawian Music Awards and receiving a nomination at the All Africa Music Awards for Best Male Artist in Southern Africa.
Lawi is among the up-and-coming young jazz artists in Southern Africa and getting recognition across the continent.
“Music is a universal language, this makes it quite easy to communicate with lovers of music anywhere,” says Lawi.
“The African continent is big and for your work to be well received by many is a great achievement. We have many musicians from Africa, and of African origin, with exceptional talent, skills and experience who work very hard to bring about great African music.”
Lawi remembers his first time in a recording studio; he wished he could relive it every day. That’s the day he fell in love with production. He then started saving for his first computer and tiny speakers to teach himself how to produce.
He recalls having a lot of friends interested in music. They created a network where they shared ideas and the music produced from different recording spaces. They called it sessions.
Lawi says he did not take his music to radio stations, but some of them were playing his songs although he does not know how they got the music.
“I thought that the work was not all that great but people enjoyed it. I can say it has been a long journey of hard work and a constant need to perfect my skills,” he says.
The Malawian artist began work on his first album in 2009 and released it in 2013. He worked from home since he had the liberty to experiment as much as he could, plus he could not afford professional studios that charged by the hour. Despite his struggles, Malawi loved the 17-song album.
One of Lawi’s hit songs is The Whistling Song, which had regular airplay and received a lot of feedback on social media. Lawi loves vocal harmonies that accompany the guitar; leading to some comparing him to Youssou N’Dour and Richard Bona.
“I believe it is fair to say my sound is evolving, just as jazz is. Very few musicians play jazz as one would know it from New Orleans in the 1920s, or even in the style of great musicians as recent as Miles Davis or Herbie Hancock,” he says.
Lawi has an extensive portfolio and has performed among great South African artists like Jimmy Dludlu and Ray Phiri. He never thought he would share the stage with these experienced jazz musicians, whom he looked up to as a youngster; this was a dream come true for him. Maybe it’s the first dream of many.