Sierra Leone Journal
Dispatches from Pre-War Freetown and Beyond


African Music: Hard Times at Home, Danger Abroad

WASHINGTON—As record producers hasten to capitalize on the Graceland phenomenon, there is cause for concern. Paul Simon’s Grammy Award winner may be African music’s long-awaited international breakthrough, but for the record industry back home—through no fault of Simon’s—the watchword is breakdown. With few exceptions, recording houses that flourished in many African countries during the sixties and seventies are in a state of decline or have disappeared. Many talented musicians have left the profession or moved abroad.

In its heyday African music was a thriving cottage industry. All it took to make a record was a little capital and a microphone hooked to a one- or two-track reel tape recorder. Tapes were sent to London or Paris or Brussels for pressing into 7 inch, 45 rpm records. Kinshasa’s Opika and Loningisa studios that produced the Congo Music styles of
Dr. Nico and Franco operated this way. In Africa’s urban areas record shops abounded. Inexpensive, portable record players were plentiful. Pop bands proliferated.

The system worked fairly well in the days of economic prosperity. But beginning in the late seventies, drought, rising petroleum prices, worldwide recession, and chronically depressed raw materials prices combined to stagger most African economies. The effect on the music business was devastating.

Unlike those of traditional music, the instruments of African popular music have to be imported. Electric guitars, horns, drum kits, and electronic gear to support them, all come from industrialized nations. In countries like Ghana or Nigeria or Kenya, that possess sophisticated multi-track studios and record pressing plants, the operations still rely on foreign vinyl and spare parts. These items are generally regarded as luxuries by African governments and, when imported, are heavily taxed. Where foreign exchange to finance imports is scarce, the recording industry seldom wins the fierce competition with other sectors of the economy.

When economies decline and technology continues its inexorable march, two things happen. The business of making records becomes more complex and expensive; the business of stealing music becomes cheaper and more profitable. A modern multi-track recording studio can cost many thousands of dollars. In comparison the tools of the music pirate are infinitely cheap. Anyone with a turntable, cassette tape recorder, and access to records can get into the act. A customer can walk in, listen to the latest records, and walk out again with a custom made cassette tape of his favorite hits. Taping studios are abundant and can be highly profitable; the artists who created the music receive nothing. Sierra Leone is an example where a flourishing record industry has been destroyed by economic decline and music piracy.

Copyright protection and an equitable system for paying royalties are rarely enforced in Africa. The Universal Copyright Convention and Berne Union are international agreements designed to solve this problem, but because of the dominance of foreign music, many African countries have refused to join. Those that have joined such agreements generally do not abide by them. As researchers Roger Wallis and Krister Malm have pointed out, “For many small nations, strict adherence to international agreements...might merely lead them to pay out a lot of money to the Boney Ms and ABBAs of this world, and not get very much in return....For small countries with foreign currency problems, any net outflow of cash is not welcome, whatever the morals involved.”

There is also a conflict between the traditional African concept of music and the western performance style. Musicologist
John Collins has observed that “instead of being an isolated event one goes to for recreational purposes as in the West, music in West Africa is an integral part of the social life of the community and is played at nearly all important occasions.” This is an added impediment to the installation of a system of royalties and copyright. In the words of Wallis and Malm, “It’s not easy to merge the cultural norms of a society where music is regarded as a gift to the public with the legal norms of a society where individual ownership is the holiest pinnacle!”

Many record producers take advantage of young musicians who are often unaware of copyrights and royalties. Before his sudden death in 1985 the great guitarist,
Dr. Nico of Zaire, recalled for me that when he was just starting out “we would be paid a flat fee of one franc or so but that was it. The producer then owned the music and reaped the profits. No royalties were paid. We were happy to hear our music on records; we didn’t bother to question the studio owner.” Later, in his days with African Jazz and African Fiesta, the Belgian record company Fonior would invite the groups to Brussels to record. Nico remembered that the band was paid a flat fee of 10,000 francs (about $200) plus transportation and lodging for fifteen days. In return they recorded up to 100 songs and then returned home with no rights to the music and received no royalties when the records were sold.

Politics rivals economics as an instrument of frustration. African musicians have discovered that political leaders are sensitive to certain kinds of lyrical commentary.
Franco, for example, has spent some time in jail for performing songs thought to be too risqué by the government of Zaire. It was fine for African Jazz to sing “Independence Cha Cha” or S.E. Rogie [Rogers] to exclaim “Well Done Sir Albert.” Sonny Okosun could cry “freedom is the answer” as long as he was talking about the continent in general instead of a jailed Nigerian journalist or opposition leader. Thomas Mapfumo explained to writer Jak Kilby what singing about freedom was like in white ruled Rhodesia before it became black ruled Zimbabwe. “The best song had lyrics all about the suffering of the masses, how they were short of money, short of food, and how they were being killed by the regime. The words were not direct, but indirect, they used innuendo.” A singer like Fela, who refuses to be so subtle, has found himself in constant conflict with Nigerian authorities and often in jail.

The apartheid system of South Africa has created its own special set of economic and political dilemmas. Pat Sefolosha of the Malopoets told Journalist Charles De Ledesma, “We used to have differing views in the band as to whether to include politically direct lyrics. That’s because we know not only that these records won’t be sold but also that we draw attention to ourselves and risk being arrested, beat up, or our performing licenses taken away. Basically, for South African release you’ve got to keep away from those sort of topics.” Artists who want to make it have to do so within the confines of racial separation and government censorship—which usually means less money and recognition for blacks—or leave the country. Many have decided to leave.

The combined effects of political control, economic decay, and foreign technology have been profound. Emigration has often been the means to artistic survival. Foreign cities have become the capitals of African music. London, Paris, and New York are, if not the permanent homes, at least the business addresses of a growing number of African musicians. While this has surely boosted the music’s popularity in Europe and America, an insidious homogenization has begun to occur.
Of course the blending of African and western elements has been responsible for the birth of great musical styles—blues, jazz, and rock and roll to name three. The evolution of African pop music is itself a classic example of that process. But today’s music industry is controlled by faceless multinational record companies whose sole mission is to produce profits. As African musicians migrate to the west their artistry is in danger of being devoured by the barren world of corporate commercialism.

This article was written for CLASS Magazine in 1987 but never appeared in print. Copyright © 1987 by Gary Stewart


Copyright © 2016 by Gary Stewart

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