Hello Mommy Africa: A Hipster's Guide to Afro-Indie Rock
In 1951, Folkways Records, on their Ethnic Folkways imprint, released a two-LP set called Negro Folk Music of Africa and America. The double LP featured 24 field recordings from exotic and unknown regions of the world (at least to most Americans), from South Africa to French Equatorial Africa, Zanzibar and Ethiopia, to Brazil, Columbia, Haiti, Puerto Rico, Alabama, and even Mississippi. In addition to being one of the first long-player attempts to document connections between the music of the motherland and the American south, Negro Folk Music is also one of the craziest and deepest meditations on rhythm you'll ever hear. There's some pure voodoo on the collection — yelps of passion deeper than even Scott Stapp could imagine — that bridges African chant with American holler and moan. Writes Richard Alan Waterman in the liner notes: "... traits of African musical style have become intertwined in a wide variety of ways and in many different places with elements derived from Europe to produce a series of well-integrated, vigorous, and peculiarly American hybrids."
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Perhaps the most peculiar American hybrid to result from this cross-pollination is the one spawned by the overeducated Caucasian subspecies known as "The Hipster." From F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1920s to the Birth of the Cool and beyond, upper-crusties have long been drawn to mysterious African and African-American musical idioms in an effort to reconcile their cultured effeteness and that burning ember of rhythm nestled deep within their pelvic bones. Whines of privilege must occasionally give way to howls of defiance, after all, regardless of pedigree. William Burroughs chanted with the Master Musicians of Joujouka in Morocco (as did the Rolling Stones' Brian Jones a decade later); John Fahey was digging for old Charley Patton records with the same drive as latter-day backpackers rustling for Tribe Called Quest 12-inches. Keith Richards chomped down American rhythm & blues one 78 at a time. In two decades, music geeks will no doubt be searching out old crunk and ghetto-tech singles because they wanna hear something deep, something real.
And by some curious quirk of history/fate — a convergence of American imperialist guilt, unlimited access to global music, and creative empathy for a region currently in the midst of blood-soaked turmoil? — the past few years have seen American indie rockers get their Mommyland juju groove on. On the East Coast, Dirty Projectors and Vampire Weekend harness free-floating West African guitar lines and polyrhythms; the Kenyan/American marriage of Extra Golden (two Kenyans and two white Americans) and Nigeria-frenzied Chicago Afrobeat Project both bridge borders in the Midwest; and in Los Angeles, Africa and Southeast Asia collide with the West in Dengue Fever, and the curiously funky Hebrew-African blend of Fool's Gold delivers insurgent energy.
In the interest of nudging this miniature movement along, and feeding it a healthy, balanced diet, what follows is a primer for budding proponents. Just as in 1976, when a British punk zine drew the frettings for three punk riffs under the title, "Here's three chords. Now go start a band," L.A. Weekly offers a similar instruction: Here's eight records. Now go start a riot. If you're going to steal, you may as well steal from the best.
Fela Ransome-Kuti | Shakara/London Scene | Universal (1971/'72)
If Africa is shaped like a jumbo shrimp (South Africa being the tail), where is Nigeria? The Adam's apple (if jumbo shrimps do indeed have Adam's apples).
In a nutshell: Fela Kuti made 77 albums, so there are any number of options. But for our purposes, a little reverse pollination might be instructive. Fela Kuti, one of the pillars of 20th-century music, in 1969 spent about six months living in Los Angeles. According to Jay Babcock's definitive feature on Kuti, "Fela: King of the Invisible Art," Kuti and his band (including the amazing Tony Allen, currently of the Good, the Bad and the Queen) gigged six nights a week for five months at 6666 Sunset Boulevard, after which they were given an unceremonious boot by immigration, but not before hooking up with the Black Panthers and carrying their philosophies back to Nigeria. London Scene, recorded at London's Abbey Road studios, consists of Fela Kuti and The Africa 70's first recordings after their departure from L.A. "J'Ehin J'Ehin" ("Chop Teeth Chop Teeth") manages to be as tight and on target as James Brown's Famous Flames jam, with the added bonus of a Latino rhythm infusion that Allen and Kuti learned in Southern California. Coupled with the highlife music of Kuti's youth, the stuff of London Scene and Shakara will never be replicated, no matter how much you study Fela's scales and tablature and biography and dance moves.
Various Artists | Ethiopiques, Vol. 4: Ethio Jazz & Musique Instrumentale 1969-1974 | Buda Musique France (1998)
If Africa is shaped like a jumbo shrimp, where is Ethiopia? Halfway down the spine.
In a nutshell: I'd wager that this brilliant collection, part of a 23-volume series, is responsible in some measure for the rise of the Converse & Dashiki sound. Specifically: Jim Jarmusch's use of many Ethiopiques songs in his 2005 film, Broken Flowers. Starring hipster icon Bill Murray, the film celebrates Ethiopian music as effectively as it does Murray's quest. The Ã‰thiopiques series of 20th-century indigenous music highlights a lot of different Ethiopian styles, but Volume 4 is in a whole other realm. Featuring the 1970s-era compositions and performances of band leader Mulatu Astatke, these 14 timeless songs transcend borders like clouds drifting across a satellite weather map. "Tezeta," specifically, a smoky romance between a tenor saxophone and piano, sounds like it could have been written by Ellington in 1935 or Coltrane in 1965.
Talking Heads | Remain in Light | Sire (1980)
Country: America (New York City)
If Africa is shaped like a jumbo shrimp, where is New York City? On the other side of the plate, near the parsley.
In a nutshell: Recorded while Fela was dropping his annual Afrobombs, when post-punk was drawing from roots reggae and dub and the NYC gay disco scene was humping all the Puerto Ricans and Jamaicans while fully coked-up, Remain in Light incorporates all this freaky rhythm and more, distills it in classics like "Once in a Lifetime" and "Houses in Motion" and quieter, spookier excursions like "Seen and Not Seen," into one of the great stews of the rock era. Twenty-eight years after it dropped, Remain still sounds fresh.
King Sunny Ade | Juju Music | Mango (1982)
If Africa is shaped like a jumbo shrimp, where is Nigeria? See above.
In a nutshell: Pure, weird bliss from the king of juju music, the party sound of Nigeria's Yoruba tribe. Full of odd rhythms, heavy bass and jangly melodic guitar lines courtesy of King Sunny Ade, this 1982 album was actually recorded in Togo (shrimp's lips) and mixed in London (shrimp's thought bubble). And you can kinda sorta feel that untethered nature. King Sunny's brand of afropop features jumpy, active bass lines, deep and swinging, that rumble through songs like a mufflerless Caprice. Yet still Ade and his 20-odd-member band remain lighter than exhaust, employing a guitar and congo army to amazing effect. And there is no better man to copy dance moves from than King Sunny Ade. He steps so simply, so deliberately, but with so much grace and class.
Various Artists | The Guitar and Gun | Earthworks (1983)
If Africa is shaped like a jumbo shrimp, where is Ghana? In West Africa, below the eye, where the mouth is (if jumbo shrimps do indeed have mouths).
In a nutshell: The Ghanaian popular music known as highlife represented on this brilliant 1983 collection sounds like doo-wop funneled through David Lynch's brain and spit out in this weird, wobbly style that seems beautifully improbable. The opener, "Momma Mo Akoma Ntutu," by the Genesis Gospel Singers, will make even the droopiest day sparkle with possibility; its existence seems like some fluke, like a greyhound bred with a leopard, or the Log Lady. The album ends, and the world is a lesser place. (One Wiki-tidbit to drop at a party: Ghana is the home of the Empire of Ashanti, which is name-checked in a lot of classic roots-reggae songs. An icon of the Ashanti tribe is the Golden Stool, which, legend has it, was conjured by a sage, floated down from the heavens and landed on his lap.)
Various Artists | The Indestructible Beat of Soweto | Shanachie (1986)
Country: South Africa
If Africa is shaped like a jumbo shrimp, where is South Africa? The bottom third of the tail.
In a nutshell: This 1986 album is one of the most influential collections of African music ever released — which isn't necessarily a good thing. Toss on the first song and you're in Graceland, since the sound captured on Indestructible Beat is the main template for Paul Simon's classic album. Each song features the distinctive South African vibe, a certain swing that marries weight and melody, message and celebration. Youngsters looking to steal riffs, however, should approach this record with caution; because of the Simon connection, quoting from it will not necessarily seem hip, and you may be accused of cultural imperialism.
Kronos Quartet | Pieces of Africa | Nonesuch (1992)
Country: America (New York City)
If Africa is shaped like a jumbo shrimp, where is New York City? See above.
In a nutshell: Superstar imperialist dabblers Kronos Quartet have the most stickered travel trunks in the music world. The only composers they've yet to record with are the No Limit crew, and that's only because they can't get a meeting with Master P. But on Pieces of Africa, Kronos Quartet totally hit it, totally get it, and roam the continent performing on string and percussion compositions from Zimbabwe, Morocco, Gambia, Uganda, Sudan, Ghana and South Africa. The CD is brimming with rhythm, both the banging-on-the-body-of-the-cello kind and the tapping-on-the-tip-of-the-scroll kind, and is stretched taut with David Harrington and company's thrilling shrills. On Foday Musa Suso's "Tilliboyo" (Mandingo for "sunset"), the foursome pluck a rhythmic melody that subtly replicates those funny West African guitar lines. Attention, bands: if you know a violin player, it'd be a good investment to mine this CD for ideas.
Damon Albarn, et al. | Mali Music | Honest Jon's/Astralwerks (2002)
Subgenre: Sub-Saharan Britpop
If Africa is shaped like a jumbo shrimp, where is Mali? Very close to the eye, in West Africa.
In a nutshell: You can pile on Damon Albarn all you want — he of Blur, Gorillaz and The Good, the Bad & the Queen — but he's right way more often than he's wrong, and he was never more correct than when he followed his muse in the early '00s to Mali, where he convened some of the country's best musicians (not that I know jack about Mali's bounty) and recorded their jam sessions. A combination of syrupy percussive meditations and joyous wind sprints, Albarn respectfully and lovingly delves into a musical world without it feeling the least bit gratuitous, unlike a certain Paul Simon effort. Soft percussion floats around the room like the mist of a conjured spell just before it hits its target.
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