Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Artistic View of Justice

Edgar ndi Davis do not offer legal service at a fee always. They are also, knowingly or unknowingly, helping thousands with legal services through their songs.

Legal fees are expensive for a majority of Malawians whose priority is food and shelter or physical survival, not legal technicalities.

The cheapest rate as set by the chief justice is K7,000 per hour. This is the rate of beginners. It gets high and high as one moves the legal ladder, finally becoming senior counsels. These are hours of reading, representation in a court of law, consultation in the lawyer’s office.

And these men and women can read, and they are paid for reading. A senior counsel is even more expensive that to hire them is prohibitive for the majority poor. It is also important to note almost all lawyers offer free services sometimes. They volunteer to poor people and it is wrong to portray then as seekers of wealth all the time.

But two lawyers are offering free legal services, free legal advice and free legal lessons in style. They are Edgar ndi Davis, lawyers who are also musicians. Or are they musicians who are also lawyers? They have been in court for years and they have come to appreciate that law is, after all, unfair.

In their song Pakuopa, a persona accused of defilement fails to defend himself in a court of law for fear of stunning a court with obscenities which is uncultural.

Ndalephera kufotokoza
Pakuopa kulaula bwalo
Kuti sankayamwa chala

It seems there is a dilemma of age and ability or maturity. The girl is young, less than 13, and cannot make an informed consent to sex. But the girl, according to the man, has mastered the art of sex that she cannot be described as young. This is justice according to the man. But he cannot explain this in court for fear of offending cultural logic.

So, in a way the man has two choices: offend cultural logic and get his freedom or respect cultural norms of communication and language, lose and get convicted.

The suspect chose respect for culture and was sentenced. And he laments that he is in jail yet he is innocent. So, what is the free legal lesson and service being offered here?

It is that law is, by its nature, unfair. In their work, Edgar ndi Davis, as lawyers, have defended or attempted to defend hundreds and they have come to appreciate the unfairness of law. Their song also seems to advocate for a traditional system of justice to take care of some issues because such would understand that the girl was not young just by use of a proverb.

The question they are raising is: why should a person lose just he cannot explain things in public? At the end of the day, they are saying not all convicted suspects are guilty. Some are convicted for failure to explain their side out of cultural respect, a respect of communication rules which are not written.

The song raises a difficult question area. What is justice? Is justice an event? Or is it a report of an event? Perhaps justice is the extent to which reality can be constructed or reconstructed in a court of law, meaning to be free or unfree is a question of how much a person reconstructs reality, hence the personal laments:

Mlandu wanga
sunayende bwino.

But perhaps this is not what the two meant when they wrote the song. Perhaps they have a different meaning. Who owns meaning of a work of art?

Lucius Banda helps the search for an answer. He has experimented and been successful with new forms of music. One area he tried in recent years is hiding meaning.

In his song, Amayi Inu, he sings and reaches a point where he simply hums—"yeleleeeeeeeee, iiiiiiiii, eeeiiii, one, two, three"—and then says something that listeners cannot comprehend. What is it that Lucius was saying?

"That was a mistake in the studio," he said this week. "I wanted to hum and failed [to hum the way I wanted], so I was telling the producer that we retake the [part] of the song."

But at the end of the day, the South African producer used software to manipulate the mistake and made it into what is today: a work of art.

Listeners to the song do not regard it as a mistake. In fact, it is no longer a mistake because it is now a work of art. Now that listeners know the part of the song as art, who generates meaning from it?

"Perhaps listeners should help us [make meaning], says Lucius. He is right. The answer is listeners. People make meaning from humming; listeners can generate understanding according to their experience. The goodness with gaps, silence and humming in music and any other work of art is that an audience has room to think critically, to take part in making meaning.

The song, for listeners, means that there is something Lucuis could not sing in literal terms and, to put across the message, he just hummed, kind of leaving a blank space for everyone to fill with their experience of a spouse who is not faithful.

And it works because whenever the song is played listeners tend to compete by filling the blank space. It is a way of engaging listeners in a dialogue with a work of art which in this song Lucius got right although from an accident. Perhaps there is no accident in art.

So, Edgar ndi Davis have no authority to dictate the meaning of their song, Pakuopa; listeners have that responsibility.

And by singing such a song they have become ambassadors of the poor; the musicians have become critics of law and justice. They are offering free legal services via music. That is the beauty of art, after all.

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