Sierra Leone Journal
Dispatches from Pre-War Freetown and Beyond


Out of Africa—and Into America
Third World Music Explodes in the U.S.

BERKELEY, CALIFORNIA—“African Music Explosion,” proclaimed the generic record jackets of the African Record Center in the early 1970s, but the pronouncement proved to be premature. Yet, a decade later, the spark envisaged on Brooklyn’s Nostrand Avenue has finally started to burn. African music is getting more and more radio airplay; African bands are touring the United States; African-themed miniseries, accompanied by African music, have aired on TV; and Paul Simon, whose “El Condor Pasa” and “Mother and Child Reunion” recordings presaged some of pop music’s previous Third World excursions, has won a Grammy with his album of African-based music called Graceland.

Why the sudden interest in music from Africa?
Ibrahim Bah of the African Music Gallery in Washington, D.C., a leading importer of African records, attributes the music’s growing popularity to two things—what he calls a “lull in American music” and the “accumulated result of all the small articles and airplay on college radio stations over the last few years.”

The musical styles of Africa and America have been inextricably linked since the first African captives were brought to American shores in the days of slavery.

“Africans,” musicologist
John Storm Roberts wrote in his treatise, Black Music of Two Worlds, “far from arriving in the New World without any cultural baggage, not only brought a great deal with them but planted it so well that it took root and grew profusely.”

The music that evolved under their influence—the blues, jazz, and rock styles that are mainstays of American culture today—managed something that most of its originators were unable to do: It made its way back to the motherland.
Nigerian saxophonist Orlando Julius Ekemode recalls that, growing up in the early 50s, records were a source of instruction. “I was interested in playing, but there was no scored music, so l bought records. I listened to Ghana records and listened to John Coltrane and all kinds of records that had horns. I just put it on and played it by ear.”

Modern African music has actually been vying for America’s attention for years. The Ghanaian drummer Guy Warren (now Kofi Ghanaba) worked the American jazz scene in the 1950s. Miriam Makeba made a splash in the early ‘60s when she began her exile from South Africa. Nigerian Babatunde Olatunji and his “drums of passion” have played U.S. clubs and universities for more than 30 years. But it wasn’t until recently that a whole host of African bands—
Franco and Rochereau of Zaire, Sunny Ade and Ebenezer Obey of Nigeria, Sam Fan Thomas of Cameroon, and Afro National of Sierra Leone—began making appearances in the United States.

Last fall, one of Africa’s most popular pop acts—Nigerian saxophonist Fela Anikulapo Kuti—embarked on a maiden tour of the United States. “African music is going to be the music of the future because of its intensity and variety,” Fela said during a stop in San Francisco. “People may not understand what I am saying, but they will want to know more than this is a good show. They will leave wanting to know and keep checking out my music. My music magnetizes people. They will want to know more about Africa too.”

Fela has been an outspoken critic of African governments, a troublesome penchant that has failed to charm a succession of Nigerian leaders. A scheduled American tour was aborted in 1984 after authorities arrested him at Lagos Airport on what were widely believed to be bogus violations of Nigeria’s foreign currency regulations. After spending 532 days in prison, he was released last April.

By his own account, Fela’s musical and political awakening occurred in 1969 in, of all places, Los Angeles, where he had come with his first band, Koola Lobitos, in an attempt to land a recording contract. A new acquaintance, black American activist Sandra Smith (now Sandra Isidore) salvaged the trip by encouraging him to explore black history and develop an African consciousness.

Back home in Lagos the enormity of the country’s problems and the leadership’s predilection for avarice and ineptitude provided a nearly limitless source of material for his music’s scathing lyrical commentary. Songs like “Buy Africa” and “Why Black Man Dey Suffer” set the tone for Fela’s new agenda. An album called Alagbon Close was named after a police station where he had spent many hours in detention. Another was inspired by a rather astonishing episode in which Fela was accused of eating some marijuana to prevent its use as evidence against him. After spending three days in jail, he went on to produce the LP Expensive Shit!

If, in Fela’s case, African music is sometimes overshadowed by politics and personal escapades, the reverse is true of another top African band hitting the U.S. tour circuit—
Les Quatre Etoiles, four of Zaire’s best-known musicians. Perhaps owing to personal disposition or the fact that the Zaire government is even less tolerant than that of Fela’s Nigeria, bassist Bopol Mansiamina, guitarist Syran M’Benza, and singers Nyboma and Wuta Mayi eschew politics and concentrate instead on producing a solid, up-tempo dance music with traditional lyrics.

Each musician of Les Quatre Etoiles (Four Stars) was a successful solo artist before the band surfaced in 1982. All are direct musical descendants of the pioneers of the “Congo sound,” which began to mature in the early 60s in the former
Belgian Congo, now Zaire, and its neighbor across the river, Congo Brazzaville. It fuses traditional elements and modern guitars with repatriated Afro-Cuban rhythms, most conspicuously the rumba. The result is a hot, up-tempo dance beat that is still the dominant force in modern African music.

Increasing numbers of African musicians are coming to the United States. Notable among them are Ekemode, who has toured the West Coast with his Nigerian All Stars, Joni Haastrup of Nigeria,
S.E. Rogie of Sierra Leone, Abdullah Ibrahim and Letta Mbulu of South Africa, and Foday Musa Suso of Gambia, all of whom have settled in the United States. Their interaction with American musicians has already resulted in a blending of styles, forming hybrids dubbed “world beat” in some quarters.

“It’s not that African music will take over and dominate,” says Bah, “but it creates an international music. There will not be just one mainstream music, but the best of each style will gain recognition for what it is.”

But what has taken the United States so long to recognize Africa as a wealthy source of music? Joni Haastrup, known as “soul brother No. 1” in Lagos during the late 60s because of his scintillating James Brown imitation, feels that America’s “Top 40 mentality” has hindered African music’s penetration into the United States. “I think the only problem with the American music market is that everything, including food, is programmed on TV or radio. Everything here is programmed. If you go into Europe as a musician coming out of Africa or coming out of America, you are immediately accepted because they are curious to know what you have that is different. And if you have something good, they go with you. But in America, the only obvious reason that I can see is that as long as you don’t sound like what the Top 40 is playing on the radio, there is not enough open mind to listen to what else there could be.”

Whatever the case, American pop culture has an ear permanently cocked in the direction of the country’s borders. The calypso craze of the 50s, the bossa nova and British invasion of the 60s and reggae in the 70s bear witness to the music industry’s never-ending search for a new sound that will sweep the charts. The sound of the 80s is beginning to emanate from Africa.

This article was distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate; Copyright © I987 by Gary Stewart


Copyright © 2016 by Gary Stewart

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