Photo: Zulfiqar J Khan/Instagram
Photo: Zulfiqar J Khan/Instagram

Xulfi versus Nirmala Manghani and the very fine line between inspiration and plagiarism

Only an overly optimistic person could claim Nirmala's sample and 'Tu Jhoom' aren’t similar to a disturbing degree.
20 Jan, 2022

How exactly does one draw the line between inspiration and plagiarism when it comes to music? Does the aforementioned line even exist? This is a question that has confounded many and while there are certain legal and technical standards that are used worldwide to differentiate between the two, they don’t offer much in terms of real clarity.

To address the elephant in the room, according to a story published in the Express Tribune on January 18, Nirmala Maghani, an up and coming singer from Umerkot, accused producer Xulfi of lifting the melody for Coke Studio season 14’s instant hit 'Tu Jhoom' from a vocal sample she sent to him in June 2021.

Now, to be honest, upon listening to the sample and the actual song, it would take an overly optimistic person to claim the two aren’t similar to a disturbing degree. As has been addressed in the original story, there are of course minor differences in the song key and a note here and there, but the melody and phrasing is essentially the same in both cases.

Phrasing is essentially the way in which expression is conveyed in a passage of music, the way a musician shapes a sequence of notes or a singer emphasises certain words during delivery. Comparing both Nirmala’s and Xulfi’s work in this particular context, this is what strikes immediately — the similarities in phrasing within the melody, the verses to be precise. Of course, phrasing in the context of singing is very unique to each singer and near-impossible to exactly replicate, but the melody and note sequence are eerily similar in both cases.

Rohail Hyatt has tweeted on the issue, emphasising that compositions in the same raag always sound similar, providing examples of possible note combinations and stressing that theoretically, it is possible for two composers to come up with the same composition while working within a certain raag (which is again, a particular combination of notes). While no doubt true, in the context of this particular claim by Nirmala, coincidence does seem highly unlikely.

However, according to Xulfi’s statement to the Tribune, “I can’t say my work for CS borrowed from such shared samples I received”. What this statement entails and what the actual facts and intentions from both sides may be are perhaps questions that could be better answered in the presence of legal experts. What follows is an attempt to decipher the larger issue at hand.

If we’re looking to answer the original question i.e. how to draw the line between inspiration and plagiarism, it might be helpful to understand a few basics when it comes to music.

Taking the points raised by Rohail Hyatt a step further and leaving aside the strictness of notes within raags, even broadly speaking, genres within music exist for a reason. Consider, for example, Punjabi bhangra, rap, blues, jazz, rock or commercial pop. There are always similarities within the musical language of a certain genre. What would a bhangra song be without the typical dhol beat? How would you place a song in the blues category without the 12-bar walking bass-lines or twangy guitars? A rap song without rapid-fire vocals? And we’ve all seen the videos of those four ‘magic chords’ that virtually all pop songs from the 90s to the 2010s can be played over. In case you haven’t, highly recommended!

Secondly, all of the world’s music is essentially derived from a combination of notes within the octave. An octave is basically the interval between one musical pitch and another, double its frequency. The most common and widely-used is the seven-note system, which is the basis of most western music. Various cultures around the world use their own systems to divide the octave, including ours, with only the "perfect fifth" that basically divides the octave into half, being the near-universal constant element.

In hopefully slightly easier terms, a particular combination of musical notes within any larger system constitutes a certain melody. And herein lies the basic differentiating factor. While the use of instruments or vocal styles and general vocal/instrumental tonality can be interpreted as the artist being "inspired", using the same combination of notes in largely the same order to form an essentially similar melody is definitely plagiarism. Such occurrences, while plausible in the realm of coincidence, are extremely rare.

Another prevalent thought making the rounds is that no art is actually original. Philosophy 101. Again, while true, it’s pretty evident that this is too vague a statement, especially in this context. Take, for example, the blues. It was common for blues musicians to take material from contemporary oral and written sources, add their own music/arrangement and call the songs their own. The legend B.B. King once stated, “I don’t think any of us steal — we borrow.” The same can be applied to most of our folk music. After all, we’ve used source material from all of our regional sufi and contemporary poets and re-made them countless times within qawwalis, Coke Studio seasons and in pop music overall for decades.

These lines have circulated among the people of this region for so long that they have been internalised by all of us, let alone musicians. The same is said for blues/folk music of the West. While the source material isn’t self-made, the arrangements, rhythms and melodies have constantly been modified by contributing artists. And, most importantly, no one has ever claimed originality for these songs.

It is a sad reality that the rip-off phenomenon exists globally and unfortunately, the list of Pakistani artists guilty of lifting entire songs is a long one. Not even legendary acts such as the Vital Signs ('Samjhana' to name just one) or Sajjad Ali (yes, 'Bolo Bolo' is a complete rip-off) can be exempted from this list, however, a positive for newer music is that these instances have considerably reduced. At any rate, global music is so easily accessible in the modern world that it has become very difficult to escape scrutiny.

All artists are inspired and affected by those that came before them as well as the world that exists around them. It would be absurd to claim otherwise, since it is the literal job of the artist to BE inspired, internalise whatever affects them and come out with their own interpretation. However, all said and done, in a country where a resolution for artist royalties was passed in the Senate only a few days ago for the very first time, not much can be expected when it comes to protecting artists’ rights, and it would be unrealistic to expect young musicians to understand the risks involved while sharing their work.

Creating music is a labour of love, and it’s a cruel reality that sharing your creation with someone or reaching out to more established artists in the hope that your music might reach a wider audience is always a risk. Notwithstanding the current matter under discussion, it goes without saying that any aspiring artists should take the utmost care and as many precautions as possible before trusting someone with their music. It is also a matter of artistic integrity for the receiver to guard the other’s intellectual property, at least till a time when laws governing such matters are solidly enforced.

And for those of you still unsure, suffice it to say that for art, inspiration is a necessity. Plagiarism is a choice.