Monday, November 10, 2008

African Music Reloaded

[Editor's note: below is an unedited draft of a piece I turned into Earplug, Flavorpill's music newsletter, at the beginning of September. In a very unfortunate turn, Earplug has since folded, as part of a move on Flavorpill's part to consolidate its diverse media outlets into one more powerful conglomerate, presumably like Voltron. I was sad to hear this both as a reader and a writer - Earplug had consistently insightful and forward-thinking music coverage that I was glad to be a part of. So here's the piece left on the cutting room floor - there's a good chance the average AC reader will have a passing familiarity or more with the material. Should you not already be an obsessed african music geek, now might be an appropriate time to take the hobby up. Assuming you are not already burdened with hobbies as is. A hobby, maybe, is always a burden: what could be more fucking tiring than a hobby? The very idea makes me want to go lie down.]

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As a recent spate of CD reissues and new blogs attests, Africa possesses a deep and diverse wealth of musical expression still relatively to unknown to the West, and enthusiasm for its re-discovery shows no sign of abating. For those whose interest in the sounds of Africa was first piqued by crucial reissues in the last ten years from Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti and Tony Allen, his legendary drummer, it turns out that sweaty Nigerian funk is merely the gateway drug to a vast bounty of aural narcotics now getting smuggled in from the dark continent. Lately, much of the attention both digital and physical has been especially aimed at the musical legacy of West Africa, where in the 60s and 70s propitious musical cross-winds threw traditional folk and highlife together with Congolese and Cuban styles as well as a whole host of Western influences ranging from jazz to heavy JB funk and psychedelic rock.

In particular, label efforts have found no shortage of stunning artifacts from Nigeria’s jaw-droppingly vibrant musical culture in the 1970s. In its first incarnation, lauded dance floor-reissue kingpin Strut Records put out key Tony Allen records as well the indispensible Nigeria 70: Funky Lagos compilation, now after a hiatus it’s back with a follow-up, Nigeria 70 Lagos Jump. 

UK-based Soundway Records has recently unleashed a trilogy of Nigeria Special compilations which together trace a broad artistic progression from the more-traditional highlife sounds of Sir Victor Uwaifo to the psychedelic grooves exemplified by the power trio BLO, whose members met during Ginger Baker’s high-profile jam sessions in Nigeria in the early seventies.

The rest of West Africa’s musical heritage is now ripe for comp treatment as well. Analog Africa’s “African Scream Contest” centers its curatorial energies around the sound of ’70s Benin: the compilation is ostensibly named after the unhinged yelps on “Gbeti Madjiro,” a cut by the legendary afro-groove powerhouse Orchestre Poly-Rhythmo, which with its fiery breaks and rousing political lyrics revolutionized music in coup-torn Benin upon its release in 1970.

London record store Honest Jon’s has stepped into the scene as well with the comp “Living is Hard,” a boon of archival material from the Zonophone label, which in the late 20’s recorded folk songs performed by West African musicians in Britain and exported the results across the homeland, an aural testament to the living conditions of working-class British immigrants on par with the music of Blind Lemon Jefferson and Charlie Patton.

For those whom the crate-digging impulse has taken beyond the confines of the record store and on to intrepid intercontinental excursions, the internet has become a vital means of sharing the wealth, not only the sonic treasures gleaned, but the invaluable insights into African culture gained along the way. They’re full of stories recounting relentless detective work, scouring private collections and warehouses, tracking down long-disappeared drummers and legendary producers, rescuing copies from the rain, the ditch, or pyro-inflected children. The roster of traveling African music bloggers currently includes trained ethnomusicologists, such as Brian Shimkovitz, editor of the delightfully lo-fi Awesome Tapes from Africa, as well as passionate DJs like Voodoo Frank, aka “DJ Soulpusher,” whose Voodoo Funk blog, in addition to offering up mixes, album covers and other musical rarities, chronicles the exploits of his three-year West African expedition, which include getting robbed at knife-point, multiple scooter crashes, and voodoo shrine visits, all against the backdrop of regular bouts of violent political instability.
Analog Africa stands out as both a blog and the record label behind “African Scream Contest.” In order to properly license every track, proprietor Samy Ben Redjeb hunted down each musician involved, no easy task when it comes to a stack of dusty vinyl one-offs recorded thirty years ago in countries that often lack substantial copyright bodies. “I travel to Africa to meet the artists, to ask for permission to use their music, pay for the rights and to ask them to share their story - that to me is fundamental. I also spend a huge amount of time searching for pictures, old posters, documents and obviously for original vinyl, reel tapes, matrices, acetates and so on. To get a better picture of the general music scene during the 70s, I try to locate the people who worked in the music industry at the time, sound engineers, sales managers, club owners, label founders. All this is Analog Africa’s DNA if you like”. The liner notes bear witness to his tireless labor, featuring in-depth interviews that shed light on each record’s unique trajectory.
Over on the Likembe blog, the diverse entries comprise a dizzying encyclopedia which not only unceasingly doles out rarities from early folk to pulsing funk, but also strives to paint broader cultural context, by turns heralding and eulogizing vivid musical figures like the recently deceased master of Nigerian highlife, Oliver de Coque, and Franco, the legendary “Congo Colossus.” “I suspect African musicians have a much closer relationship with their fans because very few of them can make a living just through record sales (and this has become even more true with widespread piracy).” Says blogger John B. “Thus they're continually playing at housewarmings, birthdays, naming ceremonies, etc.”
The African digging scene is a singular confluence of passionate detective work by a community of dedicated, adventurous music lovers, together with the compelling remnants of an incomparably vast musical heritage. Each new find in turn only indexes how much still remains undiscovered, perhaps forever, by Western ears.

Recommended blogs:


Analog Africa said...

A friend just forwarded your piece, thanks for your support, I´m not taking this forgranted!! Bless

Comb & Razor said...

I just stumbled upon this by accident too... Thanks for the props!

Essays on African Music said...

well post, i was looking the same for my essay on african music.

Essay on African Music