7 December 2012

Africa: 'Got Any Minimal-Afro-Tech, Mate?'


The changing role of "African Music" in the Western club scene.

Dan Snaith (of 'Caribou') recently released the album Jialong under the pseudonym 'Daphni'. It attracted a lot of praise, and not just because of how it sounds; some of it was more to do with how it was made. Snaith sampled obscure West African music in innovative ways that are quite different to the 'cut-and-paste' style of yesteryear in older tracks - where it can feel like the producers use 'African' music purely for its apparent 'exotic-ness'.

So does the critical and commercial success of releases like Jialong mean we are witnessing a shift in how African music is perceived, sampled and played out in Western music scenes? Similarly, does the popularity of African acts like Just A Band, or touring collectives like Africa Express mean contemporary African music is now appreciated in the same way as music from other places? Is Africa's music - like its economy and geopolitical heft, so we are told - 'rising'?

'In the beginning, there was Fela'

First, a disclaimer: I am not an expert on African music. So to try and understand what has been going on over the past decade or so, I asked Hugo Mendez, co-founder of the Sofrito label, to give me some insight. I started by asking him what first drew him to African music. He immediately admonished me for my lazy journalistic shorthand: "It's difficult to generalise about 'African' music as it covers such a huge variety of different styles that often have little to do with each other".

Some quick YouTube-ing will confirm this for the uninitiated. Compare, for example, this song by Tinariwen with this one by BLK JKS. Both songs were released relatively recently, and were produced by acts with large international followings. But the melodic, percussive and compositional differences are stark. This doesn't stop both bands being chucked into the 'African music' pigeonhole. 'African music', then, can only make sense as a very broad umbrella term. If listeners are to get an accurate idea of what a particular African band or act sounds like, music journalists (and sellers) have to be much more specific when describing it (to be fair, many writers have been doing this for some time).

Nomenclatural issues aside, Mendez went on to cite Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti as many Westerners' first introduction to African music. By blending Yoruba music, Highlife, American jazz and funk with politically-provocative lyrics, Fela (along with Tony Allen) brought his music to a wide, international audience during the 1960s, and even gave 'Afrobeat' its name. His legend was further cemented once hip hop producers of the 1990s (and beyond) began sampling his work, and he seems to dominate discussions of African music - despite Fela being only one (albeit important and well-known) part of the story. But Mendez also points out that Afrobeat has 'tended to remain in its own niche'. It wasn't until about a decade later that African music became more prevalent in Western nightclubs, linked as it was to the rise of disco in the 1970s.

Disco Fever

Disco was the first genre to really dominate Western clubs; indeed, nightclubs didn't really exist until disco popularised them. All the main features of today's 'underground' clubbing experience - professional DJs, nightclubs (discotheques), loud sound systems, purpose-built DJing equipment, 12" remixes and dubs and clubbers' reputation for drug-taking - were born during disco's mid-70s heyday. (Arguably, Northern Soul, or maybe Reggae and Dub, instituted most of this earlier, but these 'scenes' stayed relatively local and didn't embody all these elements at once).

Disco also changed what it meant to be a disc jockey. The first DJ to beat-match - that is, to overlap the ending of one record with the beginning of another so that their drum-beats are synchronised - was New York resident Francis Grasso. He did this in 1968. But Grasso wasn't just creative in terms of technique; he also played a variety of different music, including African and African-influenced music. In Last Night a DJ Saved my Life, Brewster and Broughton state that Grasso made 'a personal signature tune of Michael Olatunji's "Drums of Passion"', and was a fan of bands like Osibisa.

Right from the very start of Western clubbing, then, African music was there. To the list of pioneering disco DJs that played African or African-influenced music during the 1970s and 80s, we can add David Mancuso, also in New York (at the legendary Loft), Ian Levine in various venues across Britain, Daniele Baldelli in Northern Italy (usually found at the Cosmic Club, the inspiration for Studio 54), as well as many others. Disco drew together disparate, marginalised groups - by which I mean people who were discriminated against because of the colour of their skin or sexual orientation - under an emancipatory and globally-sourced soundtrack. It included a lot of music from Africa and South America as well as from North America and Europe.

The mass-commercialisation of disco during 1976-9, with the movie Saturday Night Fever, the Bee Gees and the rest, may have warped people's perceptions of what 'disco' actually is or was, but this (brief and partial) account of its beginnings indicates that African and African-influenced music has long been part of the Western club music 'tradition'.

'Tribal House' and crass cultural expropriation

However, African music has almost always been delivered to dance floors through a Western filter. Most of the 'African-sounding' music played in Western clubs these days samples or edits African music; it's rarely African music per se. Sampling, the reusing of existing sound recordings to create new songs, was popularised by hip hop pioneers such as Afrika Bambaataa during the 1970s and 80s. A few years after hip hop started to dominate both the charts and the clubs, early house music producers got their own samplers and began incorporating elements of African music in their own tracks.

Much of this kind of house music was (and is) lumped together under the unhelpful label of 'Tribal House'. Perhaps the earliest example is Cultural Vibe's 1986 track 'Ma Foom Bey'. The fact that the song's lyrics, apparently, don't actually mean anything might leave the listener feeling uneasy: are the 'African' elements of this track only their for 'exotic' appeal? The track's stripped-down aesthetic and funky, 'burbling' bass line has meant that its appeal has endured regardless, even appearing on computer-game soundtracks.

Current trends: From novelty to subtlety

Thankfully, Mendez thinks that we are moving away from this kind of 'cut-and-paste sampling aesthetic' where African "influences and sounds are incorporated...[solely] for their retro and exotic charm". Producers like Snaith, and others such as DrumTalk and Auntie Flo, sample and edit African music because of its effect on the dance-floor - not its 'novelty value'.

But what led to this? One reason is that African music is much more easily available now than it was before. Where before there were only a few labels releasing African music in the West, now there are hundreds. Until relatively recently, this growth was 'organic': although the Afrobeat community may have been fairly insular, it does have some analogues in later and larger scenes, particularly 'world music' of the early 1980s, out of which emerged bona fide stars like Youssou N'Dour and in the globally-dispersed communities we have now. The tireless efforts of labels like Mendez's own Sofrito, and others such as Soundway, Honest Jons, and Strut have meant that Congolese Soukous, Senegalese Mbalax, and Kenyan Luo music (to name but a few genres) can now reach international audiences.

In the UK, British producers of African descent have picked up where the 'world music' and 'Tribal House' scenes left off, popularising contemporary African music such as Afrobeats, and hybridic genres like UK Funky.

Without the internet, though, the spread of African music across the globe over the past decade or so would have been much slower. A listener in Bangkok, Philadelphia, Vienna or wherever can type 'Kuduro' into Google and find millions of results, exposing themselves to music that they might not have heard otherwise. Moreover, researching, listening and buying music over the internet is usually how Western club music producers like Snaith access their samples. Similarly, the internet has provided a global platform for African musicians like Spoek Mathambo, allowing them to reach audiences all over the world. Perhaps it's one of the few consequences of globalisation that Africans can actually be thankful for.

'One nation under a groove'?

But however positive these developments might seem, there are some discomforting issues that preclude a wholly optimistic spin. Sasha Frere-Jones, in an interview with Snaith, argues that 'taking underexposed music from around the globe out of context can...feel like the musical equivalent of a package tour to the developing world'; does all this just add up to bad anthropology?

And some of the most famous producers who sample African music sometimes lapse into 'Africans are very spiritual' banalities. Nicolas Jaar, club music's scholar manqué par excellence had this to say about meeting Baaba Maal: 'I sat down and closed my eyes and asked the skies for some guidance - my band mates looked on, confused at my sudden urge of spirituality. Suddenly, I felt a strong energy on my left. I open my eyes and start walking towards this feeling. I see a man lying on the rugs on the floor. I say hello and present myself. I ask him his name - it was Baaba Maal'.

There are problems, too, for those Westerners who write about African music (present author included). Am I contributing to the 'package tour' mentality Frere-Jones talks about? Is the sampling of African music by Westerners just another instance of the West pilfering African products for its own ends? Possibly - but musicians rarely make that much money from selling music these days, especially those that make 'underground' club music. Do African musicians/acts even 'need' this kind of praise from floridly verbose Western writers to be seen as legitimate?

These tensions and contradictions may remain unresolved. But they shouldn't stop Westerners enjoying African or African-influenced music altogether. For what it's worth, I do think we are moving towards a state where African music is enjoyed less for its 'different-ness' and more as, quite simply, good music that happens to come from the African continent. And if it's written about, promoted, sampled and played out in that spirit, then there's no reason why Africa's music can't continue to 'rise' to the mutual benefit of musicians and music-lovers across the globe.

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