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Good intentions gone bad

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There must be nothing more rewarding than singing original songs.

Especially in the gospel circles, where the sharing of good news is one of the major preoccupations.

However, the preoccupation to share the Good News through music seems to have gained proportions that are eating into the fabric of originality. The victim has been the nobility of Malawi’s music industry.

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Emerging trends sharply contradict the situation as recently as 30 or so years ago.

It is a fact that, for decades, Malawian citizens, including musicians, travelled to such countries as Zimbabwe and South Africa to work in mines. Others even travelled to Botswana, eSwatini, Zambia, among other countries. This was made possible through inter-governmental agreements. The issue of the Temporary Employment Bureau of South Africa comes into play here.

While working in these countries, Malawians got exposed to the sounds and musical instruments of those countries. They even came to know, and even like, the dominant musicians of those countries. They came to know such Zimbabwean artists as Paul Matavire, John Chibadura, Simon Chimbetu, Oliver Mtukudzi, as well as the likes of Jabu Khanyile, Mirriam Makeba, Hugh Masekera and Jonny Clegg in South Africa.

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Still, once back home, the Malawian musician remained the sovereign master of original music. Today, Dear Pain, the case is different. Originality is no longer one of the elements of local music.

Maybe because of technological advancements, or maybe because of the stark realisation that music has the potential to pave one’s path to prosperity, some local musicians have quickly mastered the art of playing around with foreign music and pretending that it is their original work. We have cases of musicians who have bought vehicles, constructed houses, and what have you, on the strength of ‘re-composing’ foreign artists’ songs.

So shameless are the musicians that they do not even seek permission from the original creators of the work. However, this streak of luck lasts as long as the unsuspecting members of the general public have not come across the original song. Unfortunately for the thieving ‘good news’ artists, technological advancements, which have culminated in the establishment of such social media platforms as Facebook and WhatsApp, have rendered that impossible.

The issue of stealing artistic works is one of the challenges facing the world today. The issue is complicated by the fact that tackling it depends on the interpretation of a particular artist and a country’s intellectual property laws. The issue is also reflected in values and beliefs held dear by a nation state like ours, in concerned artists’ mentality as well as in ethical debates occasioned by the discovery of the theft or dishonesty.

Now, it would be a different case if this deplorable behaviour were perpetuated by secular musicians—who are treated as ‘sinners’ and with disdain by their gospel colleagues. But, as it were, that is not the case.

In the name of saving souls and bringing ‘God’s children’ back to Him, Gospel musicians have become the masters not of creativity or good will to God’s children, but of ridicule and shame. How, Dear Pain, can a born-again gospel musician steal somebody else’s songs for the ironic purpose of saving souls?

Theft of other people’s artistic work cannot be justified by the obsession to save the lives of others. If one has no flashy talent of singing or playing around with musical instruments, the easy way out is to stay out of music.

It did not come as a surprise to me, therefore, when a certain gospel musician from a certain part of this country was chased from some neighbouring country some 18 years ago. The crime that the ‘unsuspecting’ musician had committed was that of mimicking a number of songs released in South Africa and Botswana!

Today, the ‘art’ of mimicking songs composed by foreign acts has become so commonplace, and the ‘stolen’ songs plentiful, that it does not surprise me that a good number of Malawian gospel musicians do not conduct live music performances in South Africa, Botswana, and even Zimbabwe. They know that they do not have the legs to carry them through a heartfelt chase by a wounded foreign musician out to exert vengeance.

If anything, gospel musicians find it easy to sing before fellow Malawians in Europe and the United States because they know that the Malawian audience is so gullible and less analytical that it buys every clap that comes out of a born-again musician’s mouth.

Unfortunately for such thieving gospel musicians, advancements in technology have reduced the world to a recreation centre where people from all areas of life converge to share experiences. The world is one giant place and there is nowhere to hide.

The good thing is that it is not too late to get back to the roots of originality and honesty; the very same technological tools can be used for promoting our traditional music. This is the only way out. It is high time, also, our social customs for respect for other people’s works underwent reassessment.

It is necessary for us to respect the talents of others while promoting cultural exchange. But reaping from other artists’ creativity is not a form of cultural exchange.

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