Malawi’s Music Archives and Vinegar Syndrome


An old Swiss saying ‘To get credit you must spend. To get debit you must have’ reminds me of the need to save. Savings, not of money but anything valuable, like paintings, miniatures and of course music, which to me, the mere act of keeping them is like a creation of leverage with posterity.
What this means is that storage is like debit where you have a ready pool where one can go to and withdraw. Music in the country did not have enough justice in as far as its storage is concerned. There was a time when it was only the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation MBC, which was recording artists and keeping their music on its open reel tapes.
At that time, we had no music industry worth its salt – I hope we have now. While in neighbouring Zambia, I remember my father used to purchase some LPs of artists like Super Mazembe, while we used to only listen to music of our artists no more than when MBC felt like playing it.
No wonder the dominant music that used to be played at different occasions, like during nationwide beauty contests or in villages during wedding ceremonies or sells of locally brewed ‘masese’ beer was from neighbouring Zambia, East African, Zimbabwe, South Africa etc.
What this means is that besides our oral music history, like where we would tell our sons and daughters that we had so and so who used to play this or that kind of music there is no opportunity to play it for the sake of their appreciation.
From some corners, I cannot place a finger on; I have heard a declaration ‘any country that has no history is like a tree without roots’. Usually, history is both oral and written and for the sake of posterity communities have established information banks they call libraries which if the history is not in audio form then it is in books.
The little publicised National Archives pats itself on the back for having preserved music that traces our history right to the colonial era, although it is now, however, faced with vinegar syndrome due to initial incapability to preserve its material properly.
Since there was no company that was furrowing our music on plates that used to be the LPs etc.; plus we did not have a recording studio other than that of MBC, even what the national archives kept in its repository were mostly open reel tapes taken from the broadcaster and the information department.
Those musicians that had gone to Southern and Northern Rhodesia or had the opportunity of having their music sent there had their marked music on the plates like Ndiche Mwalale, Bali Kuseli, Gerald Wayawaya etc.
The biggest challenge the national archives is faced with is in many folds. Biggest of them all is fending off agents of deterioration.
Chief among such agents is the time itself, followed by chemicals that are used to make the reel tapes, or films and other forms of storage, which make them, suffer deterioration as a result of chemical reaction, commonly known as vinegar syndrome.
For example, sulphur dioxide released from cars starts a chemical reaction once it finds its way into the repositories and the result is unpalatable to antiquarians.
The other challenge is the relic gadgetry that is used to play the stored material, where you would find music stored in a phonographic form in a reel tape can no longer be played because the machine was broken down and companies that used to manufacture them have since stopped producing them.
Even the tape reels use magnetic patterns which get compromised with different magnetic fields which demands that at intervals those looking after the repository have to rewind them time and again and this has its own attendant problems, like getting damaged etc.
Music is an art that sells itself if it has been made with matchless innovations. Beethoven produced in 16th century but we still listen to his music and has inspired so many. It reminds me of what Walt Disney, father of the cartoon strip Mickey Mouse once said that “Do something so well, that the world will pay you to do it again.”
But if this good artist who made music so well is long gone, all that has to be done is to go back to his or her old works and this is why in whatever case, we need to preserve our music because it is our heritage.
Now while we encourage that our music archives has to move with age, where migration of the materials has to take after the modern day technology, we also have to be wary of the computer usage because like fire, it also makes a wonderful servant but a terrible master, talk of piracy.

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