Nov 25, 2013

Record diggin' in Africa ...

The trend of DJs from ”the West” travelling to Africa to (re)discover old vinyl gems has been going on for years and has now started to receive a fair share of criticism. DJ Chief Boima is one of the critical voices who has compared the new scramble for vinyl to the 19th century colonial scramble by the European powers. However, an important difference is that while the project of the colonial powers generally was one of change and exploitation, many of the vinyl diggers around are doing their best to preserve what’s currently being lost.

Spurred on by the rise of sampling in Hip Hop and electronic music and despite a downturn in vinyl production, in the 80′s and 90′s a rich vinyl collecting culture exploded in places like the U.S., Europe, and Japan. For years young hip DJs from the city, travelled to forgotten about record shops in backwater towns, the dusty basements of aging record collectors, or the back rows of an inner-city record shop looking for rarities that seemed to pop out of thin air. Collectors scoured their neighbors backyards for rare jazz, rock, and funk, motivated by unnamed sample sources, hoping to find that illusive breakbeat. The best DJs were the ones with the deepest crates. Around the early 00′s, Hip Hop stopped using samples and turned back towards synthesizers, the Internet started a deeper collective crate, and a vital source of inspiration dried up. For collectors, all the stones seemed to be overturned, the market had too many buyers, and people, starting to realize the value of what they had, turned to E-bay to make money off of their collections. With much of the rare vinyl being plundered locally, a few intrepid explorers decided to try their luck in uncharted territory. Of course, they made their way to Africa.  This map (that has been circulating on Facebook and other social media) and scenario may both be a little hyperbolic, but it does seem that the current mad-dash for rare African vinyl could be analogous to Europe’s 19th Century Scramble for Africa, a mad-dash for rare African minerals. There is a trend among rare-groove DJs to “find fortune” in the (re)discovery of musical gems in places where the value of vinyl and recorded music from the past has diminished. Just go to your local record shop (if one still exists) and peruse the display shelves to encounter dozens of new releases celebrating the recently uncovered recordings of Africa’s unknown musical heritage. The image of these guys as plundering opportunists isn’t helped by their reception in “The West”. As one music writer puts it,”Frank Gossner’s DJ sets burst with exclusive tracks that are so rare that they can’t be heard anywhere else on this planet” (from Rare music from planet Africa!?! Who wouldn’t want to get a piece of that?

On the other hand, vinyl culture has been long dead in most African countries. Perhaps these diggers are doing a service by restoring historical and cultural memory. Much of the music they are interested in is music from the Independence era, an important and optimistic time period. Many of the artists they are tracking down have been retired for years and some enjoy a revival. T.P. Orchestre Poly-Rythmo, Orchestra Baobab, Mulatu Astatke, are all touring and enjoying popularity with a young hip crowd. For various reasons in places like Benin, Senegal, and Ethiopia (and also the U.S.) younger generations don’t know the previous generation’s contribution to the popular musical landscape. The DJs are engaging in a pop culture archeology to teach the masses about their own history, and at the same time are showing Europeans and Americans that our shared tastes and desires prove that we’re not that different after all. The European powers of the 19th century, sought to change the face of the continent through the colonial project. In contrast, the boldest vinyl diggers amongst us are trying to preserve what’s being lost.

Perhaps then, what we have to question is for who’s value is it being preserved? My biggest criticism is not that they are going to Africa to shed light on these “lost” recordings and forgotten about artists. I’m instead worried that they concentrate too much on those forms of music that fit nicely into the story that they, the DJs, want to tell about the music. The cataloging tendency tends to be a colonial one. Also, many of the DJs and label owners, perhaps because of its shared lineage with Hip Hop, have concentrated on Afro-Beat, or have given more weight to genres that are popular in the west like Rock and Funk. For African artists, these are generally styles that artists often used as tools, or influences to fuse with their own popular local styles. The reissue train has been slow to recognize larger genres in Africa like Soukous, Highlife, or Benga, unless they find an artist that has an added funk or rock influence. In the past the tendency was to look for “authentic” music that sounded more “traditional.” Are they now shying away from things that sound too … African?

If you’re interested in discovering more about the history of African pop, now is a better time than ever. While the blogging world may at times suffer from its own imperial tendencies, there have been some great free sources of information on African pop music history like Benn Loxo du Taccu, Likembe, with Comb and Razor, and Africolombia.*

For a nice visual on the typical digging journey, check out the trailer for Frank Gossner’s yet to be released documentary, Take me Away Fast.

The 2011 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival ended last week Sunday. On the scene at the festival's North Carolina location was Shadow And Act woman-about-town, Ms Alece Oxendine.
While there, she saw a film called Take Me Away Fast, a title I profiled on the old S&A site in March, and which I expressed some concerns about, given the subject matter. In short, the film follows successful German DJ Frank Gossner on his journeys through West Africa (Nigeria, Ghana, and Benin, specifically) in search of rare 1970s funk and Afrobeat records, which he buys, and takes these these cultural artifacts back to Germany to play for his European and American audiences.

I haven't seen the film yet, but, thankfully, Alece has, and she confirms some of my initial concerns in her review which follows below:

A couple weeks back, Tambay posted an entry profiling Take Me Away Fast and I had the chance to see it at Full Frame.

If you’re not familiar with Full Frame, it is a documentary film festival that premieres major documentaries from around the world and it just so happens to be in my hometown of Durham, NC :)
Take Me Away Fast screened after another short documentary about music called Sound Underground, a moving essay about musical performers on subway platforms. There are several other documentaries about these performers (one as recent as 2007 and with a suspiciously similar name) but none shot as beautiful as this one. The documentary captured these performers at their best-clean, perfect pitched and a sound that could as easily been produced in a studio (and probably was).

Sound Underground got up close and personal with the performers while still giving some distance; we do not know where they come from or why they perform, we just hear them and life moves on. This is evident with the constant passing of the trains that constantly interrupt the performances to remind us that we are on a subway platform and not in a symphony hall.

To New Yorkers who are familiar with, and sometimes annoyed with, the sounds of the underground, this piece attempts to romanticize these performers when we just tune them out. But there is always that one performer who we actually take the time to listen because they’re that good.

For me, in this film it was the Trombone Man’s solo; just sublime! If this film comes your way, it’s definitely worth seeing and listening to. Sound Underground invites you to take off your headphones and listen to the sounds we sometimes take for granted.

Before watching Take Me Away Fast, I tried to keep an open mind regardless of Tambay concerns about the film. The film focuses on a German DJ named Frank Gossner and his mission/life’s goal to find the best in Afrobeat and African funk music on vinyl, mix it, and play it in clubs.
Sounds harmless doesn’t it? The premise of this short documentary is interesting but it unfortunately comes off as pretentious.

Frank ventures to West Africa specially Ghana and Benin and is determined to find a long lost record by the African Brothers Band. He claimed he needed to find that record and the audience did not take him seriously. When expressing his concern about finding it, the audience, mostly white, laughed at him.

There was no arch, major discovery or climax to the film. Frank’s discovery of the long lost record became anti-climatic because we knew all along he would. Take Me Away Fast lacked substance and depth to convince an audience to feel something for the subject of the film. Most audiences do not relate with someone who comes off as arrogant, and I think this is where the documentary fails.

Overall, the documentary was well-intentioned but not well executed. Throughout the film, Frank claims that he wants to re-discover this wonderful music and spread the love of it in discos around the world. What’s so unfortunate is that he honestly thinks he is doing some good for the music and the people of Africa. But Frank’s arrogance stunk up the film, compromising what could have been a very interesting and compelling documentary about Afrobeat and African funk music.

Quite frankly he was not that interesting but I found the African musicians he interviewed such as Gustave Bentho of Orchestre Poly-Rythmo. The best parts of the films were when the musicians spoke about rediscovering their music.

On the technical side, there were several inconsistencies especially with the editing, camerawork and sound. I’ve learned not to really pay attention to technical stuff in documentaries because my focus is usually on the subject. But I did not have anything else to pay attention to besides the music in the film.

The music he found was nothing short of amazing so I cannot blame him; the music moves the soul. It’s just the way he comes about them that can rub most audiences the wrong way.
Frank does acknowledge how it can be seen as “cultural imperialism” but justifies himself by claiming he paid good money for those records. My main issue was not the alleged cultural imperialism, but rather that some of these people who made this beautiful music are still living and need more recognition. But let’s face it, Frank is not a cultural anthropologist, he’s definitely not a filmmaker and he’s not that interesting. At the end of the day, he’s just a DJ and we should not expect more from him or this film. He’s not trying to change the world; he’s just trying to throw one helluva party.


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