It used to be called the Malawi arts haven. The French Cultural Centre was the entertainment hub of Blantyre, where music, drama, film and even Chichewa and French language lessons were conducted. Today it lies in desolation.
What used to be the French honorary consul’s house is dilapidated beyond recognition; there are neither doors nor windows in what used to be the classes, auditorium, library and ambassador’s office. The once well-manicured lawns are now overgrown bushes which could be haven for thieves and robbers.
Rechristened the Blantyre Cultural Centre, it now hosts arts performances, thanks to the renovated amphitheatre. But if plans by the Copyright Society of Malawi (Cosoma) are to bear fruits, the centre may metamorphose into an arts school.
The piracy busting body has plans to improve the arts through education, stiffer laws, more benefits to artists, among other things.
Cosoma licencing officer Rosario Kamanga says the establishment of an arts school is in the organisation’s plan of action, and that they have already written the Department of Culture on the proposal.
“For a long time people have raised concerns about the lack for arts education. If we are allowed to go ahead, the school will help develop different sectors of the arts, like music, drama, photography and other disciplines,” said Kamanga.
According to Kamanga, the arts school will also be used as a one stop arts centre where people will buy Malawian arts, especially those produced by the Cosoma rights holder associations: Musicians Union of Malawi (MUM), Malawi Writers Union (Mawu), Journalists’ Union of Malawi (Juma), Photographers Association of Malawi (Photama), National Theatre Association of Malawi (Ntam), Book Publishers Association of Malawi (Bpam), Film Association of Malawi, Malawi Folk Dance Music and Song Society (MFDMAS), Poetry Association of Malawi and Visual Arts Association of Malawi (Vaam).
Kamanga said even where the BCC is not available for the arts school, they will still construct it elsewhere, as the society already has the architectural designs.
Mawu president Mike Sambalikagwa Mvona says plans for the school are at a high level, as they have already negotiated with the Technical and Vocational Education Trust Authority (Teveta) and the Ministry of Labour on the modalities.
“This is a move in the right direction as it will promote the arts in Malawi. Currently, most of our artists are using inborn talent. There is more that goes into the arts which need education, things like entrepreneurship, issues of copyright and so much more,” said Mvona.
Apart from establishing the school, Cosoma executive director Dora Makwinja believes making copyright laws stiffer will make it easier for Malawian artists to grow. In 2011, Cosoma drafted the Copyright Bill, which will change a number of issues in the Copyright Act which have become obsolete and incorporate new issues such as developments in the digital age. The current law was enacted in 1989.
“For instance, the punishment for those caught in piracy ranges from K200 to K15 000 or imprisonment for periods no more than one year. That is not strong enough to deter other would-be offenders. We want the penalty to go as high as K10 million,” said Makwinja.
Makwinja said considering developments in the digital age, the new law would also consider licensing of those who burn music. “Laws are brought with new developments. It is a fact that today music is shared in flashes and memory card. We can’t stop that because that would be fighting technology. All we need is to regulate this new phenomenon so that the musicians in turn benefit,” said Makwinja.
Currently, Cosoma collects on behalf of musicians royalties from radio stations. Every time a radio station plays a song, it goes into a log and eventually the stations pay to Cosoma. An artist gets royalties from Cosoma according to the airtime their songs enjoyed against the total amount collected.
“That is why we have always said radios should play more local content since if they play more foreign music, we remit to those foreign copyright bodies to disperse to their artists. In the same way when foreign radio stations play Malawian music, the royalties trickle back through us,” said Kamanga.
This is primarily so because Malawi is party to various international treaties and organisations, including the World Intellectual Property Organisation (Wipo), the Berne Convention and the Marrakesh Treaty.
According to Kamanga, Cosoma is negotiating with the Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (Macra) to use the so-called spy-machine to monitor airplay of music since some radio stations do not submit logs to the society in time.
Musician-cum-politician Allan Ngumuya said as a parliamentarian, he will join forces with other legislators to move for an amendment in the Communications Act, which will bind Malawi radio stations to play at least 80 per cent of local content.
“Malawian musicians are not getting enough for their sweat. Our radio stations are mostly playing foreign music, making the rich musicians richer while we swim in poverty. In other countries, like Kenya, Botswana and even United States of America, you don’t get foreign music on their national broadcasters,” said Ngumuya.
Recently, there has been a boom in poetry programmes and some poets have complained that Cosoma should start collecting royalties from radio stations.
But Mutty Mukhondia, Cosoma senior licensing officer, said the organisation would only come in when the number of poets increases as administering the funds becomes difficult when they are fewer members. He said, currently, individual poets can discuss with the radio stations on their modes of payment without involving Cosoma.
It is commonplace these days to hear of artists asking for funds from the general public to assist ailing artists in their dire need. This is so because without a saving culture, some artists have failed to save for the future cold nights.
Mukhondia said Cosoma has facilitated the establishment of the Aluso Sacco, where artists are contributing shares and can access loans which they can use to buy equipment or raise their arts business profiles.
Photama president, Lucky Mkandawire, who is also secretary for Aluso Sacco board, said the move is long overdue.
“For instance as photographers, our bread and butter is a camera. We also need computers and machines to develop photographs. These are expensive equipment. When our equipment develop faults, we can’t afford to put food on the table. With the Sacco, artists can access loans to buy or repair their tools,” said Mkandawire.
Further, he said the Sacco would help improve the culture of saving among artists. “We did a snap survey some time back and at that time, most of our members as Photama had no bank accounts. That showed us they were not saving and living a hand to mouth existence. This will change,” said Mkandawire.