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Mbira and Traditional Music
Alex Steffen, 30 Oct 03

Musical traditions, like languages, are unique means of expression. When one dies out, we lose not only the beauty of the music itself, but a way of seeing (and singing) the world. But traditional music has been hit hard over the last century by the twin forces of cultural change (as it sometimes seems backward and irrelevant to younger generations) and the general hardship inflicted on much of the developing world (where it often seems a difficult and not-at-all renumerative art to learn).

Which is one reason why the incredible surge in interest in "world music" over the last decade is important. But up to now there have been a number of hitches. The first is that, no matter how well-intentioned the record label, it can profitably produce only a very limited repertoire of works. The second is that, by their very nature, labels generally have to concentrate on promoting the careers of a small number of artists. Simply put, stars sell, and a large backlist of slow-selling disks costs.

But that may be changing as recording and production costs drop with cheaper and cheaper digital equipment and CD burners. Mbira, so example, is a US nonprofit which offers a large catalog of Shona Mbira music for sale online. Proceeds supposedly go back to the artists themselves in Zimbabwe, helping them survive the difficult times there, offering the cultural validation that comes with a foreign audience, and helping to draw young people to the music.

Erica Azim, who runs Mbira, seems to be on the level, and the idea for Mbira itself is a great one, but it raises for me a larger question: given the fact that small amounts of money (by developed world standards) are large sums by developing world standards, why hasn't anyone put together a micro-payment or by-donation nonprofit online world music library, with the revenues being systematically and verifiably returned to the artists? Something like Mbira, but with MP3s, micropayments and open books?

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