Maasai music on iTunes? U.N. agency works to help

GENEVA (Reuters) - The Maasai people of Kenya have enlisted the United Nations to help turn their songs, dances and stories into copyrighted assets, a model that could create new income for indigenous groups worldwide.

Students from Najile school perform a traditional Maasai Morans "warrior" song during celebrations to mark Kenya's Madaraka Day, the 46th anniversary of the country's self rule, at Nyayo national stadium in Nairobi June 1, 2009. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

Wend Wendland, head of the traditional knowledge division at the World Intellectual Property Organization, said the project exposed huge potential for communities to record, archive and also draw income from their cultural richness.

Under the pilot, the Maasai received last week a laptop, camera and digital recorder from WIPO worth 12,000 Swiss francs ($11,000) and were trained in how to conduct interviews, catalog digital files and maintain archives.

“They are able to make digital recordings of music, oral history, interviews with their elders and so on,” Wendland told Reuters, explaining those photos and audio files can be copyrighted, and traditional environmental and medical knowledge can be patented.

While cultural expressions themselves cannot be owned, the South African lawyer said that digital recordings of them could eventually produce valuable royalties for the Maasai people who control their distribution.

“It gives them some control,” he said. “Very often it is the recording which is misappropriated. It is the recording that ends up in an archive somewhere which eventually is accessed by a private interest as has happened in the music industry and the film industry.”


WIPO has been contacted by indigenous communities in the Pacific and Latin America who want to replicate the Maasai recording project, which grew from an early 2006 request from community leaders themselves, according to Wendland.

The Maasai are expected to have a first batch of digital files produced within months and will then decide what -- if anything -- to do with the recordings.

WIPO has said it will provide long-term support under the project and, if requested, will help the community share its cultural files online or through major commercial channels.

“We have got the contacts. We can introduce them to Putumayo and Apple and we can try to link them in,” Wendland said. Putumayo is a leading world music record label.

Some of the recordings to take place in the remote Kenyan community will also include innovations by young Maasai, many of whom are as comfortable in the Internet cafes of downtown Nairobi as in their parents’ remote mud huts.

“They will be recording contemporary versions, contemporary adaptations of the underlying folklore,” Wendland said.

Editing by Ingrid Melander