Imagine a land where the most popular foreign musicians are Don Williams
and Bob Marley. Imagine further that many people are fans of both.
Finally, imagine that the music of this land is itself so creative and
exciting that many rock and pop superstars go there to learn about it.
You don't have to imagine very hard. The land is Nigeria, and most
of those generalizations would hold up for the rest of Africa as well.
It was at a party in Nigeria that I first heard of Don Williams, not a very big country star in the States. I always considered myself something of a country music fan, so I brought up another American who achieved superstar status in Africa.
"You know, a lot of us Americans don't understand why Jim Reeves was so popular here in Africa," I said to a native Nigerian.
"I was a big fan of his" came the response, "but the big guy now in Sentimental Music is Don Williams."
"Don Williams. You must have heard of him. I have all eleven of his albums."
I was due to hear a lot more about Don Williams during my 14 weeks in Nigeria, and about Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton, Willy Nelson and a lot of other country musicians. The Nigerians call it "Sentimental Music", which is probably more accurate. It also explains a lot about what Africans see in the music.
It's not really so strange that Africans should relate to country music. The banjo came here from Africa, and is the only musical instrument in the U.S. that survived through slavery. Sam Charters went to Senegambia and Mali recently looking for the roots of the blues. He seemed a little mortified to find that old-fashioned griot music is a lot closer to Appalachian mountain banjo music than it is to the blues.
Stringed instruments, especially with hide heads, are as widespread in African music as the most stereotypical drums. The Hausa of West Africa have five traditional stringed instruments. All have two strings and are of various sizes. The 'goge' is played with a bow, like a fiddle. The three largest are made with calabash gourd bodies. The smallest, the 'kontiki', is today made out of a sardine tin. Oboes, trumpets, flutes, and many other instruments are found in the same area, but drums and stringed instruments are easily the most characteristic instruments, which makes easier the long interaction between African music and American popular music.
Today's African music owes a lot to country music, too. There's a rather conspicuous pedal steel guitar on Sunny Ade's recent hit album, Juju Music. When I was in Nigeria one big hit on the radio was a sentimental tune called "Country Boy". It was all about how cold people in the city are and how nice everyone was back in the village. It's lyrics included the line "I'm just a country boy, and I want to go home." There's going to be a lot more music like that, too. Industry is growing and people are flocking to the cities for jobs. It's some of the same forces that helped make country music big here in the States.
C&W is not the only 'foreign' music that Africans listen to, however. I heard a lot of disco, fusion, funk and even Indian music. Reggae and country are definitely the most popular, though. Like country, reggae music has African roots. The reggae beat is traditional to Africa. I even heard two African musicians argue about whether or not reggae was African music, though nobody suggested that "Sentimental Music" was African, no matter what its roots are.
The black consciousness and African pride aspects of reggae also help attract fans. Reggae has sparked a new interest in African music overseas, and the African musicians are thankful. Some folks still have their stereotypes, though. In 1974 someone in Nigeria asked me, "But the whites don't listen to reggae, do they?" This time I played a tape of the Busboys (a black rock group) for two musician friends, and they asked me if I had any music by black groups. Their songs "There Goes the Neighborhood" and "Johnny Soul'd Out" just don't translate, I guess.
Rock and jazz were two things I didn't hear much of. Rock musicians such as Brian Eno and Peter Gabriel have been all over Africa learning the music, but many Africans feel that rock is in trouble, that it's running out of good new ideas.
Jazz is esoteric even here in the land of its birth, so fusion is as close as most Africans (or Americans) can get to understanding it. Of course, therefore, George Benson outsells Chick Corea and Weather Report, let alone Sun Ra. Dr. Yusef Lateef is studying traditional African flutes at the Centre for Nigerian Cultural Studies at Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, but don't say "Jazz" to him! "Autophisiopsychic music" is what he prefers. Now he's writing a classical symphony.
The foreign influences of all types aren't the strongest forces changing African music today. The biggest influences are the musical forms passing from one part of Africa to another. As people move within and between countries they take their music with them and add what they find. Electric guitars and bass, plus all the special effects that high tech can add, make for an explosion of different sounds: Hi-life, Juju, Afro-beat, etc. This modern electric music, with its strong base in the traditional aesthetic, and employing traditional forms and skills, has been growing and developing for several decades. It still has the freshness of a music just invented. All the energy and excitement of a new music, all the experimentation of forms just being created in a land where improvisation was first invented, and all the determination of a people who want to build a better society, can be heard in the new music of Africa.
If you want to hear African music there is, of course, nothing like going there. Cassettes are more popular than albums now in Africa, meaning that a lot of music is being run off on only a small number of tapes. Peddlers bicycle around town with 200 or 300 cassettes strapped on their backs, Roman and Arabic characters labeling each one to tell you what's inside: all local artists and all one of a kind. Political parties (there are six in Nigeria) will sell recorded tapes for the cost of blank ones, and most of the better traditional music is available for less money that way.
The best way to get the music is just to bring your own tape recorder. Take along a 220 volt transformer unless you want to buy a lot of batteries, or you can buy a good stereo tape player there. You can record most of your favorite groups and solo artists, and make a lot of good friends while you're doing it.
For most people, traveling to Africa might be a bit steep, and fortunately most and more African music is becoming available in the States. Island Records has followed their release of King Sunny Ade's Juju Music with two albums of pop music from Francophone countries, Sound d'Afrique volumes I and II. It's got all the beautiful, bouncy, lyrical sweetness that Franco-African pop music is famous for.
Rounder Records has another sampler, Togo: Music from West Africa. Their big hit so far has been Alhaji Bai Konte. This master of the 21 string Senegambian kora sounds like two people playing at once! Andre Segovia, Chet Atkins, or Ravi Shankar were never better. The music is both exotic and accessible to American ears, and will excite fans of bluegrass, blues, jazz or even rock, all of which have been profoundly influenced by Senegambian strings.
Modern African music is also coming out on Rounder. Two recent releases by Prince Nico Mbarga and the Rocafil Jazz give the best idea of what a Nigerian dance party sounds like at its hottest. The most recent, Free Education, includes a tribute to the Nigerian government for becoming the first in Africa to make free universal primary education a right of all citizens.
The widest selection of African pop and traditional music on imports is available from African Record Centre Distributors Ltd. (1194 Nostrand Ave. Brooklyn NY 11225). They've got music from all over the continent, and even reggae and calypso from the West Indies. Anyone serious about African record collection should check out their catalogue.
There's a lot of great African music in record stores if you're willing to search through the bins. I found a great French album of Senegambian kora music at a store in Montana. Keep your eyes open, and remember, it's almost impossible to find African music not worth listening to.
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