The son of a Malawian refugee father and an African-American mother, all the sounds Mtali Banda was exposed to growing up can now be heard in his music. Music was always there. Mtali Banda’s first tour was at age ten, singing in a gospel choir (his mom was the director) traveling from Washington, D.C. to Maine. More than the singing itself, the musicians accompanying the choir captured his burgeoning imagination. He knew right then what he wanted to be.
Born in Amherst, Massachusetts, Mtali spent the bulk of his early years in Madison, Wisconsin, before moving to Atlanta, Georgia as an adolescent. In Atlanta, he switched from his first instrument, clarinet to saxophone and began cutting his teeth in the city’s cutthroat school marching band environment. ‘If you’re good enough in middle school they’ll let you play in the high school band,” he says. And that’s exactly what happened. “It’s a sport down there. You gotta have swagger.”
When Mtali was 15, he and his mother moved to Brockton, Massachusetts – a poor working class immigrant city just south of Boston – where he began to study jazz much more formally. At 18, he moved to Haifa, Israel, where he served at the Baha’i World Centre. He was able to connect with the Israeli jazz music scene, as well as reconnect with his gospel roots and refine his sound.
When he returned to the states after a two year hiatus, Mtali brought these lessons, swagger included, with him, where his career as a bandleader, instrumentalist, and songwriter has taken root. It is a music existing outside of codified genres, balancing invention and tradition. The ingredients span jazz, funk, soul, folk, r&b, and hip hop, but also travelogue, memoir, and family history.
These elements have combined in the work he’s done with The Oneness Project, his avenue for his exploration of personal history and Black experience in America. Visits to Malawi formed the basis for the song cycle Homegoing, a deeply felt collection both of and about the country from which his bloodline springs. Playing music there, he felt at home. “It’s because I grew up playing Black music here,” he says. “I can’t play classical. I have too much backbeat in me.”