Fine Lines in rerecording old songs

One trend that appears to be growing among Ethiopian musicians is the practice of covering: rerecording old songs by new artists in order to give the song new life. Up-and-coming musicians say that covering old songs is a good way to gain exposure by introducing the artists to new audiences through famous songs. Others, however, feel the practice compromises the integrity of the original song and musician, and thwarts creativity in the music industry. EBR’s Meseret Mamo spoke with industry insiders to get a closer look at the debate and to see if any consensus can be reached on this controversial issue.

Disputes and accusations over the rerecording of old songs by different musicians (a process known as covering) are hardly new in the global arena. Just like in other countries, the tension around covering songs has divided those who are involved in the Ethiopian music industry as well as the public for years.
The central issue in this tension is who owns the rights to the music and who will be given credit (and, in some cases, royalties) for the song that is being covered. In countries where robust copyright laws exist, the matter of covering a song is usually easily resolved. In Ethiopia, however, the lack of such laws and enforcement mechanisms make it more difficult to properly ascertain the allotment of royalties and associated issues.
Yet, the tension around an artist rerecording a famous song isn’t about royalty payments – it often has to do with honouring artistry and the people who originally recorded the music, however long ago it may have been.
For some, the practice of covering old songs is considered one way of passing invaluable music from one generation to the next. It is also regarded as a way to introduce up-and-coming artists to new audiences, since a cover of a famous song is likely to garner the attention of music consumers quickly and easily.
For others, however, it is a practice that should be exercised only in rare circumstances and they stress that new artists that introduce themselves in such a manner are ruining the reputation of the music industry, as well as the musicians who struggle every day to come up with original songs.
One of the devotees of the latter school of thought is Aregahegn Werash, who is viewed by many as one of the accomplished musicians of the 1980s and 1990s, which is regarded as the golden age of the Ethiopian music industry. Over the past three decades, Aregahegn has made 11 original music albums, and his most recent work, Chaiyibet, was released six years ago.
Although many give their own justifications as to why artists engage in the practice of covering old songs – be it honouring the old musicians or recording them with better quality – none seem to satisfy Aregahegn. “Accepting this means we are done with creativity” he noted. In fact, Aregahegn’s opinion on the matter expresses his frustration. “It is hard for me to call [those who engage in the act of covering old songs] a musician” Aregahegn told EBR sorrowfully.
Unlike Aregahegn, Michael Belayneh, who released his first single, the remake of Getachew Kassa’s song called ‘Sayish Esasialehu’ in 2003, likes to hear old songs rerecorded in better quality. “It is one way to remember the good old melodies that are forgotten these days,” says Michael, who now has become very popular after releasing two albums.
However, Michael’s final conclusion is no different than those that oppose the practice. “Most of the tunes that are redone are even lower in [quality of mixing and] arrangement than the original [songs]” he says. “Although there is an opportunity to add value to those old songs that were recorded at a time the music industry was not introduced to modern technologies, up-and-coming artists should look in other directions [to establish themselves].’’
These days, many new artists as well as few renowned artists are seen performing other artists’ music, mostly without the authorization of the original artist and sometimes without the artist’s consent. Most songs that are covered by up-and-coming artists are used for introducing young musicians at their initial career stage. Of course, some stand tall in gaining notoriety from the public, but most are composed in a way that some believe compromises the quality of the song.
However, some professionals claim that they manage to do justice to songs that were originally recorded by renowned musicians. Among them is Samuel Tefera, manager of the Ethiopian rock band, Jano. “We rearranged [a song by] the late Tilahun Gessese [called] ‘Yigermal’ and included in the band’s first album,” he told EBR. “Since [the song] was [recorded in a different style] and with better quality, the response of the audience was very positive. But we will not focus on redoing old melodies from now on.”
While professionals are divided on the matter, others are trying to get to the root of the matter by conducting research on the reasons why musicians record old songs. A term paper by Binyam Abebaw, a musician himself, who has released two singles, indicates that lack of financial capacity is one of the major factors that are pushing new artists towards redoing old melodies.
In the study, entitled ‘Commodification of Art: Music and Film,’ Binyam, who is also a lecturer at Department of Sociology at the University of Gondar, reveals that an up-and-coming artist needs at least ETB20,00 to release a single song. “Such a burden is forcing young musicians to record old melodies in a way that minimizes costs, which in turn, affects the quality of the melody negatively,” he told EBR.
Although financial burden might pressure artists towards this trend, Aklilu Zewdie, a senior lecturer at Yared School of Music and a saxophonist, says in principle only a few old melodies should only be done again. ‘‘But we do not see such a trend currently,’’ he argues. ‘‘There are even artists who record almost all the songs produced in a given album.’’
Whatever the reasons for covering old songs may be, most of the stakeholders agree on the fact that old and forgotten melodies should be rerecorded if and only if the new version adds value, quality and is done so with the permission of original singers or current right holders. Otherwise, they say the music industry will be affected negatively, as creativity will decline, at least in the short term. In the long run, however, as Binyam said: “the market itself will throw out such unoriginal melodies.” EBR

3rd Year • August 16 – September 15 2015 • No. 30


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