Feb 20, 2010

Music is the Weapon of the Future: Fifty Years of African Popular Music

Music is the Weapon of the Future: Fifty Years of African Popular Music
Frank Tenaille

"Jazz was born in America but its deepest roots are in Africa."
— Mulatu Astatqe (father of Ethio-Jazz)

The music of Africa unfortunately remains perhaps the most stereotyped on the planet. To outsiders, it's tied inextricably—and often exclusively—to the drum. And while there's really no point in talking about African music without emphasizing percussion, this simplistic characterization falls far short. In no African culture does drumming exist without vocal accompaniment (and/or vocal representation through the talking drum). String instruments like the kora (a harp with a calabash resonator) join with the xylophone-like balafon and a sea of plucked and blown instruments to create a truly orchestral range of sound.

Another unfortunate myth from the first world perspective is that there even is a single entity we can call African music. Not true! The massive continent spans a bewildering array of ancient traditions, colonial influences, religious elements, and cross-cultural fertilizations. Even within a single country, characterization can become quite difficult. Take Senegal, for example: with several languages both indigenous and European (ie. French), traditions from each of these groups, and simultaneous bombardment from West African hubs like Ghana as well as Caribbean centers like Cuba and Jamaica, there's a virtual menu of styles to choose from. The great statesman of Senegalese music, Youssou N'Dour, rose early to pre-eminence and obtained worldwide acclaim through raw talent, savvy marketing, and an insistence on cross-cultural hybridization. N'Dour's performances bring together funk, tribal rhythms, jazz, and pointed lyrics. What box are you going to drop him into, other than "Youssou N'Dour"? And then what about the many younger musicians he has taken under his wing? Thiink on that one. It's not easy.

Frank Tenaille goes directly after the "one Africa" myth with his book Music Is the Weapon of the Future in 30 chapters, each focused on a particularly influential popular African musician. (The title comes from a recording by the same name from Nigerian Afro-beat star Fela Kuti, and the cover features Fela in a moment of pure energy.) In a very self-conscious way, Tenaille includes the entire continent in his book, peering east, west, north, and south. His approach is refreshing and informative. The Pan-Africanism movement spearheaded in the early '60s with the formation of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) has played a key role in defining a post-colonial identity, but in the end there is just too much Africa to carry one flag.

Not surprisingly given the title and cover, Music Is the Weapon of the Future carries a whole slough of political overtones, dwelling on the consequences of imperialism from a socialist perspective and emphasizing the wars, coups, elections, and occupations which have influenced the music. And, again not surprisingly, he spotlights the music which has influenced government right back. Fela Kuti, for example, made a point of politicizing his work—dramatically influencing a generation of young Nigerians and inspiring fear from the state. And his voice was heard, loud and clear: no doubt about that.

In addition to highlighting big African stars like King Sunny Ade, Papa Wemba, Youssou N'Dour and Fela Kuti, Tenaille goes after less prominent musicians with equal fervor. Some, like Congo's M'Pongo Love, turned tradition on its head through blatantly feminist messages. Others, like Ethiopian vocalist Mahmoud Ahmed, inspired a movement of liberated electro-pop. Guinea's Mory Kante was an European ambassador of the kora—the sales of his Akwaba Beach allegedly surpassed the entire GNP of Burkina Fasso. (How many Americans have heard of Mory Kante?) And so on, Tenaille proceeds artist by artist, including a huge number of related players along the way, a few pages at a time. His focus: the emergence of "modern" music in Africa, defined as a break from the traditional sounds rooted in lineages extending back many centuries. The new popular music serves as entertainment, testimony, celebration, and ritual, all in one. Its roots in the musical tradition of the griots—combination storytellers, recordkeepers, ambassadors, and troubadors—adopt readily to the next context. Jazz, Latin and Caribbean music, Christian vocal traditions, and the manifold musics of the continent fuse here to form a fluid, seamless whole.

In addition to the 30 focused chapters which constitute the core of this book, the author also provides a handy map and appendices with definitions of musical instruments and styles, as well as a useful suggested discography and bibliography. And a wonderful and inclusive series of B&W photographs by Akwa Betote goes a long way to bring these players to life.

Listeners curious about African music will find Music Is the Weapon of the Future an incredibly valuable resource, with its emphasis on influential artists, recordings, labels, and movements. The francophone influences on the author (whose French edition from 2000 just came out in English translation) color his perspective but do not bias his coverage. Despite a well-grounded approach to the music, this remains a scholarly book—footnotes dot a majority of the pages, for example. By definition, it's not going to provide a "short list" of players to check out. But what it does offer is honest, insightful, perceptive analysis of a vast, underappreciated family of musical styles. In our day and age, nobody should complain about that.


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