The story of Malawian musicians copying material from South Africa, Botswana and other countries is not new. Joseph Tembo faced embarrassment after it was revealed that he had copied his Mbudye track, so did Ndirande Anglican Voices after revelations that their debut album was a Chichewa version of a South African music group.
Although the tendency of copying from musicians cuts across all music genres, it is more rampant in gospel music. Perhaps the means justify the end for these gospel artists but one would get lost in the irony of gospel artists who spread the word of God on a stolen song and even stolen fashion sense such as shinny suits and Nigerian caftans and copied haircuts.
It was an embarrassing moment Chimwemwe Mhango had to go through at a meeting of music bodies and authors of music at Ouagadougou, Burkina Fasso where it was discovered that most Malawian gospel musicians are copycats who lack originality in their music.
“Some of the revelations that were discovered were that many artists are not composing but copying other artists’ songs especially from outside the country,” said Mhango.
He was also very quick to add that most Malawian artists lack originality, and as such Malawi does not have a distinct sound like South Africa has kwaito and Mozambique has passada.
“We are very busy imitating artists from other countries instead of coming up with our own sound, and that is a sad development,” he noted.
During its inaugural meeting last week in Blantyre, the new Cosoma board met with a select artists to discuss some of their concerns. Some of the artists in attendance at the meeting were Wycliffe Chimwendo, Grace Chinga and Favoured Martha.
Mhango, who was also present at the meeting, told On the Arts that the artists admitted to copying songs from other countries, but claimed ignorance on the repercussions of such conduct.
Director of Kamuzu Barracks Gospel Singers, Chimwemwe Binauli, argued that unlike secular music, gospel music uses hymns and choruses most of the time, hence one song can be done by different people.
“The thing is a chorus can be done by a number of musicians, a South African might be the one who did a later version of the same song but people will be quick to call the Malawian who sang the chorus or hymn before him a copycat,” explained Binauli.
However, he said artists need to work hard to bring their own interpretation to the songs that have been done by others.
“Creativity is paramount and one needs to work on that so that people should be able to tell the difference,” he said.
Binauli said that most gospel artists feel it is safer to use a genre that has already been accepted than come up with their own since there is a high risk. However, he was quick to recommend that artists work together to create a new touch that should be distinctly Malawian.
Longtime gospel musician Allan Ngumuya said that there are great singers in Malawi but the problem is that they always imitate musicians from other countries.
“The problem with copying genres from other countries is that you compete with people that have been established and people will always compare you to your idol. That is a war one is most likely doomed to fail,” said Ngumuya.
He echoed Binauli’s sentiments, arguing that musicians need to step out of their comfort zone and be creative to come up with genres that will be uniquely Malawian.
Chancellor College music lecturer Alinane Mphande said in music, everyone copies as there is no one who has created something new, but was quick to say that what matters is how one copies from another.
“It is one thing to copy or be inspired by an idea but to copy a song wholesale is wrong,” said Mphande.
She further added that copying music is in our culture as most traditional songs are simply passed on from one generation to another and the lyrics can be changed to suit any given situation.
“There is need to change artists’ mindsets that when it comes to commercial music that is not how it works, one need to create new things,” said Mphande.
She also concurred with Binauli and Ngumuya on the need to create Malawi’s own genre.
“There is already Malawian music, we have our traditional music but what matters is selling it to the rest of the world and making it known that it is our own genre,” she said.