Jan 30, 2013
MUSICAL EXPLORERS IN AFRICA
We had met them together - Brian Eno, Jon Hassell and David Byrne. The strange alliance of the artistic avant-garde, the cerebral rock'n'roll of the '70s and unstable, nervous post-punk. Jon Hassell, forty-year-old visionary composer. Eno, thirty-two years old, acrobat of sound and of futuristic wild imaginings. David Byrne, twenty-eight years old, anxious and disturbing singer of Talking Heads. They sought a fusion between the breaths of Africa and electronic technology, between Telluric rhythms and the power of amplifiers, between improvisation and discipline. Their research flattered our desire for encounter and eclecticism. It married the energy of the primitive and the futurists' collages and mixtures, violating the avant-garde and channelling Africa. The whole world was in it.
In October 1980, David Byrne and Eno were to leave together for Nigeria.
One year later, here they are. Their trajectories diverge. Jon Hassell maintains his distance and pursues a meticulous hermit's work. David Byrne, produces the new B-52s' album, goes slumming by way of the avant-garde and still hasn't been to Africa. Only Eno has been to the black continent: he recorded an Afrorock group in Accra, Ghana.
At the end of 1980, a Ghanian producer by chance falls upon the twelfth issue of Actuel magazine where Eno explained his African obsessions. He takes Eno on his word and invites him to record an album with his best group, Edikanfo. That hit the mark. Eno had been researching Africa for a few weeks. He was hesitating between the large cities, Fela's Nigeria, Zaire - which had reigned over African music for a long time - or inventive but sleepy Cameroon...
July 1981, Eno arrives in Ghana, in the heart of Anglophone Africa, the country which, in the 40s, gave birth to the first African form of modern music, "high-life", a mixture of jazz, rhumba and tribal drums.
Faycal Helawi, the producer, is sitting in his padded armchair and, with a voluptuous pout, swallows a lychee. He has a bit of a Nero-like aspect to him - plump, sensual and worrisome. Ten young dogs always trail behind him. They thunder and fight and, occasionally, Faycal shouts Kill, kill at them. Aside from this, he's a charming man.
This thirty-five year old Lebanese has always lived in Accra and thinks of himself as African. But he still has a taste for great Arab cuisine - stuffed zucchinis, grilled lamb and Chinese fruits for dessert. The Lebanese control trade and import-export throughout western Africa. So I have a little fun when he harangues me for over an hour regarding cultural plundering.
All the rhythms of funk come from here. Do you want proof?
He makes me listen to an old, green, labelless, nameless forty-five. An ultra-infectious funk starts up. These are Ghanaians! Since the '50s, hoards of researchers have come here with tape recorders. They've recorded everything for the big companies - Phonogram, Decca - by buying musicians for a mouthful of bread. That's how they've fattened themselves on our backs.
Faycal sighs and swallows another lychee.
I find that incredible. Mr Eno passes through here and everyone comes to get news about him. But Eno came to us to learn. He helped to record an album with one of my groups in my studio, nothing more.
Didn't he play himself?
Not much. From time to time he would strap on a guitar to support the rhythm section.
He didn't come just for that.
No. He helped us to explore the possibilities of the recording studio. He is a first-class engineer. All the musicians will tell you the same thing.
He's a musician too.
I'll tell you that we recorded a album of my group, Edikanfo.
Can we listen to it?
I hope you don't have a hidden tape recorder...
I am permitted listen to only one piece. It's near enough to Fela: a full orchestra that roars, frantic percussion, blasts of tearing trumpets.
Where is Eno in all of this?
Arrangements, echo and resonance effects. But listen a little to how rock is made here. Over the drums, one adds percussion. You hear the congas? How hard they strike? This is African rock. What a shame, we don't have the means to progress. The puppets, the stooges of the big companies who spend their time in costumes, under ventilators, invest only in disco music, funk, the commercial salads. The groups here have to recycle.
In Ghana, we don't even have a pressing-plant. We have to go to Nigeria. There, there are African companies. But you know Fela's history. One day he stole the account books at Decca and discovered that he had sold a hundred thousand LPs and that he had been robbed.
In 1972 Faycal launched the first club in Accra, the Napoleon. The youth of the city came in droves. Two years later, Faycal opened an eight-track studio, the first independent studio in Ghana. All the country's groups passed through his place. And the hour of triumph: Fela and his tribe came to record their album, Black President, in his studio.
Give me the means and you will see, an irritated Faycal says. There are many Ghanian groups waiting for only one thing: to use a modern studio. How do you capture twenty-five percussionists with an eight-track? Let us get used to the technology, then we'll make sparks!
Tzing! A clash of cymbals and a large man climbs on stage snapping his fingers. The whole orchestra bursts out laughing. This takes place at The Tank, one of the twenty live clubs in Accra. The large man breathes some over-shrill notes on a flute. He's the Ghanaian State Minister for Petrol.
As light as a young man, the minister jumps, howls Dad dad! Dad! and starts on a long tirade. The drum follows it, quiet, then more nervously. A guy in a fedora hat joins in on percussion. In the small room the crowd rises and starts elbowing one another. Compelled by the frenzy, I begin to beat on the bar. My short buddy and guide in crazy Accra offers me a small joint while he bursts out laughing.
The minister plays here every Sunday. Does Mitterrand do the same back home?
Half of the musicians form part of the group which recorded with Eno. This evening they will play jazz, they'll improvise; it's madness, fun. Tomorrow they'll play reggae or disco music in a club or a dance hall in the open air. Accra does not sleep after midnight. On a weekend, you can easily find about fifty places to have fun. That's without counting the crossroads and building yards where three congas can bring out a whole district. It is not Abidjan, nor Lagos, the large capitals of West Africa, but Accra that has its hot nights and its exhausted early mornings.
Osei Tutu, the trumpet player, tells me of the weeks spent with Eno.
Oooooh! We never worked so much! We were in the studio every day, in the morning and the afternoon! He made each musician play solos and improvisations of percussion. And then he made us slow down the tempos, break up the rhythms, slow down some more. He tried to understand the rhythms but had trouble with this. After a week, he discovered ompe, the foundation beat...
Osei strikes a slow three part beat with his hands, accelerating slightly in the middle.
That's the rhythm which he liked the most. Tap! Tap! Tap! He listened to it for hours at a time. Tap! Tap! Tap!
Why that one?
I don't know. It's the simplest beat. Here, everyone knows it, it accompanies the love chants. Eno was thrown into a panic a little by the faster rhythms. He found them too African. Ompe, he called the open beat.
I think I understand. I imagine Eno breaking up the rhythms like an insane physicist breaking the core of an atom, to unearth quarks and gluons, the particles essential to all combinations.
It is stronger than him: it's necessary that Eno putter about. In a African rhythm one cannot slip anything between ten tangled-up percussionists. The machine moves by its own will. Eno wants to enter at all costs. The open beat, finally, allows itself to be manipulated. Eno grafts an echo effect, an extra beat, a guitar riff, an unforeseen melody... Eno believes in the virtue of musical fission, the explosion of forms. To crack the rhythmic molecules and to generate a new chemistry.
He left satisfied. The Ghanian musicians lengthily questioned themselves. This idea of open rhythms - it kept playing on their minds. Will this seed grow? Everyone says that African music will break out in the Western world one day. It would be justice when one thinks about all that modern popular music owes Africa. But missing are the few nuances that will make it rock out of a closed universe. As did reggae, which learned how to use electronics.
New York, September 1981.
Hello, I would like to speak with Brian Eno
To whom? You're mistaken.
But no, he lived here last year... he left his telephone number?
No. Your buddy must be in hiding.
I call David Byrne. He doesn't have the number: I haven't seen Brian for months.
From Jon Hassell, same story: Eno is in one of his incommunicado phases. No more interviews, no more dispersion. It is like that each time he works on his music.
Too bad. It does not matter. I have the impression that for Eno, the African episode is closed. He played, he crafted bits of Africa in his American studio, then he made the great dive over there and now he's gone on to another thing. In a few years, perhaps the African itching will return to him. He'll think and invent new angles of attack.