24 August 2002

Zimbabwe: Folk Songs: Who Owns Them?


ZIMBABWE's many folktale songs have been recorded over time and provided artists with hits which catapulted them to stardom.

Chimurenga guru, Thomas Mapfumo's has redone and recorded a number of folk songs. Others such as the late Ephat Mujuru, Pio Macheka and Bryn Mteki have also recorded folk songs.

Debate has always raged on such songs and some musicians have attempted to claim ownership of the songs. Should they get royalties for songs they did not compose and can others sing a folk song popularised by one musician?

Critics of Thomas Mapfumo have accused him of plagiarism claiming that he was riding on the creativity of others by recording folk songs. His supporters have hit back saying folk songs are not owned by anyone and musicians are free to record them.

A Mutare man who gave his nom de-plume as The Neanderthal from the 25th Century goes even further and charges that Dr Mapfumo did not deserve an honorary degree for singing folktale songs.

The honour, he said, should be awarded to all grandparents who passed the songs from generation to generation.

"Most Zimbabwean people, rural and urban, who were born some time before the mid 60s know full well that nearly 80 percent of Thomas Mapfumo's songs, that is, both lyrics and the music are original works and intellectual property of our forefathers whose names nobody knows," he says.

The songs were passed from generation to generation when villagers gathered for ceremonies such as rain-making, initiation, celebration of good harvests, welcoming of hunters or other social gatherings.

The instruments used then were ngoma (drums), mbira, marimba and hosho which the Chimurenga guru has fused with modern instruments to produce what can be described as some of the finest music in the world.

Mukanya is undoubtedly a great musician who has churned out ageless tunes In fact, many do not argue about his qualities as a musician. What they argue about is the issue of folk songs.

"Mapfumo's greatness is because he helped to conscientise the entire nation and the world about Zimbabwe's rich folk music," he says but feels it was unfair to award an honorary degree to him alone.

"(Dr) Mapfumo's grandfather who raised him, his village folks, my folks and the rest of Zimbabweans should be awarded that degree," argued The Neanderthal of Mutare.

He said unlike Bob Marley who composed his own songs all that Mukanya did was introduce western genre of instruments like the electric guitar, saxophones and trombones to the music and would that exercise deserve a degree?

Some examples of folk songs Mukanya is now identified with are Dangurangu, Nhemamusasa, Ngoma Yekwedu, Shiri Yakanaka, Kuyaura, Grace, Gwindingwi Rine Shumba, Hwahwa and many more.

Other songwriters and singers who could be awarded such honours were the likes of Oliver Mtukudzi whose songs are purely his compositions and creations, the late Leonard Dembo, the late Marshal Munhumumwe and another departed musician James Chimombe. One could also look at artists like Biggie Tembo whose songs like Kuroja Chete, Simbimbino, Harare Jit and many more were their own creations.

The list is endless because you can talk about Fanyana Dube who is currently based in Mutare or other brilliant artists like the late Safirio Madzikatire, a self-made comedian and singer.

Balancing the list from the female side is young Chiwoniso Maraire.

"If we maintain that Mapfumo put our folk music on the world map then lets not forget that he personally gained materially," said The Neanderthal.

He said his act is not different from someone who removes the Zimbabwe Bird from Great Zimbabwe and locks it up in his home then asks the rest of the society to pay to see it.

By any standards, Dr Mapfumo is a well-up person who has a fleet of cars, a shop and a music label. But is it correct to say he exploited the folktale songs for personal gain?

"Any singer who picks up folktale songs and reproduces them cannot claim royalties unless he has made some improvements here and there, well it becomes different," said an official of the Zimbabwe Music Rights Association.

Even singers who reproduced verses from the Bible were not entitled to any royalties.

But Dr Mapfumo has been getting royalties for the folktale songs that he has churned out in large numbers although he could not stop anyone from playing the same songs.

"Any singer who gets royalties from such songs should forward them to the National Arts Council which should keep the money to pay for the teaching of our traditional music to future generations," said The Neanderthal from the 25th Century.

Apart from that, he said Dr Mapfumo should attribute all songs to "chinyakare" in a way similar to how Thin Lizzy attributed "Whisky in the Jar" as an old Irish song.

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