By now, the Malawi music industry should have been in full flower, or in the afternoon of its life, with division of labour becoming the main characteristic of its existence. Far from it.
And yet, just across the borders in Tanzania, Mozambique and Zambia, the vocabulary of music does not go without such terms as songwriter, composer, singer, lyricists, among others, being thrown into the picture.
Why? Because, in the music industry, one individual does not always have to move painlessly forward, doing everything by oneself.
Not in Malawi, though, as some individuals in the industry make it seem like one individual can be a seamless bundle of talent as to be a composer, songwriter, drummer, guitarist, and whatever tickles their fancy.
As former Pan African Composers and Songwriters Association member Evance Misheck Banda observes, it may take ages for the local music industry to develop if players in it continue to adopt individual approaches.
“I have tried to sell lyrics to some of the big-name musicians we have in Malawi but they get discouraged when they learn that they have to pay something. Some well-known musicians in the country have failed to buy lyrics for as low as K500,000 and one wonders why they are reluctant to buy something that may put them on the world map.
“Of course, some of the reasons they give are valid. They often cite piracy, saying they cannot invest in something whose financial returns cannot be guaranteed; something they are not sure of,” he says.
Banda, who joined the association not as an individual, but as a member of a like-minded organisation while based in South Africa, says he was able to sell 10 songs to a number of artists in Namibia, Lesotho and Botswana, a development that has seen him collect $1, 600 in royalties from Botswana and Namibia.
He, however, bemoans that he is yet to find markets for his compositions in Malawi, hence will wait until he returns to South Africa next year to get back to his feet.
However, while it can be said that some players in the music industry do everything by themselves due to lack of knowledge about how things work elsewhere, Shire Valley giant Lommie Mafunga observes that Malawi has talent, hence it is not strange to come across people who can do everything by themselves.
“What we need in Malawi, I think, is exposure. Otherwise, we have some of the best talent one can ever get in the world,” Tembo says.
Blasto, who is one of Malawi’s well known artists, observes that it is possible to come across artists who can compose, sing, play instruments and do other things in Malawi.
He, however, acknowledges that, for an industry to be an industry, a number of players have to play their part.
“Otherwise, I compose and sing. I think it is talent. I had to learn these things from my brother,” Blasto said.
Blasto, who is one of the Malawian artists who are able to earn money through online music sales, observes that music is a well-paying job in other countries because there is collaboration.
Of course, a career in music is different from a lone journey in ways not always obvious, he suggests, but it is good to always grab one’s chances in rare cases where an individual is a bundle of talent.
Gospel musician Sweeny Chimkango observes that, elsewhere, the music industry supports a horde of people due to division of labour.
But Chimkango is quick to point out that it could be too early for Malawi to go that route, pointing at a number of hiccups.
“For example, the music industry is still working on ways to deal with the issue of piracy. You will find that there are a lot of veteran musicians who have decided to keep a low profile because they have been frustrated by pirates. An artist has to get something out of their sweat, after all.”
He adds that it is true that some people can only compose, others can only sing, others can only play instruments, and that there is need for collaboration. He, says, for example, that some Malawians have proven to be good at song writing.
In this case, the song writers express their feelings in some permanent form, putting down lyrics as they go about their business. But not all song writers can sing. So, a song writer makes something like a song happen, but it is the musician who makes it happen— meaning, who makes it live in people’s minds.
“In the final analysis, it is not always possible for one individual to know everything and, so, I think collaboration is the way to go. There has to be increased collaboration,” Chimkango said.
In Malawi, it is rare to hear that a songwriter has received royalties, as singers and musicians often dominate the list.
In the past 10 years, when the Copyright Society of Malawi has been giving out royalties, no name of song writer came to the fore.
At continental level, efforts are being made to ensure that composers and songwriters benefit from their creativity.
Bodies that are promoting this cause include the Pan African Composers and Songwriters Association and the Pan-African Composers’ and Songwriters’ Alliance.
The latter is an organisation that exists to lobby for the interests of composers and songwriters in the region. Based in South Africa, its aim is to develop copyright in this complex and rapidly developing region while helping artists to better understand their right to fair remuneration.
Founded in 2010, the alliance’s website indicates that its membership has grown significantly, now representing a total of 35 member associations with 16,500 composers and songwriters across the entire continent.
Only a head-count could show how many Malawian composers and songwriters have made the big decision to form their own association, and join!