In a recent article , the man who apparently invented the popular and now controversial hover board said he is not making money from his invention despite their current popularity.  The gadgets are being made by many factories with quality under scrutiny as many safety incidents have led to the boards being outlawed for use in public spaces in many places.

“I visited some of the knockoff factories. They actually thanked me for having the imagination to invent it. They understand they’ve infringed my patent but they know there’s nothing I can do,” Chen said.

One  of the questions that people ask a lot when it comes to mbira is whether it is ever  OK for non-Zimbabweans to seek to profit from mbira. Others ask the question slightly differently by enquiring on when it OK to profit from mbira when you are not Zimbabwean. Often the discussion on mbira and money emerges around the topic of cultural appropriation.

With the consideration that Zimbabwean made does not guarantee quality, what’s your view on making money from mbira?


9 Replies to “Making money from mbira”

  1. Is this much different from asking whether Zimbabweans should /ever/ make money from playing guitar? Or from playing reggae music?

      1. Talking specifically about ‘cultural appropriation’ – what do you think makes these questions different?

  2. Can you please define cultural value?

    Does this imply that there is no or less cultural value to the guitar as an instrument and to reggae music (in general, and to the originators of the guitar and of reggae music)?

    1. When you follow the discussions on cultural appropriation on mbira the case is that mbira is not just an musical instrument but a part of an essential part of Shona culture as used during biras. Therefore, the argument goes, the value of the mbira is not purely as a musical instrument but much deeper hence questions on its commercialisation. What do you think on the subject of non-Zimbabweans making money from mbira?

      1. I have more questions than answers here. Let me share a few thoughts:

        I find the Zimbabwean/Non-Zimbabwean distinction the most questionable part. “Zimbabweans” is not the same as “Shona-speaking people”, which in turn is not the same as “Shona ethnic groups which [this type of] Mbira originates from”, which is not the same as “those people within these groups who still live in the traditions of which Mbira music is an integral part”, right?

        For all these distinctions you may ask the same questions: Should anyone [outside] make money from this cultural/religious tradition? Should a Zimbabwean who grew up learning Mbira, but who’s now a Christian make money from using Mbira harmonies in Gospel songs?

        The question behind all these questions seems to be: Who owns Mbira music?

        I sometimes think of traditions as some kind of living entity: Being a tradition, what would I want? I want to continue to live a long and healthy life! So the only thing I’m really interested in are people who pass me on the next generation, with modifications, if necessary, but staying true to my essence and nature. Do I care about nationality, ethnicity, color, people making money etc.? Only as far as my aforementioned interests are concerned. Other than that: The more, the better.

        This is surprisingly close to what I’ve occasionally heard as an answer to the “Who owns it?” question: “Mbira music belongs to the ancestors.”

        Perhaps Mbira music, and any other tradition, belongs to all people – past, present and future – who help it continue living (and staying true in nature)? From this POV, even the greatest Mbira master of all times would not belong to this group if he or she fails to pass it on.

        Regarding “cultural appropriation”: I think this happens all the time around the world, in many different levels. Cultural exchange. People adopt what they like. Normal. How many traditions from elsewhere of whatever “value” were “appropriated” by “Zimbabweans”)? Perhaps I’m too naive here, but I always get the feeling that the “cultural appropriation” argument is a placeholder for something else (injustice due to former colonial powers, ongoing inequality between people of different color, …). But I believe it is not a helpful term on its own, very much like the question “who owns it”.

        From my personal ethic POV on the money-making question I find it very hard to judge things in general, even though I usualy have a rather clear opinion on every single case. In general, I believe everything is good which widens people’s horizons, make them learn new things, deepens understanding of other cultures, and so on. Whether money is made or not is rather secondary:

        Let’s say someone makes a hit record in Japans with some Mapfumo-style Mbira guitar lines. Or making money from teaching Mbira as she learned it in Zimbabwe. You could say that it’d somehow be better if Mapfumo himself had that hit, or if the original teacher had been in Japan giving that lesson. But they were not there, and there’s not a chance that they would. So, was something taken away from anyone? Say, this now attracts a lot of new people to the roots of Mbira music, which in turn generates income for various original teachers. Below the line – is this good or bad? I can only judge each individual case.

  3. What’s your personal opinion on this issue? Do you see that any substantial amount of money is made with Mbira music by non-Zimbabweans? Do you think this does harm (like taking away money from where it should go), or perhaps even help (like attracting people to the real thing rather than some boring imitation)?

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