Upstate News

May 31, 2005
Darryl Geddes 315 464-4828

SUNY Upstate physician dispatched to Africa to sing AIDS education, prevention songs

SYRACUSE, N.Y. – E. Jackson Allison Jr., MD, associate dean and professor of emergency medicine at SUNY Upstate and chief of staff at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center will be dispatched by the U.S. state department June 1 for a month-long visit to the African nation of Malawi, but not to provide medical care. Allison is being sent to Malawi to combat a serious health epidemic, AIDS, through song. To hear an excerpt of Allison’s AIDS education songs, click here: MalawiMusic

AIDS has reached epidemic proportions in much of Africa, but it is especially prevalent in Malawi where it is estimated that 900,000 people out of a total population of just over 12 million are HIV-positive. Some reports estimate that 30 percent of women of child-bearing age are HIV-positive.

“Music is indeed the universal language,” Allison said. “Song provides us with a unique way to communicate with all ages of people, and to do it in an entertaining and lasting way. If someone can hum or sing an AIDS prevention song, perhaps their behaviors can change, too.”

But why not send a Grammy-winning artist to the African nation if is going to be the means to educate? The answer is simple: Allison is Malawi’s leading recording artist. Allison hit stardom in Malawi in 1967, when as a public health volunteer he teamed up with some Malawi residents to write and sing songs about how to keep children healthy.

Performing in Chichewa, the Bantu language spoken in Malawi, Allison sang “Brush the flies out of your babies eyes to prevent eye disease,” (English translation), which was aimed at keeping conjunctivitis from becoming an epidemic. Another big hit was “Put peanut flour in your babies maize porridge and feed it to him or her three times a day” (English translation) to underscore proper nutrition. Another jingle encouraged good health habits like wash your hands after you use the latrine. These hits and others were played many times a day from the village radio receiver-each village has their own-from sun up to sundown. Allison’s songs were more popular than the other music that was played on the radio. Absent a Billboard play list or local music sales, radio operators relied on postcards from residents to show their interest in the music programming, and requests for Allison’s music filled the mail bag.

During his visit in June, Allison will pen some new tunes and rely on some health education “standards,” such as those he performed in 1994, the last time he was in Malawi. AIDS prevention was the focus of Allison’s work then, too, and while the AIDS tunes were never in jeopardy of being censored, they did carry some key messages, such as “Use a condom and show respect for your lover and cover up.”

Allison does not write music nor does he play an instrument, but the lyrics and the tune are still all his idea. “I hum the tune and write the lyrics and those more musically inclined put my message and tune to paper.” Allison estimates that he has recorded dozens of health songs and has performed before more than 20,000 people in Malawi.

One of the highlights of his third tour to Malawi will be guest appearances at local music festivals. A makeshift stage will transform the dusty village square and portable generators will power the microphones and spotlights. There also might be an occasional, impromptu cabaret performance. “I have gone to some local restaurants where someone recognizes me and ask me to sing one of my signature songs,” said Allison, who is always eager to fulfill a fan request.

Recordings of Allison’s music with a message are available from the charity Friends of Malawi, which supports projects and organizations in Malawi in the fields of education, health and human services, agriculture, environment and small business development. Sales of these raise money for AIDS education efforts and hunger relief. For more information, go to

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