St Albans musician helps creates life-changing project in African mud hut studio

Max singing by the banks of Lake Malawi

Max singing by the banks of Lake Malawi - Credit: Archant

An inspiring St Albans man returned to his African birthplace, sparking “an act of unity” which became a life-changing venture.

John Tobin, from St Albans, in the makeshift Malawain studio

John Tobin, from St Albans, in the makeshift Malawain studio - Credit: Archant

John Tobin, 39, from Chiswell Green, was born in Blantyi, Malawi. He lived there until he was two and a half. His parents were ex pats, who returned to St Albans, yet he used to go back for visits.

Five years ago, he met a man called Max Jere. John said: “He claimed to have a studio and he took us. It was the most unlikely studio I’ve ever seen and I was more impressed by that than any other studio I’ve ever been in. Because it’s against all the odds.

“It was made from mud bricks, branches and bin bags. Everything there is really basic.

“It started by accident. I had an instrumental on my phone that I recorded here and I thought it would be fun to merge the cultures on to the track I had made.

“The ingenuity and the determination just blew me away. Even though his English and my Chichewa was a bit dodgy, in music we had a common language. We found we could collaborate. We had the music in common.”

John and his Welwyn-based friend Olly McDermott, 47, spent time jamming together there last year, with singer Max and his friend Chakul Nyambo - who sings backing vocals and harmonies - and they began to work on some impromtu songwriting together.

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It became clear that the tiny basic mud hut, which Max and Chakul used as a studio, was also home to the deprived musicians.

They insist that The Umoza Music Project (umoza means ‘togetherness’) is not charity, describing it as “an act of friendship and unity”.

All the money raised will go towards building a new studio on a small plot of underdeveloped land that Max and Chakul already own. That building will also house a music academy to help others hone their craft and trade.

John said: “Last year, I went with Olly and stood in this mud hut studio, we listened to the music that we had made and we realised we had enough for an album. We thought, ‘We could sell that album and give them the money’.

“Instead of writing them a cheque, that would be pure charity and what does it change? Doing it this way, they get self-respect and self-esteem and they believe in themselves as artists.

“A royalty stream that might not even keep a smoker in cigarettes in the UK, could actually give them a good standard of living. Most people there live off 70 US cents a day.

“So if we sell 300 CDs, we get to put a roof over their heads - that’s the idea. That would be the best thing if that could happen!

“For them to be big in England would just be the coolest thing for them, in a mud hut in Malawi. To know that you think of them and listen to their music - they would be really over the moon with that.”

Entitled Let Them Speak, the finished result was mastered at Abbey Road Studios in May.

The only voices are the two Malawian guys, singer songwriter Max and his friend Chakul, on backing vocals with his original harmonies – recorded on the banks of Lake Malawi.

They are accompanied by 18 volunteer musicians - including a cellist, a violinist and a saxophonist - from Hertfordshire and London have clubbed up to help these musicians over there.

These include guitarists Paul Bailey, Rich Hignett and Bernie Devine, and drummer Rob Lee, who are all from St Albans.

Most of them have never met, but through the use of modern technology and communications, the African and British musicians worked to make their dream a reality, despite often being 18,000km apart.

The Umoza Music Project has had more than 5,000 likes on Facebook from around the world, and the videos have been viewed thousands of times.

The album is on sale now on iTunes and at Empire Records, Heritage Close, St Albans, with all of the £10 going directly to Max and Chakul. Or you can email