BALAKA, MALAWI (AFP) - The four young men scrape a living hawking barbecued mice on the side of a Malawi highway, but that is just a day job for the Malawi Mouse Boys - who could soon be singing their way out of poverty.
They hunt field mice - a delicacy in Malawi - to grill and sell as kebab snacks to motorists on the busy north-south highway connecting the largest cities of Blantyre and Lilongwe.
But when business is slow, they bring out their instruments - a rudimentary guitar crafted from scrap metal and crude homemade percussion rattles - to play home-grown gospel tunes.
It was by the side of the road that Grammy-winning American producer Ian Brennan discovered the Malawi Mouse Boys two years ago.
Brennan stumbled upon them after two weeks of driving for more than 2,000km criss-crossing the small southern African country on bumpy, dusty roads scouting for musical talent.
"When Alfred (Gavanda) sang for me by the roadside and the local kids joined in on the chorus - the sun was going down - it was about as musical a moment as I've had in my life," Brennan recalled.
Guitar and vocals are backed by a rhythmic pulse of percussion shaken from aluminium soda cans or plastic bottles filled with dried grains of corn.
Living in grass-thatched huts with no electricity or flush toilets, the childhood friends grew up singing songs of faith to entertain villagers for free.
"Few harmonise quite like those that have learned to sing together as kids," Brennan, famed for his discovery of the legendary Tuareg desert blues band Tinariwen, told AFP.
The Malawi Mouse Boys' music has been compared to the 20th-century American gospel music of the likes of Sister Rosetta Tharpe and African-American a cappella ensemble the Fisk Jubilee Singers.
One of the band's vocalists, Zondiwe Kachingwe, is "a world-class powerhouse, soulful singer... and Alfred's ethereal tenor is their secret weapon with the harmonies", Brennan said.
Jack McBrams, a music producer, critic and entertainment editor at one of Malawi's leading dailies, The Nation, describes their music as "quite rare".
Most poverty-stricken villagers would use music to complain about their welfare instead of singing celebratory gospel tunes, he said.
"They come from a very remote village and they haven't had any influence apart from themselves.
"So this music comes from within... they're really a diamond in the rough," McBrams said.
'MY FUTURE LOOKS BRIGHT'
In the two years since they were discovered, the Malawi Mouse Boys have released two albums.
Their debut "He Is #1", believed to be the first album to be released internationally in the local Chichewa language, was ranked in Amazon's top 75 albums of 2012.
It was recorded in Brennan's mobile studio on the beaten earth outside the hut of one of the musicians.
"The only real obstacle to catching lightning-in-a-bottle musically with these... young men was the tiny spiders that kept crawling into the hard drive and crashing the mobile system," Brennan said.
In July last year the four mouse-sellers travelled out of the country for the first time, performing twice at Britain's popular Womad (World of Music Arts and Dance) festival.
Their earnings so far have been "modest by the standards of more industrialised countries but significant in comparison to their usual income", Brennan said.
For now they are back selling mouse kebabs, earning roughly two dollars a day each, but hope that royalties and new opportunities will extricate them from the cycle of poverty.
"I believe that one day our lives will change and we will be able to make money and stop selling mice and become musicians that can make money from music," Nelson Muligo, 30, told AFP.
"For now we still sell mice because of poverty. But someday we will stop selling mice and focus our energy on music because that is what will really improve our lives forever," he added.
While few Malawians have heard of the Malawi Mouse Boys, vocalist Kachingwe, 24, is proud that "I have taken my country, a poor country, and put it on the world map.
"My future looks bright now that we are popular." Their earnings so far have helped pay for fertiliser and seeds and to prepare their subsistence farms for the past season.
"I used to plough the field on my own, now I employ people to work in my field," said band member Alfred Gavanda, 22.
He described the Malawi Mouse Boys' first performance before hundreds of "white" people at the Womad festival in Charlton Park, near the south-western British city of Bristol, as a "life-changing experience".