“African” or “modern”?
Africa is a continent comprised of 52 independent nations, with around 1,500 languages and cultures. Nigeria alone has, for example, over 100 million inhabitants spread across 250 ethnic groups who speak 400 different languages and dialects. This in itself tells you that trying to choose something from all these means you’ll be in over your head right from the start. The choices you find in The Leopardman’s African Music Guide have been made from what is reasonably accessible in the “Ethnic” categories of Scandinavian (and to some extent English) music shops. From these I have subjectively chosen what I feel are the most important, and which I like best.
African music has had an influence on the rest of the world, just as impulses from the rest of the world have influenced African music. For example, it has been touched by Islam and Arabic elements for over 1,000 years, by Europe for 200 – 300 years, and by America and the Caribbean, not least Cuba, for the last 100 years. At the same time, Africa’s old languages and tribes go back to time immemorial. Individual African cultures have been untouched by the outside world for so many centuries, sometimes millennia, right up until today. (For example the Hadzabe people in Tanzania, who still are hunters and gatherers.)
African music has an incredible span. One can find everything from modern music with African background, such as with the saxophonist Manu Dibango, to antique local song traditions used for religious and ritual events. They all come under the umbrella of “African Music”. As a result of the rumba influence from Cuba that came to Congo in the 1940s, today there can be found a whole forest of soukous bands in Congo/Kinshasa, and only a handful are known outside their land’s borders. Other musicians in this tradition have gone to Europe and allowed themselves to be influenced by that music milieu and the European audiences of Paris. That is not to say that all those who are considered “African Stars” in Europe have star status in Africa. Are they, then, “African”?
Again, the width of the spectrum is formidable; there is an incredible amount from which to choose. What comes up on your screen cannot be anything but a small bite from a continent where music still has exciting news up its sleeve. It would therefore be simple to find “holes” in this tapestry of choices. Many will ask “Why isn’t so-and-so represented here? And what about thingamajig?”
To that I can only say that it’s a question of capacity. But the number of choices will be extended, so send in some suggestions and they will be presented!
In the meantime, it’s important to grasp an important paradox before you go on: over the last decade there has been a musical explosion in what we call world music. Folk-based musical traditions from across the whole world are now being blended with western hi-tech and offered to consumers in Europe, the USA, and Japan. Much of African music has become a part of this. It is now possible to claim the following: In the 1960s and 1970s Africa was in the midst of propitious economic and political development and change. The colonial rule faltered and a new African nationalism burst forth. This was felt in the worlds of music and literature, too, and the 1960s and 1970s saw a newly created cultural period in Africa. Artists like Franco in Congo, Fela Kuti in Nigeria, and Salif Keita in Mali made new African music for the African public. There was a market for the music in Africa, developed on African terms. In the 1980s the economies of many lands collapsed, there was no longer a big market for music, and African musicians began to migrate to Europe. There they began to make “African Music” for the world market. This music was blended with such a large number of western elements that it became the staple diet of European and American consumers. The African musicians back home, who had a stake in the “home market”, were not sitting pretty – they were poor, without possibilities to either record or sell disks/cassettes. All that the impoverished population could afford to do was buy pirate-copied cassettes, that put not one single shilling in the artists’ pockets. Their “marketable” colleagues drove Mercedes around Europe’s capital cities.
Thus Africa has been tapped for its talent and its music “modernised” to satisfy the exotic needs of rich Europeans and Americans. It is on this cutting edge that African music finds itself today. And the dramatic conflict between rich and poor across the world lies grinning behind African music’s loaded question:
should it be “African” or “modern”?