Caspar Melville (SOAS)

Valuing Tradition: Malian Jelis and copyright

Relations between traditional music and the global music industry have always been a site of contestation and anxiety, especially around the notion of how we value cultural traditions, and how well pre-existing indigenous conceptions of value fit with those underpinning copyright law. Among these questions are how can music that is both ancient and continually adapted to new circumstances, communally composed, and owned and preserved through an oral tradition be fitted within a Western structure that emphasises music as commodity, with an identified composer and demonstrates “originality”? This paper looks at these questions through the case of the music of the Mande Malian griots known as Jelis. Based on a series of interviews with Jelis and the European publishers and labels with whom they collaborate, it argues against a uni-directional notion of cultural imperialism, with African musicians cast as passive victims of western commodification and instead suggests that traditional musicians and their allies can and are adapting copyright to sustain musical careers and, potentially, extend vulnerable cultural traditions.


Dr Caspar Melville is lecturer Music and convenor of the MA in Global Creative and Cultural Industries, School of Arts, SOAS, University of London.