Like many artists have been forced to do because of the pandemic, Peter Mawanga and Trevor Bystrom collaborated remotely for their debut musical project, an EP titled Mawanga & Bystrom. But it wasn’t as simple as swapping tracks cross-country. In this case the participants were separated by 8,000 miles and cultural borders that required more than passports to cross. The challenge was melding Bystrom’s Florida-bred blues, soul, rock, folk, and world influences with Mawanga’s Afro-centric sound without taking away anything from either artist.
Although influenced by world music, Bystrom brings mellow Western folky sounds to this project, merging with Mawanga’s modern folk rhythms and melodies from the East African nation of Malawi — a sound Mawanga calls “Nyanja vibes.”
First known as an Afro-pop artist under the name of Peter Pine, Mawanga has drifted into more of a socially conscious troubadour over the years. His melodies might be mellow, but his message addresses society’s evils as well as, now, the all-consuming pandemic.
Bystrom, meanwhile, was born and raised on tiny Anna Maria Island, about 20 miles from Bradenton on Florida’s Gulf Coast. He drifted between rock and blues before embracing Latin, reggae, calypso and Afro-pop music as well. He met Mawanga on Facebook, and the two put together their project without ever meeting in person.
The EP tackles a variety of social ills as well as taking a swipe at the pandemic and its legacy of devastation and heartbreak worldwide. “It showed up from somewhere and found me here,” Mawanga sings on “Katiswe,” which translates as “crush me.”
He warns that the virus “will come and find you if you don’t stay alert,” adding that “what will crush us is the same little things that we are fond of, and some of which we hold dear to.” The message is delivered over a horn-rich tapestry with Obadia Taura and Ndawazao Nyanda’s lead guitar weaving in and out, stitching the two cultures together as Bystrom and Mawanga trade vocals.
“I Care For You” also addresses the pandemic, a shout-out to frontline workers, including Mawanga’s wife, as well as a condemnation of pandemic naysayers: “How do you expect a child to carry such a heavy load?” Mawanga asks. “The elders have refused to carry it on their backs / enlighten us, do not hide the facts from us /we demand to know truth about coronavirus.”
Mawanga requested that the demo for “Some Day” be stripped down to its basic elements so he could add traditional Malawian instrumentation to the mix. It’s a return to Afro-pop for Mawanga with a sound like King Sunny Ade, reflecting that laidback-ness with lilting melodies that uplift the body and stir the soul.
“Umoyo” which translates as “life,” has Bystrom in Bob Marley mode in tone and message, informing us that “we may live in different worlds but we’re all the same.”
The duo are more convincing in their presentation and their arguments than any politician, plus you can dance to it. No matter your affiliation, that’s a ticket worthy of support.