Malawian Media Consumption, Part III: Music
Music is all over the place. A lot of villages donâ€™t have wired electricity, but batteries can do a lot in Malawi, and radios are pervasive. The country has several radio stations, and picks up others from neighboring countries. Beyond this, tapes are alive and well in Malawi, with many music stalls selling tapes before all other formats. CDs exist, though CD players were nowhere near as pervasive, and when I gave a friend a CD that my wife and I gave away at our wedding, he was very confused about how to make it work, suggesting that the technology is still largely for the wealthy. VCDs, interestingly, were almost as popular, since they carried videos of the performers. And discs with mp3s were better currency in many situations, as mp3 players seemed more plentiful than CD players.
As with film, much of what sells is pirated. CDs cost more than some people make in two weeks, so pirating is a necessity for many. One hardly feels for Eminem or Usher when one sees them pirated, but it is worth noting the really harmful effect this has on local acts. Newspaper articles often discussed the lousy economics of being a musician in Malawi, and indeed, one of the interviewers working for a Penn project in Malawi was a well-known Malawian musician whose videos had been on television â€¦ yet he still worked as an interviewer for about $10 a day to make ends meet. Moreover, given that Chichewa is a fairly localized language (shared only with Zambia), Malawian music struggles to get play outside of the country, meaning that the market is too small to reward its best artists.
More after the fold …
Whatâ€™s playing, though? First, reggae is big. A fair deal of Malawian music is reggae, or reggae-ish. Despite the piracy and ensuing economics of being an artist, it’s really good too. I was frequently struck by the high quality of the music, even if performed and recorded in a set-up that I could have beat with the synthesizer that I owned in the 80s. Grab me at a conference or something when I have my laptop, and I’ll gladly play you some.
Whereas Christian music is an almost completely segregated music form in the USA, there’s not much of this division in Malawi. One of the bigger radio stations is Christian, but its songs are listened to by many (even several Muslim listeners I talked to really dug some of the Christian songs), and many of the artists who do Christian music also do non-Christian.
Thereâ€™s also a lot of music from bordering or nearby countries, such as Zambia, Kenya, and South Africa (especially the latter, given its relative wealth). And any other reggae is common, with Bob Marley featuring prominently.
After that, itâ€™s an eclectic mix of an average day in the Bronx, an average day in the Appalachians, and an average high school dance in the 80s.
Rap and hip hop are very popular, especially with younger Malawians. African-American artists enjoy particular success, with 50 Cent, Tupaq, Snoop Dogg, and so forth making regular appearances in song queues. R&B is very popular too. Someone keenly asked my wife if she was friends with Mariah Carey (for the record, she is not). Toni Braxton, Usher, R. Kelly, Rihanna, and Beyonce are heard all over the place.
Oddly, though, while these genres are all fairly up to date, or at least only a year behind, nothing else seems of the last 10 years. Easy listening (and cheesy 80s easy listening at that. Think â€œLady in Redâ€ by Chris deBurgh) and country fill out the rest of what I heard. Dolly Parton especially. My wife went to the field with her interviewers (all Malawian) one day, armed with her iPod, ready to play DJ, and all that they wanted to play was Eminem and Dolly (an unlikely mix, no?!). She reports that most of her interviewers knew all the words even to her more obscure hits. I met a child called Jolene. And when I went to the field with one of my wifeâ€™s groups, in response to my wifeâ€™s request to take care of me, one of her Malawian supervisors joked that she would take me just like Jolene. One of her drivers asked if I could burn him some CDs, and after looking through everything I had, all he wanted was any of the rap, and Dolly. Her data team all wanted Dolly CDs too (though I was proud when one of them asked for some REM, after he heard me play â€œLosing My Religionâ€).
For my own part, when I went to the field with another of my wifeâ€™s interviewers, I found myself amused to hear that Bryan Adamsâ€™s â€œPlease Fogive Meâ€ was being mouthed or sung along by all around me. Whatâ€™s more, when favorite songs play, they usually replay, so I heard â€œPlease Forgive Meâ€ a lot that day. Later, a taxi driver told me how great that song was, correctly identifying Adams as Canadian. And when taking a minibus from Liwonde to Lilongwe, the driver and his friends played Shania Twainâ€™s â€œStill the Oneâ€ over and over and over, emoting the words right along with my other Canadian compatriot. I now know much more of the repertoire of Trisha Yearwood than I did before going too.
Interestingly, one man explained to me that country enjoys a good reputation because the big wave of missionaries in the 70s and 80s brought the music with them, and it became associated with their offices and nice big houses, and hence with an escape from manual labor. If heâ€™s right, we have the irony, then, that whereas the music is seen as decidedly lower class and rural in the US (urban snobberyâ€™s calling card is the protestation that â€œI like any type of music except countryâ€), in Malawi, itâ€™s upper class and urban.
Further illustrating the difference in media contexts is the obsession with cheesy love songs. I suspect an American guy who sung and emoted along with Shania or Bryan Adams might be seen as somewhat effeminate, especially if no wife or girlfriend was there to pawn the fandom off on. But Malawian gender performances work differently, and loving love songs is unproblematic for men, just as being wrapped up in a good soap in front of oneâ€™s buddies and random others in a bar was also unproblematic (while hyper-masculinized rap songs or action films also enjoyed great play).
Anyways, this and my last two posts were just a few observations. I want to talk a bit about theories of global media flows in the wake of these in my next post on Malawi.Tags: Dolly Parton, Malawi, music