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The Sounds of Africa

Posted 10 Jul 2010 by Joe Muggs

You can't escape musical references to Africa at the moment. Obviously, the World Cup in South Africa has brought attention to the continent, and records like Somalian singer/rapper K'naan's 'Wave Your Flag' and Shakira's 'Waka Waka (This Time for Africa)' to the charts (yes, Shakira is from Colombia in South America, but as she has eloquently pointed out in interviews, the African influence on Colombian music and culture has always been strong). But the kerfuffle and hoopla of the event and the rather characterless pop records are, if anything, a distraction from the real groundswell of influence that African music and musicians have been gaining over the last few years.

The days of the 1980s when Western pop stars would imperiously offer their patronage - and naff pop production sounds - to African artists are long gone. When I interviewed the established Senegalese star Baaba Maal last year, he told me that African artists can choose their own collaborators now because "we are part of the music world, we tour everywhere and play at mainstream festivals; we stand by the side of the stage and see artists play, and say 'ah, I would like to work with them!', not the other way around". So it is that Maal himself ended up recording his laid-back and super modern sounding 2009 album Television with Brooklyn-based hipster band Brazilian Girls - and so it is that an artist like Björk will collaborate with acts like Democratic Republic of Congo's Konono No.1 or Mali's Toumani Diabaté, or M.I.A. with Nigerian Londoner Afrikan Boy not as someone wanting to gain a bit of authenticity or exoticism, but simply as one musician to another, meeting on the international circuit or in the clubs.

Audiences too, appear to be adopting African music less because it is African and more because it is good, or simply because they have finally realised that the continent has the resources to satisfy their insatiable appetite for the new. Konono No.1 (or to give them their full name L'orchestre folklorique Tout Pouissant Konono N°1 de Mingiedi) are a case in point; the band, which plays rugged percussive grooves using home-made amplification on their metal "likembe" thumb-pianos, had been operating in Kinshasa for decades, but when Belgian label Crammed Discs brought them to European attention, the instant accessibility of their rhythms became a huge hit with fans, playing both in dance clubs and at festivals like the Big Chill. Likewise their countrymen and labelmates Staff Benda Bilili: their startling back story may have got them initial attention (they are all polio-stricken, wheelchair bound and sleep rough in the grounds of Kinshasa zoo), but what sold CDs and tickets was their exquisite take on the Cuban Rumba sounds which have long been a staple of Congolese music.

Older African music has also been gaining fans, as it becomes apparent to wider audiences that the Afrobeat explosion of the 1970s didn't begin and end with Fela Kuti, and diligent collectors discover warehouses full of hidden gems from Ghana, Nigeria, Togo and beyond. Labels like Analog Africa, Soul Jazz and the Damon Albarn-affiliated Honest Jons have been carefully tracking down artists and licensing tracks from across the continent from the very beginning of recorded music through to the present day. The Ethiopiques series of Ethiopian and Eritrean jazz and funk which began in 1997 now runs to at least 23 volumes and counts Damon Albarn, Elvis Costello, Robert Plant, Tom Waits, Jim Jarmusch, Gilles Peterson and Brian Eno among its fans, and even leading hip-hopper Nas has sampled the king of Ethiopian jazz, Mulatu Astatke.

These older African grooves are also providing inspiration for acts to imitate, remix or subtly absorb their sounds. Hip US bands led by the likes of Vampire Weekend, High Places and Yeasayer approximate the chiming guitars of West and Southern African styles in their indie rock, while others like Los Angelinos Fools Gold enact a more faithful recreation, and Swedish-French-Malawian trio The Very Best (who have featured guest spots from Vampire Weekend's Ezra Koenig) update more modern Malawian dance pop. Others actively try to recreate the vibe of vintage Afrobeat. The Finnish eccentric Jimi Tenor has made three excellent albums in the style, including one in collaboration with Nigerian drumming legend Tony Allen (who also plays in Damon Albarn's The Good, The Bad & The Queen project); Skeletons is a completely fictional Ethiopian-inspired Afro Funk guise for Brighton funk musician Nostalgia 77; and Canada's Souljazz Orchestra have made four albums of cosmically-minded Afrobeat since 2005.

Dance music, of course, has always been internationalist and hungry for influences - adopting new sounds less for cultural resonance than because they simply work on the dancefloor (remember 'Yeke Yeke' back in the days of acid house?). Thus there has been a vast and increasing two-way flow of sounds between African producers and those in the rest of the world, with styles old and new fusing and splitting into new variants almost faster than we can document them. As sampling technology gets cheaper, areas of Africa throw up their own local styles like the Kwaito house beats and Shangaan electro of South Africa, the booty-bass/dancehall-inspired Kuduro beats of Angola, the Ndonbolo sounds of Congo, Cote D'Ivoire etc, which in turn are adopted by UK/Euro/US producers and DJs.

Experimental acts are dissolving African sounds into their beats - a recent EP by T++ (aka Berlin's Torsten Prufrock) on Honest Jon's makes an unlikely fusion of ultra-high tech dubstep processing and archaic crackly 78rpm West African recordings from the very early 20th century, while Spanish-based North African musician Filastine collides Moroccan, Egyptian and many other local sounds into R&B, hiphop, dub and avant-garde sound collage in his astounding recordings and live shows. Meanwhile the UK's own local street sounds such as grime and "funky" are increasingly explicitly referencing the African heritage of their artists: grime producer Teddy (formerly Silencer) and his musical partner G.Tank have just released the album Ghanaian Fire, leading rapper Skepta made tribute to his Nigerian background on 'Sweet Mother', and many funky producers use African influences, from the wonderfully silly 'Tribal Skank' to the more haunting and strangely sparse grooves by Mr Bakongo (alter ego of popular DJ Roska).

This is a very fleeting overview of how Africa is infusing modern music; the flow of information back and forth is now unstoppable - so this is very far from being a fad. With Africa's cities exploding with culture clashes and ad-hoc adaptations of technology, and migration becoming the norm for more and more people, the possibilities of what will happen as Africa's many cultures absorb more and more modernity fair make the head spin. What we are seeing now is only a tiny hint of what is to come.

Joe Muggs - The Artsdesk

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