“The sun will shine on those who stand before it shines on
those who kneel under them.”
If you understand the beginning well, the end will not trouble you
– Ashanti proverb
Music has existed since time immemorial. It was there before recorded history so its exact source remains a mystery, but it’s widely believed that it began in Africa, which is after all, the ‘birthplace of humanity’.
So it follows that if we trace the roots of today’s modern music, the trail will lead back to Africa, and to this day, there are many cultures that acknowledge the essence of their sound as coming from this continent.
From the Caribbean are obvious offshoots like Calypso, Compas and Reggae; while the Cubans willingly calling their sounds African.
From Latin America are the Bossa and Samba of Brazil; and Colombia’s Salsa and Cumbia. Venezuela and Chile also credit the Motherland, and as the esteemed Peruvian singer and musicologist Susana Baca says:
“African music has basically influenced the entire continent. But because of the different local elements in each place, it may sound different. It’s still African, though. It’s a different way of breathing, a different way of walking and a different way of dancing that result from that mix, but the root of all of it is African.”
Some say that North America’s Mississippi Delta gave birth to Jazz and the Blues, but the inventors would more likely follow the path further back….
But these days, amid the hype of mass media, this origin is often forgotten – and young Africans in particular, need to remember that whether they prefer Pop, Rock, Jazz, Funk, House, Rap, or R&B – most of the world’s most popular styles have some connection to their continent.
Although globalization is often accused of creating a singular culture, and of severing traditional ties, it also has many benefits. Through cross-continental exchange, it has enriched us; and our music is heard across the world by people who might not understand the language, but are captured by the rhythms and united by the universal spirit of this sound.
Who made the drum knows best what is inside – Burundian proverb
West Africa has a particularly rich musical tradition, which affirms the artist’s role in society with the age-old griot tradition. As the “keepers of collective consciousness”, the griots historically travelled from village to village informing, educating and entertaining through storytelling, music and dance.
And even in the present electronic age, this birthright is still honoured, with both rural and urban griots, found among the astounding vocalists and musicians of Mali, Senegal, Guinea; Ghana and Nigeria.
Over the last few decades, West African music has also been at the forefront of engraving the continent on the international map.
Cameroon’s Manu Dibango stormed international dance floors in 1972, with ‘Soul Makossa’ – which became Africa’s first planetary hit; and in the early ‘90’s, he was the first to blend rap with African music.
Guinea’s Mory Kante, went abroad in the ‘80’s, electrified his Kora , and with added groove transformed a traditional Mande griot love song into a universally accessible pop hit, ‘Yeke Yeke’. Included on the album Akwaba Beach, it was the first African release that sold over a million copies worldwide.
Artists like Mali’s Salif Keita and Benin’s Angelique Kidjo both began as affirmed Afro-rockers, and both have continued breaking boundaries beautifully. Throughout their exceptional careers, they’ve continued growing their mastery with innovations that are invaluable to all of us.
These are Africans with global identity – and there are countless others from this culturally vibrant region, with equally massive contributions.
Also popular in recent years, are collaborations between ‘Western’ stars, who wish to boast their abilities, revive their careers or simply explore further, and African maestros.
Senegal’s Baaba Maal with his exceptional voice and vastness, is one who’s so often invited, that he’s reaching into the realm of being an ambassador of Africa; as is Youssou N’Dour, who having taken Mbalax to another dimension, says:
“I’m a modernizer, I can’t deny that, but a modernizer filled with respect for the larger musical culture that has nourished my own singing, writing and thinking.”
“In African music there is room for everyone, so I see no reason for gloom and doom about the future of traditional music. And I’d like to add this: We, the creators of the hybrid forms, we the ‘Afro-pop’ stars, actually open many doors for traditional music by promoting an awareness of Africa’s musical riches.”
And of course there’s Fela Kuti – the revolutionary humanitarian, who single-handedly stood up against a dictatorship. Amidst ongoing torture and brutality by the forces in power, he arose again and again – armed with a seductive saxophone, infectious grooves, meaningful lyrics, universal spirituality, and an undying vision of African unity.
Fela was outrageously provocative both in his art and his life, and when he died in ’97, the nation mourned. Even those who disagreed with him felt the loss, because at the very least, he affirmed Nigeria as “a musical powerhouse”.
Through his passion he highlighted his homeland as “the heart of African music”.
With over 400 distinct ethnic groups, spread over an expansive landscape, a diverse and powerful heritage has emerged – from deep indigenous beginnings, to the interplay of traditions, and the assimilation of other cultures, a number of styles evolved.
These include Juju, Fuji, Highlife, Afrobeat, Apala, Gospel, Sakara, Jazz, Reggae, Hip-hop and much more.
If we stand tall, it is because we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us – African Proverb
Traditionally, Yoruba music begins with a conversation among drums, and goes on to incorporate storytelling, and a theatrical aspect. And over centuries, these elements have remained intact, even while other influences were absorbed.
The most notable contribution came in the 1930’s, when the Palm Wine sounds of Sierra Leone and Ghana filtered in, with guitars, banjos and sweet vocal styles that enhanced the Yoruba flavour, in a blend that became Juju music. And alongside it grew Fuji – a similar but more percussive style, without guitars, but with wailing vocals adding a Muslim touch.
Simultaneously, in the early ‘50’s, when Highlife arrived from Ghana it was adopted and adapted by the Igbo. Being a totally infectious guitar-driven, dance-band style, Highlife spread rapidly – changing the course of African music across the continent.
Then in the late-‘50’s, I.K.Dairo transformed Juju – adding the accordion, electric guitar, and ‘gangan’ [talking drum] to this musical potion.
‘The Commander’, Ebenezer Obey, arrived in the 60’s, adding spice with multiple guitars. He became the new star, until his rival, King Sunny Ade took Juju to a new level, leading the way into the ‘80’s with a futuristic groove, that carried the eternal spirit of his tradition into the new millennium.
Meanwhile, the Yo-Pop scene exploded with high energy adaptations of imported disco and soul, Nigerian Reggae began to roar, Gospel kept praising and R&B continued to copy.
This leads us back to Afrobeat – a sound, which has crossed the seas, and remained unscathed. While Fela, was undoubtedly the voice, the message and the heroic frontman, we must also tribute the man who put the ‘beat’ in that afro!
He’s Tony Allen, a Nigerian drum master who contributed equally to the famous sound, and is still taking it further. This living legend provided the solid foundation upon which the ‘The Black President’ stood; and so much so, that when they parted ways, Fela had to fill his place with four drummers.
This shortcut across Nigeria’s musical landscape shows a culture reflecting and responding to an ever-changing environment – a natural evolution of musical excellence.
Recordings of these giants may appear raw, but underneath this unrefined production are timeless offerings.
Free things decrease one’s intelligence – Burundi proverb
Now, with digital recording, opportunities are available to almost anyone – yet liberation can also bring limitations.
Across Africa, we’ve allowed ourselves to be sidetracked by slick production techniques and fancy formulas, at the expense of real content. And as the airwaves bombard us with quick-fix formulas and add-hot-water stars; and blind us with glamour, we don’t see how far we’ve strayed.
As Africans, we should know the power of music, because ours has always had a spiritual or social role, yet now it’s made just for the charts – and only our charts, because without substantial marketing budgets, few of our songs will reach international ears. Yet at the same time, we constantly supplement America’s sophisticated industry, because with each of their songs we play, we pay!
So where is the exchange now?
The radios and TV networks are not solely to blame, because we Africans have again obediently obeyed our cultural colonizers; and at the same time neglected to share meaningfully, and interact as a united continent.
Awilo Longomba’s name is still mentioned, but it seems he’s the only Congolese superstar that’s still heard in Nigeria. Without the essential elements of Soukous and Rumba in the mix, will we ever see the evolution of the African party?!
Copying everyone else all the time, the monkey one day cut his throat –
Now, there are second-rate copycats, who mimic Ludacris, 50 Cent, Brandy and others….badly!
But amidst the ‘sellouts’, there are talented and enlightened individuals emerging, who are increasingly being embraced by their generation.
Some criticize Femi Kuti for using his father’s name to find international fame, but instead he should be recognized for his courage in carrying Fela’s huge legacy. Besides, are young Africans today really that satisfied, that they can’t see he’s outspoken about their struggle?
Paul Play Dairo, also draws from the depth of a well built by his dad, I.K.Dairo, and he’s respected for not only honouring his personal history, but for establishing himself as a producer and solo artist in his own right.
He explores all styles from pop to soul, to highlife, Juju and hip-hop; in a meaningful, musical way that represents the positive aspects of our information age.
Paul Play explains:
“America is a culture that always wants to dominate the world market…. they make sure that they have the media power… everybody is looking up to their movies, to whose winning the oscars or the grammy, nobody ever looks up, or looks forward to what’s coming from Africa…
….We grew up like that – that orientation was there…. in Nigeria when you wake up in the morning, they tell us about R.Kelly, Puff Daddy and all that, so what do you want the young people to take… what you put into young people is what comes out of them….
….How much of our local music do we get to hear? We don’t hear it anymore – there’s no local content on radio, no Afrobeat, nothing…so we see why young people go in that direction…”
When the moon is not full, the stars shine more brightly – Buganda proverb
There are also those that are not yet greats, nor from greats, neither are they grappling with identity issues – these artists have a purpose, and are proud!
D’Banj is big! This London-based Nigerian singer- songwriter is also a harmonica whiz, and a captivating stage performer. He refers to Fela Kuti as “My great mentor”, but thankfully he is no imitator, instead he brings Afrobeat into the 21st century with energy and enthusiasm; singing in Yoruba, English and Pidgin English.
Kefee is a young woman with an Afro-pop sound, who takes pride in calling herself a traditional artist, but also refers to her crossover style as ‘trado-hip-hop’. She sings in her native Urhobo language, cutting across generations, with lyrics that address social issues and call for peace and change.
“I sing in my language because that is where I come from.If I don’t sing in my language and then ask someone from another part to come and sing in my language, he may not do it the way I am doing it. If I don’t sing in my language, I don’t know in what language I should sing. …..
Youths look at the future, the elderly at the past, our ancestors live in the present
– Nilotic proverb
These are just a few of Africa’s ‘hidden’ treasures, who consciously adapt their indigenous heritage to the global influences around them. They refuse to offer inferior imitations of American Pop, R&B, Ragga and Rap, instead – Nigerian Rap is where it’s at!
As Azadus, a respected rapper says:
“…Has to be hip-hop – don’t matter if the hip-hop coming in reggae tune, rap tunes or R&B, but the basics has to be hip-hop beats”.
Along with the likes of Ruggedman, Eedris Abdulkareem, Sound Sultan and others, he’s making waves. And the ripple is felt across West Africa, with thousands of posses popping up; and through the excellence of artists like Senegal’s Positive Black Soul and Daara J, and Somalia-born K’naan; it’s now accepted that hip-hop is based on Africa’s classic call-and-response form.
Drawing from the ancestral drumming and oral traditions of their forefathers, they extend their heritage forward into the future!
Paul Play Dairo believes that:
“Hip-hop is a major mainstream revolution in world right now, not just in America, but also in Asia, Europe and even India… it’s a culture of young people regardless of race or where you come from…. it’s about the way you dress, your jeans, shoes, cap… and rap is the music of hip-hop, and the rap you bring to it can come in many ways… even in your own language…”
Meanwhile, in Accra, Ghana, a hybrid has emerged – Hip-life! Similar to Hip-hop in rhyme patterns and the use of electronica, Hip-life strips down to raw beats, infusing these with local rhythms and languages, adding indigenous instrumentation.
All these artists honour those who have paved their paths, so there’s hope, but there’s also a long way to go…
The teeth are smiling, but is the heart? – Congolese proverb
Azadus expands further: ”Unfortunately for us, a whole lot of Nigerian artists wants to be American, just a few of us stick to our own thing. Truth is MTV-Base is not helping us, because there are some guys who wanna be Usher… or Destiny’s Child ‘wanna-be’s, because this is what they see being promoted..”
But one conscious rapper who has benefited from MTV-Base is 2-Face Ibidia, who in 2005 made history by winning the first ever MTV award for the Best African Act. Before going solo, he was famous at home, as one of the groundbreaking crew, the Plantashun Boyz. He’s become an international icon, with album sales in the millions.
Now there’s Idols West Africa, which like MTV-Base, seems like a good concept
Attractive from the outside, it’s a talent search, headed by an international network and produced by MNet. It will certainly create jobs, provide opportunities and expose artists, ultimately giving birth to an African superstar – or is it rather, as one website described, “Idols America in West Africa”?
And okay, its pop they’re wanting – but one can’t help wondering, whose pop? Do contestants sing versions of Madonna or Bryan Adams because that’s what they know best, or because they believe it’s what will more likely get them selected? [Besides, I doubt singing Fela’s “Zombie” would get anyone placed….]
The award-winning South African based, Nigerian guitarist, Kunle says that as a viewer, he’s been impressed by seeing the huge amount of talent that exists in West Africa, but he adds:
“I don’t understand what they mean when they say ‘West African’ Idol, and want someone to sing like say, Beyonce. Maybe it’s just for the auditions, and when they do their record they can rather do something that represents Africa as continent, but right now, I wanna assume they just looking for the voices… I’d be disappointed if they come out with another Jennifer Hudson….”
Kefee is not offended by the choice of songs, because she feels they’re classics. But she feels that African songs should play a greater part, adding:
“… because we’re African – that is where we come from, that is who we are, and we should be proud to represent us, anywhere at anytime!”
Paul Play Dairo says:
“They’re trying to make us Americans again! I wanna listen to African music as well as
R&B…..and I need to mention, that even if you’re gonna sing in English, why cant you
say, do a popular African song, and use English, or at least add one or two lines in your
own local dialect…. if I can sing Soukous, Calypso or Afrobeat in English, then why not?! Because that would make me the African Pop Idol!”