Saturday, March 1, 2008

More Mbaraka

I have a number of posts that are just on the threshold of going up, but I seem to have been gripped by an inexplicable and debilitating case of writer's block. Still, I feel the need to put something online. So, here goes: Back in September, I posted some tunes by Tanzania's late, incomparable Mbaraka Mwinshehe, with a promise of more to come. Thanks to our friend Cheeku, here they are: Five more tracks from the Ukumbusho series, pressed by Polygram Kenya in the 1980s (Polygram's successor, Tamasha, has recently reissued them in CD format, but as far as I know these are unavailable outside of E. Africa). Typically, these compilations feature no personnel listings or information on the original recordings. I suspect, though, that these tracks are from Mwinshehe's career with Super Volcano rather than his earlier band Morogoro Jazz.

"Shida," from Ukumbusho Vol. 1 (Polydor POLP 536, 1983) has already been featured on at least two other blogs,
Benn Loxo du Taccu and Steve Ntwiga Mugiri. Still, it's such a great song I couldn't resist putting it up again. Enjoy, and if you've heard it before, enjoy it again:

Mbaraka Mwinshehe - Shida

East African musicians don't seem as given to fawning praise songs as Nigerians (paging Oliver de Coque!), but they do produce enough of them, including, I assume, this one, also from Ukumbusho Vol. 1. Don't know if it's fawning, though. Love the guitar that kicks in toward the middle of the song:

Mbaraka Mwinshehe - Dr. Kleruu

Here's a scorcher from Ukumbusho Vol. 7 (Polydor POLP 566, 1988). The guitar work and vocal banter are exceptionally free and easy but what closes the deal is the wild "Hugh Masekela-ish" (is that a word?) trumpet playing toward the end:

Mbaraka Mwinshehe - Nipeleke Nikashuhudie

As I said before, the Ukumbusho series was assembled haphazardly, with tunes from various points in Mwinshehe's career thrown together willy-nilly. Although "Baba Mdogo" is from Ukumbusho Vol. 8 (POLP 575, 1988), it's similar in tone to "Shida" from Vol. 1, above. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if they were recorded at the same time. We adjourn this session with "Mashemeji Wangapa," also from Vol. 8, which echoes Orchestra Simba Wanyika in its overall ambiance.

Mbaraka Mwinshehe - Baba Mdogo

Mbaraka Mwinshehe - Mashemeji Wangapa

For more music like this, check out Buda Musique's excellent Zanzibara Vol. 3: Ujaamaa, or this earlier compilation of music by Mbaraka Mwinshehe.
In the course of researching this post, I came across this polemic, in regards to the above-mentioned Zanzibara 3, by Alastair Johnston, who is responsible for the essential Muzikifan site:

". . . Now I don't want to start ranting in the middle of this panegyric but I have an issue that needs to be raised: the tendency of (mostly white, I suspect) people to treat this music with a colonial mentality. "It's great, so let's just put it on the net for anyone to hear." This devalues the music. I am not saying it should be the exclusive province of people with great wealth who can buy the copies that turn up on EBAY, I am saying this music should be respected. Before throwing it onto a blog it should be researched and properly documented. Optimal copies should be tracked down. Anyone downloading should pay nominally for the privilege and the money should be put in escrow to go to the descendants of the composers. Then there will be some parity with Western artists who get their royalties. I am sick of seeing sites with crappy-sounding singles ripped from cassettes and a note saying, "This is cool, I don't know anything about it but look here..." and a link to my pages. I've given up asking these clowns to respect my copyright, but ultimately they will kill the demand for CDs (& their crucial liner notes) and there won't be anyone, like Budamusique, taking the trouble to produce a magnificent package like this. You have to buy this, for the music, for the package, and to safeguard the future of the music!"
Alastair raises a valid point here, and I hope people can respond to it in the comments. I often feel very conflicted about posting the music I do on this site, for exactly the reasons Alastair brings up. I won't knowingly put up music that is available through the usual outlets: Amazon, Sterns, iTunes, Calabash or even the lesser-known World Music™ purveyors. And I'd like to recompense the artists in some way, but how? (Needless to say, I'm not making any money myself from this site.) It seems to me, though, that when I post stuff like these tracks by Mbaraka Mwinshehe, or the earlier Somali Mystery Funk, or some exceedingly rare tunes by Area Scatter, it has the potential to sell more CDs or downloads in the long run. In other words, there will be no market for the music if no one even knows that it exists. That's what I think, anyway. Your thoughts?


Anonymous said...

Yes and no and thanks John - for the music and a pretty eloquent case of writers' block :-) .. posting 'unpublished' or inaccessible music on the web should lead to increased demand (but not necessarily sales)... if the marketers wake up and adjust, they can make the increased sales potential happen ... just look at how well the Soundway Nigeria and Analog Africa releases are being managed ... I for one spend more on legit CDs than I would if I was not actively 'window-shopping' on great sites like yours and others ... but I suspect in five or ten years we will be without CDs being published and sold in shops ... we all have to negotiate this change and hope that the musicians get a better deal than they have done in the past ... live performance will remain staple though .. I am all for sharing in the way you and a few others do ... with a view to popularising, educating, and promoting ... there is however a risk that the growing amount of 'free' and great African music on the web will grow a big niche of freeloaders who will download more music than they get a chance to listen to, and buy nothing ... but surely they would still go and see live shows if they had the chance? On the other hand, I am convinced there is also a growing group of fans with money who buy more legit CDs for their collections because of being first exposed to the music on blogs ... cheers, thank you... don't stop .. chris a - s africa

matt said...

A couple of points: the name game (colonial mentality) Alistair chooses to use is unfortunate. IMO the record industry have had their chance and have blown it.

I continue to:
a) download illegal material,
b) pay for downloads,
c) buy second-hand CDs and vinyl as well as
d) buy new cds and vinyl.
The only scenarios in which rights holders get compensation are b and d. Even so in option b (iTunes mostly) Apple gets an unfair amount as rights holders are beholden to the channel of distribution.
In d most of the cash goes to the retailers and manufacturers.

What is needed is a way to send the money directly to the creators directly.

Tim said...

I posted a couple of CDs of East African singles from the late 1970s and early 1980s through Matt's Matsuli site a while ago. I'm very glad I did, partly because it put me in touch with people who knew far more about the music than I did, thus expanding my own knowledge, and partly because it clearly excited the interest of others who perhaps had never been exposed to the music before.

In a perfect world, every label would be like Soundway, Budamusique, RetroAfric and Analog Africa, who do the research, write the sleevenotes, clean up and remaster the sound and, I assume, track down the musicians and pay them royalties. Crucially, too, these companies keep their CDs on catalogue for years, knowing that they won't sell by the truckload but will attract a steady trickle of buyers over time.

When a blog or forum offers the whole of one of these companies' CDs for free download, it is a financial disaster for the company, a real disincentive to go to the trouble of rereleasing or compiling anything else. But when a site offers one or two tracks as a taster and says "Buy this, it's great!" then that gives a small label some valuable free publicity.

The problem of copyright for more obscure music, such as old singles and long out of print LPs, is more problematic. As with reggae artists, many musicians in Africa seem to have been paid a flat fee for recordings. Either they signed away their copyright to the producer or label or the issue never even came up for discussion. So who actually owns the music?

Alastair's idea of holding money in escrow for the musicians or their descendants would go some way to paying the people who deserve to be paid, but would involve an incredible amount of detective work and could end up with a record producer claiming the cash.

In Mwinshehe's case, for example, the claimants could include his daughter, who has apparently been performing his songs in Tanzania; Radio Tanzania, where many of them were probably recorded; Polydor, which issued them in Kenya but its successors may retain the rights to the songs for other parts of the world; Tamasha, which took over the Polydor catalogue in Kenya and has reissued parts of it on a sporadic series of CDs, and Werner Graebner, the German musicologist who compiled the now out of print Masimango compilation on Dizim and promised a second volume that has never appeared.

Doing the right thing is not going to be easy, then, especially when you are operating at long distance. I've written several letters to both the Musical Copyright Society of Kenya and Tamasha with a view to distributing the music of Mwinshehe, Les Wanyika and others in Europe and the USA and never had a reply from either of them.

John B. said...

There are sites out there (and I refuse to name them) which regularly host rips of recent African releases, and then blithely proclaim, "support the musicians, buy the music!" WTF? I try to list as many sites as I can in my sidebar, but I refuse to link to those ones.

I'm trying for a happy medium here - to bring people's attention to rare and unusual sounds and spark some sales of the music. For instance, I would be ecstatic if someone turned up the original masters of the Iftin and Durdur recordings from Somalia I posted here and put out a "legitimate" CD release. I'd be more than happy to take the recordings & links down in that case.

Tim said...

I entirely agree. It's a WTF scenario, for example, when some bozo offers up the recent Soundway Nigeria compilation as a free rip - as has happened on a couple of forums - without considering the TLC that went into putting it together in the first place.

Nigerian funk/psychedelia is not an area of music that I'm especially familiar with, but I'm always open to new sonic experiences. I haven't downloaded the CD because I feel that is ripping off the hard work that Soundway has put into it.

if someone posts a track and it grabs my attention, then I'll buy the CD and support the musical archaeologists at Soundway who have lavished so much time and attention on putting it together.

Somalia is another example. I really liked the Iftin posts you put up. It's the first Somalian music I have encountered and the fact it produced so much feedback offered me - and I'm sure many other readers - information about a little-known music. If someone was to compile CD of their music, I'd be happy to buy it on the basis of your initial posting.

zim said...

I have a number of thoughts on this issue, though I'm not sure they form a coherent whole (folks familiar with me may not find that so surprising )

it seems that there are really two issues being raised, one of posting tracks without any accompanying critical thoughts or context and secondly that of the piracy issue.

regarding the piracy issue, this is a debate that has been fought a lot of times - I tend to side with the idea that a single track from a CD or out of print music is more likely to cause sales rather than decrease them, though there are some substitution effects that make it complicated - would someone download say one African funk LP not in print rather than buy a different one commercially available? Even for those commercially available CDs that are downloaded, would the downloader have bought the CD if it weren't available free of charge - I'm not sure that's often true.

And I think the issue of rights to this music and that of the labels can be pretty murky, even for fairly established labels such as syllart or for "bibles" of the genre like the original music compilations.

Right now, there is a label called "mississippi records" that has put out a couple compilations of older african music ("Love is Love" and "Lipa Kodi ya City Council") which seemed to almost entirely culled from tracks from the original music compilations.

I disagree somewhat with Alastair's complaint about posting music without commentary though - elsewhere on his site there is a fairly long (and accurate) description of the somewhat notoriously bad way in which Sonodisc released and handled their treasure trove of classic Congolese music - also with no information whatsoever, even the re-releases of some of these CDs on syllart aren't any better. It seems to me that if the primary distribution method of music becomes digital downloads one of the great losses will be in the lack of liner notes and art, and that blogs and websites will become one of the only sources of information about artists, that more respect for the music can be seen in this locations than on the backs of many CDs. Sure there are a number of great labels putting out compilations, and they should be supported, but I don't think the majority of african reissues, whether put out by whites or blacks are in that category.

Basically, it seems to come down to support those you think are doing it the right way, be it soundway or blogs that show respect and insight into the music, such as this one

Anonymous said...

One thing that somewhat subverts the colonial mentality argument is the fact that music from the US and Europe is treated exactly the same way on the Internet.

John B. said...

Really, if there's anything that's typical of a "White colnial mentality" it's the whole concept of "intellectual property rights." I mean, I agree with the concept, it's just the most shameless pirates of African music are Africans themselves. In any town or village in Africa you'll find a shack where you can pick out an LP, give it to the proprietor and come back in an hour & pick up a dubbed cassette (I suppose nowadays you don't even have to wait, they can just copy a CD in 3 minutes). And people think there's absolutely nothing wrong with this. Of course, this drives the musicians and record companies crazy, and I don't blame them, but what are they going to do?

Miguel Llansó said...

Since there are blogs like this, we are planning seriously to make a international net of african cinema and music, supported by the Spanish Ministery of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation, and a lot of african artist and producers.

Globalization is here, an globalization means a way of information management. We must be deep, critical, original and smart.

Blogs like this one are very good engines to generate new proyects. This blog represents mainly a form of knowledge.

Thank you so much and we must continue with that discussions and dialogues.

Miguel Llansó
Ministery of Foreign Affairsa nd Cooperation. Madrid. Spain.
(Still with a punk heart)

Anonymous said...

thanks for the good intention Miguel ... I look forward to it ... thank you too for the smile you brought to my face when I try to imagine what a 'punk diplomat' could look like :-) chris a

Steve said...

I agree completely with Matt, the argument presented to us that this is for the musicians borders on ludicrous when we all know that they are getting less than 5% of the proceeds from sales.

I will even go further and say this - while I respect all the hard work that goes into producing liner notes and music, the idea that I should not post about music on my blog or wherever if if I cannot research it or produce new value or find great quality versions of the tracks is hogwash. The days of setting up bastions of intellectual protection around music (or books or art or wine or whatever for that matter) to protect it from the unwashed masses (me and my ilk) are long gone. If there is one thing that the Internet guarantees you, it is that the democratization of the dissemination of information means that you will have to wallow through lots more muck to find any pearls (take whatever meaning you will from that).

I like, nay, love, deeply deeply love the music that I post about. That, for me, is enough reason to post whatever whenever however.

My bit is to try and stimulate conversation, get people talking about the music, the memories it evokes, the feelings its brings to the surface, thoughts on the artists, just getting someone to share some insight, little or big, that makes the music that little bit more enjoyable that it already so greatly is and generally setting up some sort of written record about all of this. We all know that there is so much information and history around this music that has just disappeared since the intellectuals were too busy documenting "real music" TM to bother with this.

For whatver reason, my experiment seems to be working.

One last parting thought, in my mind, there is this huge surreal parallel between this "you have to be a true scholar to talk about the music" argument and the why is the white guy playing African music argument, both smack of pretension.

gomad361 said...

I began to have this same discussion with Alastair a while back and just quit writing anymore. Polemic is a good description. I really appreciate Alastair's contribution to the availability of information about (particularly)African and Cuban music. I have gained a lot from his Muzikifan site. Through it and this site, voodoofunk, matsuli and others I have become an ardent reader and frequent downloader of anything that looked interesting to me - if i liked it and could, I'd always buy it, hoping that some money would get to the artist - who knows though? It seems to me that the control of music within Africa by record companies, producers and politically influential impressario types would allow very little royalty money to flow through their fingers to the musicians.

Anonymous said...

the point here is that really....little money gets to the artist in almost every scenario...european or african unless the artist sells it themselves...

thats just a fact....and even more common is that the artist gets nothing while those with 'rights' get everything...just for pressing the damn thing..

ya know, id love to say that its time to push for residual rights for every artist...even when those 'rights' have been signed away....

but the reality is that we are seeing the evaporation of physical a comodity....its just a fact...

and ultimately, i have to it a bad thing that a relatively poor girl of french/italian heritage living in the US gets to hear african music she very likely will never be able to afford in its physical as a cd or on vinyl...????

personally speaking, the 'colonialism' argument falls on deaf ears....its a subject best left to those who have enough money to afford feeling guilty...

and ya know...ive got to say, that positing the question as one of 'colonialism' utterly smacks of paternalism...

european paternalism...


Ray said...

OK. I'm late to the party, but no-one has mentioned CD Baby.

This download site appears to be fully licensed by musicians and includes a wide range of African releases (many previously out of print) AND pays about 50% to the musicians.

Central African Releases:

I personally bought the Kekele live album (previously unreleased).

How it works:

Maybe we should be encouraging everyone to use this site. Seems like a great idea to me.

It enables those who can afford to support their favourite musicians (and want to) to do so - and hopefully encourage the musicians to make more great music.

John B. said...


Thank you. I've added CD Baby to my links

David said...

Coming very late to this particular party: I'm as confused as anyone about the ethics or otherwise of free downloading, but I know I've found a lot of people whose music I'd buy if I could. And of course I've downloaded & listened to piles of music for free which has been great fun but generated no-one any revenue!

What downloads do for me though is make me want to find real physical CDs or tapes; which will be 2nd-hand so won't generate revenue to the artists... The increasing availability of reissued African albums in download form on Amazon/iTunes is good, but it's really difficult to find out if any of that money is going beyond a few corporates who are making the downloads available.

On the subject of direct links to artists I guess things have moved quite a lot in the last couple of years - but if you haven't already had a look at some of the newer sites you might like to consider links to Sahel Sounds and Reaktion Records, both on BandCamp - and there may be more there too. Both currently have fundraisers out for North Malian refugess, the latter routing funds to NGOs in the area, the former mailing royalty cheques direct to the artists(!).

And of course there's Yaala Yaala over at DragCity, and Akwaaba, also doing the same sort of direct link to artists.

None of these is as big or catholic as CD Baby, but the internet creates the potential for small-scale activity like this to benefit 'us' the listeners as well as 'them' the artists!

David said...

I feel i should clarify my "Colonial mentality" remark since it has been interpreted as strictly referring to white exploitation of Africans. When an outsider encounters something of value and finds a way to profit (to a disproportionate extent) from the creator's efforts, then they are colonizing. I would include the early careers of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks and other bands of the British pop era in this too, since they made millions for corrupt deceitful managers through bad contracts. One hopes musicians are more aware of these practices today. I emailed the Kenyan rights society and asked them about licensing some Shika Shika songs that appeared on different labels. They replied, "Deal with us -- we own ALL of those rights." They were just seeing an opportunity to collect some funds on dead musicians, but as someone pointed out, in East Africa musicians were paid for their performance and the producer owned the subsequent rights. This is where I consulted a music lawyer who gave me the suggestion of an escrow account. Composers (in the West at least) are entitled to "mechanical royalties" every time their song is recorded. Obviously there is little/no profit in this, but transparent books would protect a small label from a real lawsuit if this was done. (John Storm Roberts' Original Music was put out of business because he was sued for copyright infringement.) So it is more about self-protection than actually providing a major revenue source. Blogs do provide a useful resource, bringing undeservedly obscure artists to light and labels like Analog Africa, Network Medien, Dust-to-Digital and Soundways further this by presenting the music in a proper environment, with accurate documentation and restored sound. I suppose the point of this is bloggers are doing well, but they need to do better! As Tim said, publishing something on Matt's blog put him in touch with more knowledgeable people and it is this network of enthusiasts that can collectively improve the prospects for African music. Who would not love to have a dozen sonically restored Mbaraka LPs with musician credits, photos and lyrics? The problem is education: right now that luxury is reserved for one African artist: Fela Kuti. So I agree with the4 consensus here, posting a great track or selection, as Likembe does, can whet the appetite and hopefully drive demand for these artists.