In a largely patriarchal society, where female creatives are often underrepresented and usually take up supporting roles in the arts, a question emerges: How can one challenge and redefine societal expectations to foster greater female participation? Until recently, in Malawi, the typical narrative viewed female creatives as supporting roles. The music industry in the country is male dominated, and only a few females venture into instrument-playing, technical production, and arts management, as most of them are subjected to be backing vocalists and dancers. A recent study on Music Business in Malawi conducted by Festival Institute commissioned by Rei Foundation Ltd, Music Crossroads Malawi, and Malawi National Commission for UNESCO indicates that the music industry in Malawi is comprised of less than 3% female representation.

In 2013, a revolutionary all-female band, the Daughters Band, an initiative of Music Crossroads Malawi was established. Fusing Afro-Soul with rock, pop, and traditional Malawian sounds, the band is not only making captivating music but is also on a mission to challenge societal norms regarding women’s roles in the music industry. The women are inspiring each other and embracing the freedom to be what they want to be by taking up roles in the industry traditionally done by men. This musical endeavor is a powerful advocacy project, dismantling preconceived notions about the roles of women professionals in the arts. 

Ghayigayi Mathews Mfune, the Director of Music Crossroads Malawi, told me “the Daughters band stands not only as a testament to musical talent but also as a model advocating for increased female participation in the arts. It endeavors to shatter stereotypes and encourage women to pursue careers in the arts, challenging the perception that such paths are unsuitable for them. In essence, this band is becoming a beacon of change in a society that is gradually embracing women in the arts.”

Contrary to prevailing stereotypes, the band shows that women can excel in leadership roles in bands, surpassing the limited roles of dancers or backing vocalists. “This is a Band composed of very vibrant and professional young women who can play the instruments and have undergone training in sound engineering. We are working hard to achieve inclusive participation in the Arts by modeling the band,” said Mfune.

At the inception of the band, a 21 year old, Prisca Mkaliyayinga who is a composer, singer, and pianist, assumed the pivotal role of a band leader.  Driven by her passion for music and inspired by Alicia Keys, singer/songwriter, and pianist she defied the male-dominated industry. In a recent conversation with me, Mkaliyayinga, who is now teaching at an International High School in Malawi, told me: “I am currently a teacher at Bedir Star International School in Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe and I am still making music. I teach English, Mathematics, Science, Geography and History. As a passionate musician, I am also a matron of the students’ music club, mentoring my students. I teach them how to play Piano and I am their vocal trainer.” Mkaliyayinga attributes her musical experience to the Daughters Band and was grateful to the Music Crossroads Malawi for building and maintaining the band. She concluded by saying that the Band not only imparted her with technical expertise in music but also instilled self-confidence, enabling her to thrive in this male-dominated industry.

Since its establishment, the Band has remained a female-led institution, fostering a supportive environment where young women mentor each other and inspire others to join their musical journey. Serving as a launchpad for many, the band has propelled several young women into successful musical careers. Notably, three band members have transitioned to become private soldiers in the Malawi Defense Force, contributing their talents to the Malawi Defence Force Band, where they hold prominent roles. Ruth Samu, the Band's deputy leader, is also a skilled keyboardist. Prosperity Ng’oma serves as the Band’s Treasurer, sound engineer, and guitarist. Additionally, Grace Gama, the Band's vocalist, is honing her keyboard skills. Beyond their musical achievements, these soldiers and musicians have become role models, challenging stereotypes and encouraging others to pursue music careers and leadership roles. Their impact extends to transforming perceptions of the arts, advocating for gender equality, and empowering individuals to pursue their aspirations.

Eight women of the Daughters Band post with some of their instruments: guitars, violin, melodica
The Daughters band. Source: The Daughters Band Manager, Mphatso Chidothe

Mphatso Chidothe, the manager of the Daughters Band, expressed her pride in the cultural shift.  She notes a growing influx of women joining the field. Chidothe emphasized, "We consistently welcome numerous new members into the band. Over time, some choose to embark on solo careers, while others opt to join alternative institutions. I am happy that the Daughters band has earned the trust of esteemed organizations in Malawi to spearhead various campaigns.” Recently, the Band was engaged by the IOM-UN Migration and Malawi's Ministry of Homeland Security in a community awareness campaign on trafficking in persons, smuggling of migrants, and irregular migration.

The Band's engagements span various thematic topics, including gender, culture, education, and the prevention of child marriage, aligning with the priorities of other respected organizations in the country.

Since its formation, the Daughters Band has sparked growing interest among young female musicians. It has inspired them to take up roles previously perceived as exclusive to men, including jobs like sound engineers and instrumentalists.

This transformative trend has given rise to another all-female group, the Krazy Colours. Cynthia Phiri a former Daughters band member who is the band leader for Krazy Colous told me that “the Band is on a mission to address various challenges hindering young women from achieving their goals. Phiri, a guitarist sheds light on the obstacles faced by girls and women, emphasizing issues such as child marriages and Gender-Based Violence. She observes: 

“There are a lot of challenges that lead girls and women to have low self-esteem, which affects their ability to achieve their goals. By addressing these issues through our music, we are contributing to a broader societal conversation about empowering women and dismantling barriers in the cultural and creative landscape.”

In essence, the emergence of all-female bands like Daughters and Krazy Colours marks a pivotal shift in the industry. It is inspiring a new generation of female artists to challenge societal norms and actively participate in the cultural and creative sectors. These bands not only showcase the talents of women in music but also serve as advocates for change, fostering an environment where gender equality and empowerment are at the forefront of the industry's agenda.

Written by Vincent Maluwa, a graduate student in the MFA in Theatre - Arts Leadership program at Virginia Tech.