Afropop and African music

Afropop and African music
   In the 1950s, Franco’s Jazz in Zaire was one of the rare African bands to reach as far as Britain. In the 1960s, South African Abdullah Ibrahim, and the whole township Jazz scene, made a mark in the UK, as too did the legendary South African singer Miriam Makeba. Around the same time, the young Fela Kuti was inventing his Afro-beat sound in London. The 1970s saw the emergence of Afrofusion band Osibisa, while Hugh Masekela and Dudu Pukwana made a splash in the world of Afrojazz fusion. Manu Dbango’s ‘Soul Makossa’ was a hit in the UK in 1973, and King Sunny Adé put his brand of Nigerian ‘Ju-ju’ music on the market. Today’s current interest in popular African dance music started in the 1980s with Europeans bringing back music from their travels, and linking up with African musicians in bands like Jazira and The Ivory Coasters. London-based bands emerged, such as African Connexion, Hi-life International and Somo Somo, many of whom (like Taxi Pata Pata) were made up of expatriates from various African countries, ranging from Nigeria to Ghana, Zimbabwe, Zaire, South Africa, Tanzania and Kenya. Despite the prevalence of a sort of pan- African political correctness amongst many African musicians in the 1990s, the old colonial ties divide the new African music scene between two major spheres of influence: London and Paris. The current UK movement took off in London in 1983, on the back of the Greater London Council’s cultural policy, with a series of shows that launched now famous acts like Youssou N’Dour, Kanda Bongo Man, Sam Mangwana and Les Quatre Etoiles. In 1988, Mali’s Mori Kanté hit the number one spot in several European charts with ‘Yekke Yekke’. African musicians were finding a global market for their sound. Much of the music coming out of Africa since the 1980s has been categorized as ‘world music’. Papa Wemba embraces the term ‘world music’ as a category that denotes his eclectic approach, which itself is part of the change that international attention has brought. Wemba plays for an international audience, but recognizes the need to plunge back into traditional music. In relation to African music at a WOMAD press conference he is quoted as saying: ‘We are not a fashion. We are a continent.’ Fellow Zairean Ray Lima also admits that he is not playing the Zairean music he would play at home. At the other end of the continuum, people like Thomas Mapfumo are rejecting the term ‘world music’ in order to emphasize cultural specificity.
   Both Mapfumo and master mbira player and fellow Zimbabwean Ephat Mujuru have contributed to the creation of the staunchly traditional ‘chimerenga’ music.
   The diversity between artists who play traditional music, those who fuse and spice up the traditional, and artists who cross over completely to Western idioms is vast. Collaborating musically with Peter Gabriel put Senegal’s Youssou N’Dour on the European map in much the same way that appearing on Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ album made international figures of South African band Ladysmith Black Mambazo. While pioneering Senegalese ‘mbalax’ music, people like N’Dour are also taking it forward into the future, using European instruments to make their music more accessible to Western audiences. Despite the desire to cross over into the Western market, and the various efforts to conform to the marketing strategies of corporate entities like Peter Gabriel’s Real World Records, many African musicians feel that there is a covert racism in operation in the Western press. It appears that while these new musical collaborations allow Peter Gabriel or Paul Simon to enrich their cultures, many critics feel that African musicians are compromising their own. Because a large proportion of up-and-coming African musicians are university educated, technologically aware and computer-literate, many want to break out of the closed cultural systems that they have been brought up in, making inevitable such fusions as Les Têtes Brulée’s ‘bikoutsi-rock’ from Cameroon. But many people feel that, like Africa’s raw materials in the past, its music is being plundered, manipulated and exploited to suit Western tastes. For example, Remi Ongala, Zairean-born Tanzanian superstar and UK favourite of the WOMAD festivals, radically changed his original line-up and the fundamental sound of his band after WOMAD, insisting on a more mainstream Zairean sound. Also worthy of mention, the Bhundu Boys play Zimbabwean ‘jit jive’, a very pan-African dance sound, like hi-life and soukous.
   The Wassoulou Sound, a group of women singers from Mali, perform mainly traditional music, while Baaba Maal and Selif Keita blend traditional and Western forms very successfully. Ali Farka Touré plays a sort of African blues, while Angelique Kidjo from Benin, now a major force in Europe, plays a very funky Americanized form of her own traditional music. Jamaican reggae is also very popular throughout Africa: Alpha Blondy from Abidjan, like many Rasta-inspired bands, plays straight-up ‘roots rock reggae’, the only difference being that he sings in a combination of his own local dialect with French and some English. Blondy recorded a complete album with Jamaican band The Wailers, and his first album in 1983, Jah Glory, launched him as Africa’s first reggae star. In the late 1990s, South Africa’s Lucky Dube is set to steal Blondy’s crown as the king of African reggae. The debate surrounding the influence of the Western music industry on Afropop continues. On the continent of Africa itself, there are two big problems that hinder its continued growth. The first is the lack of recording studios and of the basic infrastructure that fosters a music industry. Due to this shortfall in resources, African musicians are plagued by piracy, lack of copyright protection and scarcity of the most basic tools of their trade, such as reeds and guitar strings, not to mention instruments themselves. With their first big earner, the Bhundu Boys returned to Zimbabwe, bringing with them only their country’s second public address system; the government then impounded this because it was unhappy that the band did not bring hard currency back into the country. This leads us to the second biggest problem facing African musicians: political turmoil. A number of African countries are experiencing democracy for the first time since independence. Ethnic and religious tensions remain strong in many regions. Many Algerian ‘rai’ stars have had to retire into exile in France because they have come under scrutiny by Islamic traditionalists, who claim they are playing debauched street music. Nigerian Fela Kuti’s conflicts with the Nigerian government are legendary, and the inventor of the Afrobeat has been imprisoned once and continually harassed since the 1970s for his criticisms of his government and its military regimes. Yet, despite these hurdles, African music is becoming a major force in the world of popular music.
   Further reading
    Bergman, B. (1985) African Pop, London: Cassell.
    Ewens, G. (1991) Africa Oye!: A Celebration of African Music, Enfield: Guinness.

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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