The shady economics of Malawi's music industry

Yesterday, during a day trip to Blantyre, I went on a quest for an album by Alan Namoko, a (presumably) late musician who was prominent in Malawi during the 1970s and 1980s. Wikipedia describes him as playing blues and jazz, but his music doesn’t really sound like either to me – it reminds me more of American folk music.

Trying to get songs by this guy plunged me into the quasi-criminal depths of the market for recorded music here. It’s a place I’ve been to before – 95% of the Malawian songs I have were obtained through burned CDs and USB drives full of songs with such illuminating names as “Track 1” by “Unknown Artist”, off their hit album “Nthawi” (“time”). This would ordinarily cause me to feel at least a twinge of guilt, except that as far as I can tell there is no legitimate way to purchase any of this stuff. There are definitely plenty of dudes at markets selling music, but all of it has the feel of being made at an internet cafe down the road. I’ve seen a few more legitimate-looking CDs on sale in shops aimed at tourists (whence my Lucius Banda collection, for example), but that’s about it.

This has some interesting consequences. The first is that people don’t always know the names of even fairly popular songs. Last year it took me about a month to learn the name of that summer’s top hit, “Koka Kola” (by the Zambian group Organized Family [the “r” may be optional, or even deprecated]). I even met one person who had the song as her ringtone but didn’t know what it was called. There are a number of albums that I’d like to buy just because I like the artists and want a) more of their music and b) the actual names of these songs, and the artists themselves. But lacking the names, that’s fairly hard, and what’s on sale would probably be pirated and disorganized anyway.

Second, Malawi’s music industry has already transitioned to the place where America’s is going. All the money is in live shows. As a result, the top acts tour constantly. Last summer I missed big shows by Ma Blacks and Soldier due to fuel shortages, but due to the non-stop touring they both came back to town before I left. This is good for fans, and at least in the US it’s good for artists because they keep a bigger cut of the revenue.

Third, because touring is where all the money and action is, there is the risk of music by artists who have retired disappearing entirely. As I trotted through the wonderful madness of Blantyre’s open market asking about Namoko’s music, I got a disappointing number of blank stares. The guys (I’ve never seen a woman working at one of these semi-legal music stands) who did know who he was commonly said that no one would have his music “anywhere”. One actually did – on an old, pirated cassette tape, which he admitted was useless to pretty much everyone. I finally did get a copy of a few of Namoko’s songs, from one gentleman’s well-organized mp3 collection. When I asked what he wanted in exchange, he asked for “softwares”. I was unsure what to offer – I’m a bit out of touch with the software piracy scene – but it turned out he wanted Skype and Microsoft Security Essentials; both are freeware, available to anyone with an internet connection.

So Namoko lives on, in digital form, but I wonder for how long. I’ve only found one place, a website, that even attempts to offer his music for legitimate sale, and I think they’re stocked out. It’d be a damned shame if this country’s musical history faded into oblivion because there’s no money in it.

3 thoughts on “The shady economics of Malawi's music industry”

  1. I can’t wait for you to burn me a CD with this guy on it. Never heard of him, but your description has me intrigued. P.S. There’s a guy named DJ Drew who I’m sure could help you find any kind of music you want from Malawi. I don’t know his real name, but he DJs parties in BT, sometimes in ZA and near the lake, and sometimes even abroad — in fact, I learned of him through a friend who met him in Accra. You can find him on the Facebooks.

    1. Godspeed – I have a set of songs that are allegedly from that album, maybe, but who knows for sure? So it would be great to cross-check against the right answer.

      I managed to track down the artist behind two of my favorite unlabeled songs – they’re both by Maskal, and I bought one of his albums on Amazon. Hope some of that money makes its way to him.

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