Aug 28, 2015

Mark LeVine: Ghana’s Afro-Funk History

Originally published @

UC Irvine historian Mark LeVine is the author of “Heavy Metal Islam,” and an authority on contemporary music trends in the Arabic-speaking world and broader Middle East. While Afropop Worldwide was working with Mark on our 2011 Hip Deep in Egypt project, he let us know that he also has a deep passion for West African music, especially the funky sounds coming out of Ghana and Nigeria in the 1970s. Mark made his own trip to Ghana in 2010, and spent some time with veteran bandleader and arranger Ebo Taylor. The experience convinced him that the story of Taylor and Ghana’s Afro-funk needed to be told in all its glory. Mark was truly the inspiration for the 2013 APWW program “Ghana 1: Ebo Taylor and the Pioneers of Afro-Funk.” He even managed to join the Afropop team in Accra doing research for the program. On the eve of his departure from Accra (heading for Baghdad!), Mark sat down with Afropop’s Banning Eyre to reflect on the experience they had just shared. Here’s their conversation.

 Banning Eyre: Mark, you came here two years ago and had a deep experience with Ebo Taylor, and learned about the roots of his music. Now we’ve come back to dig further into this Afro-funk history—“funk lore,” we’re calling it. What has changed for you?

Mare LeVine: Well, one of the key things is that I hadn’t really understood the position of New Orleans in the history of this music’s spread into the Americas. I understood the deep relationship between American funk and Afro-funk or Afrobeat, and had a decent grasp of various forms of traditional drumming. But with Ebo now, listening to the way he is working with his traditional musicians has brought the importance of the son clave, the Bo Diddly beat, and its deep Ghanaian roots, much more to the surface. This really has become much clearer as we’ve traveled around the lower part of the country and met musicians. This has in turn further deepened my understanding of the how important Ghana and its musical heritage  is to the cultural history of the United States and of the Americas more broadly.

B.E.: So, how do you now put together this whole origin story of Afro-funk? We’ll use that term to avoid all the confusion surrounding the term Afrobeat. The way I see it, there are two sides of it. There is the indigenous culture, and then there is the refraction and amplification that you get coming back from America. And the Caribbean. And of course, this all gets filtered through London. But give us the big picture as you see it.

M.L.: I think the deeper we get into this, and the more hours we spend listening to the incredible variety of Afro-funk going back almost 50 years, and highlifes and other musics of West Africa before that, the more it becomes clear that the roots that have extended from West Africa into the Americas are just so dense. It’s impossible to tell a simple narrative, to tell a simple, linear history that leads from Africa to the Americas—even a kind of bipolar history that leads from Africa, to the Americas, back to Africa when James Brown arrives in the 70s. It is so much more complex than that. One of the things that has blown my mind is that someone like Ebo Taylor, an amazing horn arranger who is the epitome of the Afro-funk-sound, is profoundly influenced by Frank Sinatra and one of his main arrangers, Billy May. The work of scholars like Robin Kelley and Steven Feld has deepened our understand of the role of straight ahead jazz/bebop in the later 20th century history of Ghanaian music, but that’s only part of the story. To begin with, on the Ghanaian side if you want to talk about the global roots of Afro-funk and highlife, you have to realize that you’re talking not only about the relationship between the Northern and Southern peoples in Ghana, as people like Ebo Taylor have told us, but then you have the Kru seafarers, as John Collins has mentioned, who go all the way up and down the west coast of Africa to the UK, and really bring the guitar into different parts of Africa.

There are the various ethnic groups in Ghana, the Kru people traveling up and down the West African coast, into London and into England, and then you have colonialism and British imperialism, which creates these colonies first of slaves and then of subjects, especially in places like Jamaica, and then the return of those people as soldiers and band members in these military brass bands and other bands beginning in the latter part of the 19th century, which brings not only this new sound of Calypso, but other rhythms, like gumbe, back to Africa, but somewhat refracted in ways we haven’t yet appreciated. And that’s just the pre-history of all this. Then you have nearly every generation of jazz, big band, bebop, post bop, Miles Davis and John Coltrane from the 60s, plus Sinatra, plus rock and Deep Purple, as Ebo told us he was a fan—and then, on top of all that, you’ve got James Brown and the funk tradition.

B.E.: There’s certainly a lot to unpack there. Let’s talk about London for a second. Why is London important in this story?

M.L.: Well, London I think reflects the very ambiguous nature of European, especially British colonialism in Africa. We know the bad parts of it in terms of the violence against indigenous peoples, the exploitation of the people and mineral resources, establishing client regimes that did little to serve the interests of their own peoples, and all that. But on the other hand, it is undeniable that both the British colonial system and the newly independent Ghanaian system which was modeled after it (Ghana became independent in 1957), provided avenues for the best and the brightest in African societies, and particularly in Ghana, to excel and do amazing things.

Ebo Taylor is one of the great examples of that. He goes to London on a government fellowship, and of course Fela is there at the same time from Nigeria for similar reasons. They are pulled out as promising artists, sent to very good music schools in London—Eric Guilder for Ebo, Trinity College for Fela—and they spend significant amounts of time there. As one of the great world cities and global cultural hubs, especially in the early 1960s, all the important American and Caribbean music is available in London. Ebo and Fela absorb all this incredible music from the Americas: calypso, Frank Sinatra, big band jazz and other kinds of jazz, post-bop that would really profoundly shape later highlife and Afro-funk especially. They also heard British rock. They heard Deep Purple. They heard British jazz.

London symbolizes the British Empire and British power in Ghana. And, as with the French, there really was this educative component where they would pick out the best and the brightest from colonies like Ghana and newly independent states, and bring them to the UK to be educated and trained. And for Ebo, this allowed him to learn advanced music—arranging and music theory. And it allowed him to incorporate things into highlife that would never have been there otherwise. This is what makes Afro-funk, or highlife more broadly, one of the most complex musics on earth. Because it drew from more sources than almost any other music I can think of. I think that’s something we’ve only begun to appreciate. And this is all because of this system of colonialism that was operating in Africa under the British for decades. So you can’t simply separate the negative aspect of British colonialism from this positive aspect with a focus on culture.

B.E.: Talk about James Brown. How does he fit into the story?

M.L.: It is just amazing to listen to Ebo Taylor dissect James Brown and show the real African roots in his sound. I don’t think most Americans, even the greatest musicians around, fully understand how profoundly African James Brown was, which is why he stood out in Africa so much. He was both someone who pushed the boundaries of pop music in the West to new heights, but at the same time, he dug deeper into Africa. The even more amazing thing is that I have seen no indication that JB was sitting around listening to all sorts of African music and in any meaningful way deliberately modeling his own grooves on what he was listening to. His mind, body and soul where just connected in a very rare way which cut through so much of the mediating musics between what he was trying to achieve and the African musical heritage upon which he ultimately based his music, and gave him a much more direct and deep through-line to West Africa. It’s one of those musical miracles that help push music forward.

It’s hard to think of another artist, really, who went so far forward and so deeply back at the same time. And yet that’s what he did. That’s what a lot of the great guys from this era wanted to do. They wanted to stay totally rooted in the traditional sounds that were still fresh in the 50s, and also the American pop scene of the 60s. Because Ghana was trying to come out of the 19th century when so much was imposed on them by England that it was hard to stay rooted and be global a the same time on their own terms.

So when you put it together, why wouldn’t the people of this generation—including Fela and C.K. Mann and Ebo Taylor and Ambolley, and all these guys from this era—write music that was uniquely sophisticated and brutally raw at the same time. The sad part is we’ve also been talking to the younger Ghanaian artists today, 95% of whom don’t get it. Even if they understand the usefulness of incorporating traditional music or instruments into their music, they don’t get the revolutionary nature of that music, and the need for them to make their own revolution; not just ornamenting hip life with the older stuff which some artists are beginning to do, but taking their music to as much of a new level as the previous generation took highlife when they created Afro-funk. Of course, this makes them little different from their American or European peers, but it reminds us of how . So I think we haven’t even begun to understand how profound those innovations were compared with contemporary globalized styles like hiphop.

B.E.: Do you feel that there is a tendency among the younger artists we’re meeting to pay lip service to this idea of reaching back to the old stuff, without really doing it? For example, we’ve been hearing a lot about the “new highlife” of groups like Kwabena Kwabena. It’s a modern sound but it’s still highlife. But, the music sounds pretty watered down to me. The machine rhythms take the swing out of the groove. The singing is good, but the groove is lacking.

M.L.: Yes. It rolls right past you. You don’t remember it by the end of the next measure, never mind the song. Every day when we interview people, the older cats, they talk about how one of the negative aspects of having European music imposed on them was the imposition of the boxed up rhythm, the forcing 6/8 time into 4/4. One of the most important things about today’s globalized music is that there is no one style or tradition that claims superiority, so the ability to be complex and innovatively hybrid is much more available to today’s artists than even their forbearers in Ghana. And yet the music (again, like its Western counterparts; this is a global dynamic) doesn’t take nearly the chances that Afro-funk, for example, did.

B.E.: I liked what Panji Anoff said to us earlier tonight, that Ghanaians are inherently comfortable with the idea of having two rhythms that are both dominant at the same time.

M.L.: Polyrhythm.

B.E.: Exactly. But isn’t that a nice way to put it for someone who doesn’t understand what polyrhythm means? Two rhythms that are both dominant at the same time. I like that.

M.L.: Both dominant, at the same time. And that relates to what John Collins has always said, that the Europeans forbade African slaves from using polyrhythms because they thought it was a way of communicating resistance and rebellion among slaves, and that could lead to a revolt, even a revolution, like in Haiti. So when people were forbidden from using poly-rhythms, they have to compress them into a 4/4 beat.

B.E.: Yes, I remember John talking about this years ago. He talked specifically about arranging the horns. You could put poly-rhythms there, rather than in the drums.

M.L.: Well, as many of these guys have mentioned, the traditional drumming traditions from which these rhythms emerge might have 8, 9, 10 or 12 drummers. But in a highlife, or Afro-funk band, you just have a trap drummer, who can maybe represent four of those drummers. At most. And then maybe you have a percussion player, but it’s not meant to have a gigantic percussion section. It has been reduced. But you have to replace the rhythmic points that create the syncopation, and that’s precisely where horns become so important, and the staccato guitar as well. That becomes percussive. And the way people like Ebo Taylor would play organ becomes percussive, which is also exactly what made funk something very new and uniquely powerful. All the instruments in some way were in the service of the drums, creating what Ebo would call this “vigorous propulsion.”And that’s precisely what it was. A rhythmic propulsion that forced you to move even if you didn’t want to.

B.E.: Let’s talk a little bit about what’s happening now. You’re someone who was very moved by and involved in the early days of hip hop. What do you see happening in the hip hop you’ve heard in Ghana?

M.L.: As I mentioned before I think what is saddest about the evolution is that, just at the moment when Ghanaian hip-hop seems to be getting interesting and featuring styles that really stretch the genre away from the early hiplife, its commercial success threatens to narrow its horizons Hiplife was in many ways a copy of American hip-hop but with rapping in Twi, which is great, but not so new in terms of the music…. We saw how hip-hop in America, like punk before it in the UK, and the music of the hippies a decade before,  all lost their power and political edge as they became successful. And this is clearly happening in West African and African music more broadly, which is why so many artists and producers have told us that no one’s really interested in politics. They just want to write good party music.

“People work hard, they want to go out and have fun on the weekends, and they just need a soundtrack for that,” is what we’ve heard. Of course, music has always played the role of a soundtrack for forgetting life’s troubles or the hard work of the daylight hours. Certainly the blues, swing, rock, disco, highlife, and other forms of music all have done that. Here today, however, it doesn’t feel like it has a working class context the way highlife did; it’s more bourgeois, in a way that I don’t think really existed on anywhere near the same level in Africa a generation or two ago. And that’s a great thing, perhaps it reflects the growth of a bourgeois sensibility and thus a growing middle and upper middle class. But the problem is that while there’s a rising bourgeoisie in countries from Ghana to Egypt, the vast majority of people in these countries are becoming poorer, and are suffering equally or even more than the way they suffered in generations past.

One of the artists we were speaking with today put it best when he explained that this whole party focus is ultimately a fantasy. What people are living now in a nice, lush nightlife in certain parts of Accra, and the wealth that the young gun artists are assuming is going to be theirs as well, is all a very risky proposition. Indeed, I think a lot of the slightly older artists are pessimistic because they’ve seen how the promises of the neoliberal ideology that is equally apparent in the country’s politics and religious discourses can become a fool’s gold. So how these young artists like Efya and D Black who have had a lot of success very early without really having to struggle—they represent this kind of emerging African elite that sees Africa as the future, or maybe Afro-China as really the future. I think they are absolutely right. But there are a lot of problems inherent in this. And the consumer dream that some of them are epitomizing cannot last very long. It just can’t. Sooner or later, the whole system is going to have to be assessed; for all the talk of how it is one of Africa’s “success stories”  Ghana remains 135 out of about 167 countries in the Human Development Index. Even with the oil boom and investment, etc., it’s still a desperately poor place for most of its citizens. How long can this continue without the system beginning not merely to fray at the edges but to fall apart. We already have heard from people who’ve described how much more violent, criminal and corrupt daily life can be. As wealth grows and is more concentrated there is little chance of this dynamic not increasing because this is how the dynamics proceeds everywhere.

B.E.: So you see the comforts and opportunities of our times come as a mixed blessing for artists.

M.L.: This is the really ambivalent thing for me as a scholar. Not just in Africa, but in North Africa and the Arab world, it’s the same thing. You see this incredible cadre of really creative people who are taking advantage of all that globalization has to offer, and especially the kind of policies of privatization and liberalization, and freeing up exchange rates, allowing a lot more foreign investment, and repatriation of profits, the so-called “Washington consensus.” It is producing a new class of elites who are incredibly seductive, especially for people who don’t speak Arabic or African languages, and really can’t delve much deeper than that. But the reality is that the way this class is sustaining itself, it’s kind of like a rentier class. It can’t go on forever. And many people I speak with think that sooner rather than later that whole system is going to collapse. So then what? Then where are all these plans of these young artists who are doing well now because they have this very entrepreneurial spirit — where is that going to leave people, and how is that going to affect these cultures when, as many people imagine, the realities of the global system come crashing down on a country like Ghana. In some ways, this is already happening with increased poverty and inequality, especially the north of the country.

B.E.: Increased poverty? Is that really true?

M.L.: Yes, the northern part of Ghana is suffering from increased poverty. That’s for sure. The UN has confirmed it, Jeffrey Sachs has called Northern Ghana one of the poorest regions in West Africa. [A 2007 report on Regional Disparities in Ghana notes that, “The development pattern in Ghana is characterized by a North-South divide in which the north lags far behind the south.”]

In The southern part, around Accra, seems to be doing better. Poverty has been reduced. But the vast majority of the northern part is doing very badly, and of course, this is what happened in Nigeria. We are still living in Ghana as this beautiful, mythical place, like Beirut or Kabul were 30, 40, 50, 60 years ago. But the reality is that at any point, this place could go. Because there are millions of people who are living brutal lives, and who else are they going to blame but the state that governs them? So this has to be addressed now. And if people don’t address it, and if the music that continues to dominate is just one cultural expression, what’s going to happen when the political situation stops being so good for millions of people?

And speaking of the north, it’s worth noting that Ebo did not want to touch on the issue of Islam at all. I think that a lot of Ghanaians are scared of the possibility of a Nigerian type conflict emerging, which has been avoided so far in good measure by the fact that Muslims are a much smaller percentage of the population in Ghana and don’t have regional autonomy the way their counterparts in Nigeria do. But the potential for conflict is there. The potential for extremists to channel all the poverty and anger towards political and violent ends is there.

B.E.: I suppose, but I didn’t really get much sense that Ghanaians are especially worried about this.  The explanation I got was that since only 15% of Ghanaians are Muslim, the dynamic is very different than in Nigeria, where it’s more like 50-50.

But coming back to music, and Fela, it’s interesting the way way so many people we speak with here say that they revere Fela. It’s almost required. But no one seems interested in emulating his stance or message, even though that kind of attitude would be quite relevant to today.

M.L.: Yeah, I don’t get it. Or rather, I understand it, but it’s hard for me to accept it. Afropop Staff Writer Morgan Greenstreet and I recently interviewed Femi Kuti and he had a good take on this, which was the need to be able to remain as politically engaged as his dad was, but do it in four-minute songs that can become hits because you can’t get away with Fela’s 40 minute jams anymore. But even he admitted that younger artists don’t have the political guts his father had. They’re not willing to take the risks.  It’s a telling disconnect that the people we talk to at least, are clearly among the musical elite, or on the periphery of the musical elite, they revere Fela because they know how important he is. But so many of these young people want to achieve the importance he had without doing the work, without suffering the way he suffered, without putting their bodies on the line the way he did.

And they’re doing it in a very hyper consumerist context, anything that will produce some kind of new identity or some answer that they can use. But it can’t. At some point, as the economy gets worse, people are going to have to take a stand, and the artists are either going to be part of it or they’re not. And in every other generation, the artists have been on the side of the classes that were most oppressed. So Fela said, “Music is the weapon of the future.” Well, now the future is here, it has to be the music of the present, as we see it’s become in the Arab world in the last few years, for example.

B.E.: The singer Efya said that people don’t need musicians to tell them about the problems in their lives.

M.L.: And she’s totally right. But maybe she’s too young to understand what musicians are supposed to do. People don’t need to be told how bad their life is. They need to be told there is hope and that there’s a way forward they haven’t thought of yet. There’s a great African American writer, Toni Cade Bambara, who said in a revolutionary time, art and music’s job is to make revolution irresistible. It’s supposed to give you the hope and the anger so that you have no choice but to act to change the world around you. And in Ghana, it’s still in that neoliberal honeymoon phase, for this generation of elites, who really feel that the entrepreneurial spirit and all this, without changing the larger system, can actually benefit the country as a whole, and not just them. And it just simply can’t, the same way it can’t in the US or any other country. So they’re going to have to reckon with that and make a choice. And then they have a repertoire and Afro-funk and Afrobeat that can give them part of that message, but they have to learn how to listen to the music again, differently. And to take chances that they haven’t had to take yet.

B.E.: Let’s go back to your story. Why did you come back to Ghana?

M.L.: I came back to Ghana because, despite everything, the story lifts you up. I spent the entirety of my professional life dealing with the Arab/Muslim world. And there were so few positive stories, so few stories you can tell where the incredible and forced hybridity produced by colonialism, and then all this problematic national and postcolonial movements result in positive stories to tell. And Ghana, despite being poorer than almost every single Arab country—if you go by the HDI index, it’s in the bottom fifth of the world’s countries—despite all of that, and the corruption, and now the problem with elections, people somehow still have a positive view on life. And the music uplifts you.

That’s why I came back. It’s taken me three years because the Arabs Spring got in the way. I have had to really focus on all these incredible, once-in-a-lifetime changes I’ve been able to experience in the Arab world. So that’s fair enough. Actually, the only time I felt that similarly in the Arab world has been in the revolutionary moment, in Tahrir square, in Bourguiba Boulevard with some of the revolutionary hip-hop bands in Tunisia, with artists like Ramy Essam, an artist you guys profiled in 2011 — they have the joy and the uplifting part of their really intense music that approaches this.
But even there, there is a limit that they can’t cross, which is the rhythm. The rhythm of Afro-funk is some of the most insane intense rhythm ever. And that’s why someone like Ebo Taylor, when he talks about James Brown, just gets animated like a little boy and starts jumping out of his seat and gesticulating wildly when we played James Brown for him and he hears the music. He’s ready to get up and dance, just like he says every African is when they hear James Brown. Except that when Ebo first heard it, he didn’t just dance to it, he took it to a whole other level by creating a sonic structure for Afro-funk, along with others, like Fela.

That’s just a story that needs to be told before it’s lost, because the knowledge he has, and a lot of these original highlife guys that are left, is absolutely irreplaceable. It’s culturally irreplaceable.
But I think the other thing is just as a musician, a trained musician, there is just no genre of music on earth that is funkier than Ghanaian funk. It is the highest representation of the art form of funk. And for those of us who have spent our lives trying to play funk, once you hear Ghanaian Afro-funk and also, of course, Nigerian, the game is over. All you want is more of it. And that’s something that I didn’t even understand with James Brown when I became a huge fan of his. You wouldn’t necessarily listen to 73 James Brown songs in a row. But you could listen to 73 Afro-funk songs, and each one would teach you something new. So it’s just a non-parallel form of music. As one of our friends said today, it’s like Beethoven. It really is as complex as Beethoven. But Beethoven is long dead. You can actually come to Ghana and meet with someone like Ebo Taylor who will explain to us precisely why, from his experience as a creator of Afro-funk, why it is like Beethoven. And for me, as a musician and a scholar, what else do you need besides that?

B.E.: Panji said that Beethoven favored pentatonic scales. I’m not sure about that, but it’s an interesting thing to look at.

M.L.: Well in some ways, pentatonic scales are the most powerful scales, and because they’re a bit simpler they allow the rhythm—what Ebo calls the vigorous rhythmic propulsion—to be foregrounded. And for me, comparing Beethoven to Mozart, for example, what differentiates them is in fact Beethoven’s rhythmic depth and complexity. You can even see it by looking at scores by the two of them. . And that of course puts Beethoven closer to Afrofunk. In fact, I was just watching the Fela documentary, “Music is the Weapon,” and he was doing this great sax solo, but it was very pentatonic with a bit of blues thrown in, which meant your mind didn’t have to focus on the melodic complexity but instead could focus on the groove. Interestingly, Ebo has said what differentiates him from Fela is the focus on melody he always had, especially for the horns—the combining of melodic and rhythmic complexity. And Beethoven too took classical music in new harmonic/melodic directions pushing it further even than Mozart.

B.E.: He was making a broader point about writing melody from a rhythmic perspective. I think he said that Beethoven was the first classical composer to write with rhythm as the primary concern, something Panji sees as fundamentally “African.”

M.L.: I’ll tell you what it is. The key thing from Panji’s point of view, and I agree with it somewhat, is that through Mozart, the absolute core of classical music was the melody and then, a little bit earlier, the counterpoint between the melody and the bass. But in Mozart, especially, the melody. When you think of Mozart, it’s very easy to sing his most famous hits, so to speak, because they were so instantly melodic. Beethoven is just more complex. And remember, he studied. He knew Mozart, or at least met him as a young child and even, reportedly, took a few lessons with him. At the very least he was in the same musical environment.  and he’s only a generation removed, and knew the great master, and yet created something radically different harmonically then the classical music epitomized by Mozart. He really did create a sort of fissure that grew bigger with subsequent composers. So I think, in a similar way, you can look at Afro-funk as being derived from expanding what funk can be in ways that most of us don’t understand.

B.E.: Has this experience of Ghana and all that we’ve heard and seen here in any way changed were added to what you knew, or thought you knew, about Fela?

M.L.: What I’ve come to realize this trip, talking with so many great highlife and Afro-funk musicians from Ghanaian history, is that first of all they hear things we don’t hear in the music. That sounds obvious, but you tend to get arrogant when you listen to this music for enough years and think you understand. Especially if you’re a musician too. But what I’ve learned really trying to analyze the music at the deepest level with these guys is that there are levels I can’t even begin to hear yet. And those are precisely the levels that made Afro-funk something unique.

So before we started this project, I don’t think I had the sonic knowledge to hear the difference between Fela and some of his Ghanaian counterparts. Now, after talking with the people we’ve met and profiled here. I do understand what Ebo Taylor means by saying that he focused more on bebop and creating these incredible melodic lines with the horns, and Fela was more interested in riffs and rhythms. You can see the difference between the Ghanaian and Nigerian Afro-funk. And maybe, I’m just thinking of this now, the Afro-funk really does originate in Ghana first, it’s a bit broader there, and for Fela, drawing on traditional Yoruba and other rhythms, maybe there was only so far he could go. He had just go with slightly less complex rhythms than the Ghanaians, who really are the source of this, and you have so many layers to draw on. Maybe this is why Fela loved Ghana and Ghanaian highlife so much, more than its Nigerian counterpart, as Femi told us when Morgan and I interviewed him.

What I understand more about Fela after listing to all this is that his Afrobeat was really just one part of a really big mélange of styles and approaches to the music, and I think we too easily assume that Fela’s Afrobeat is really a summary or the ultimate exemplar of the whole range of Afro-funk music of the 60s and 70s. But as you listen really deeply to highlife and Afro-funk, you get below Fela, and you get to the point where its uniqueness really comes out, and we realize that Fela was unique in his own way, but didn’t capture everything. And there are other things equally worthy of listening to and studying.

B.E.: So he’s part of a bigger story. But we are focusing on Ghana, on the special relationship that Afro-funk has to the development of Fela’s Afrobeat. Maybe you can help us see the bigger picture here, the bigger story is fitting into.

M.L.: One of the things that this project and being here again has allowed us to do is appreciate Fela as not just this unique amazing, one-of-a-kind artist, but as part of a much larger genre, a kind of funk belt that stretches all the way across West Africa from Senegal to Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana and Togo and Benin and Nigeria, into the Congo and Sudan, Ethiopia. And it reminds us that these cultures that have been divided for so long, once you dig deeper, have histories that are incredibly interconnected.
So Ghana is a good starting point. But now, let’s look at Benin and then the Congo. Or let’s look at Togo and Ethiopia. Let’s see where the through lines are—the same way scholars have followed the trail of Roma music and learned so much not just about their uniquely diasporic culture, but about the cultures they’ve traveled through and lived with as well. I’m sure we can use African funk to tell a similar story of movement, hybridity and conflict between the peoples of Africa. After all, these countries have been deeply connected for hundreds if not thousands of years, and this connection was broken by European imperialism and, particularly, the Berlin Conference that drew national boundaries in Africa, and the scramble that followed the late 19th century.

What interests me is that through this music, we can help rewrite this history, or even write it for the first time. We can teach people how connected Africa was. Why is that so important? Because the young artists we’re talking to now are living a new pan-African dream, even if they don’t use pan-African rhetoric. They are connected, and for Anglo African artists in Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa especially, this is a relatively new thing. They’re touring in each other’s countries now. They are writing music together. They’re planning business ventures. They are reestablishing connections that once defined Africa. Look at Fela’s music. Why was it so powerful and dangerous? Why was it a weapon? It was a weapon because he pointed out how the colonial authorities and then the national authorities were making sure that Africans could never understand the interconnectedness. He was willing to declare the Nigerian government to be worse than the South African Apartheid regime. And his music forced that lie to be exposed. That’s why it was a weapon. And that’s why the government was willing to throw his mother out a window to prevent that from being spread.

I think it’s interesting that in Ghana, most of the Afro-funk artists were not willing to be as political as him. It perhaps shows that the way Ghana had evolved after independence, with the first generation of leaders it had, and the way British colonialism ended, wasn’t quite as desperate as Nigeria. And in fact, that’s the same situation today.

B.E.: So when we talk about these musicians today, moving from place to place so easily, living a kind of pan African reality even if they don’t talk about pan Africanism. Are you suggesting that they are reestablishing connections that once existed but had been curtailed by colonialists?

M.L.: Well, that’s not entirely true, In fact, people were going back and forth between Ghana and Nigeria, and other places, before. Indeed, many Ghanaian musicians found refuge in Nigeria during the dark years of the Rawlings dictatorship, when he all but closed down the scene here. But the interconnectedness is more intense today, as the physical movement is augmented by the constant intercnnection and collaboration through social media.

B.E.: This idea that they are reestablishing connections that exist in the past is a nice idea. But is that really true? They’re connecting in a business sense, but are they connecting in a cultural sense? I’m asking myself this question as well.

M.L.: When we talk to the slightly older musicians, even the ones that are younger than Ebo, they remember in the ‘50s and ‘60s when the borders were much more open, and it was profoundly important to them. The way they could move among the old imperial borders. So I think it is very important, and I think because some of these artists as our friends have pointed out are having success so young, they haven’t had the time or inclination yet to think about the political importance of all this, or the political meaning of it. But I figure when they get a little bit older, and struggle a little bit more to rise to top of a business, which is clearly going to be attempted to be hijacked once it generates enough money, they are going to have to learn the lessons that were learned two generations ago by the great highlife in Afro-funk musicians.

B.E.: I wonder about that. I feel like it’s a fundamentally different thing. Those highlife and funk musicians were dealing with a state based economic model. They were supported by governments. And aside from the financial motivation, they had a great deal of historical momentum that encouraged them to praise leaders, praised the state, not rock the boat.

M.L.: Well, I don’t know how many Afro-funk musicians were so clearly pleasing the state. But there is an element that this first generation of African leaders, more than, let’s say, in the Arab world, where so many of the first generation were just holdovers from the late imperial era.

B.E.: But let’s think about this again. In independence era highlife, you find a lot of state praise. And Ambolley and Ebo both identify their music with Kwame Nkrumah. In fact both times I’ve met Ambolley, he was wearing an Nkrumah t-shirt, to this day. And Ebo says he wanted to call his sound “Nkruh.”

M.L.: Well Nkrumah is kind of the Nasser of Ghana. It’s not surprising that right near where we were tonight, there is a Gamal Abdel Nasser Street. It’s one of the main streets in Accra. Because for them the idea of a new country with a new state as its embodiment really leading the people towards the modern future, that’s what they grew up with. And it was valid until it was completely defeated by foreign interests, and other factors.

B.E.: I wonder about this current generation musicians, how much they think about all that history. But also, how aware are they of the kinds of economic disparities that exist today in Ghana, and the disparities you referred to earlier? To what extent do they know about this? And to what extent do they care about it?

M.L.: I wish I had time to understand how deeply aware they are of larger dynamics in Ghana. Now many of them tour all over the country, so they certainly get around Ghana, and one might expect they would know all about it. But on the other hand, very often, those tours consist of them showing up for a gig and then leaving the next day, like someone on a European tour. They have told us as much. You know, you show up in Prague one day, and the next day you’re in Budapest. So in that sense, all they may see are the people who are coming out to see them and celebrate them, and they think “God, the world’s great place.” I hope that’s not the case, but if we look at American hiphop, where it grew out of poverty and marginalization and yet elided those realities more and more as it became more commercially successful, we can see that even knowing about and coming from poverty doesn’t mean you will express it through the music. Now, what music is supposed to do is to force you to look beyond your immediate expereince. Music is supposed to make you look deeper than you otherwise would at whenever you are viewing. So one would hope that they’ve moved beyond that. But it would be very easy to imagine that they didn’t, and that they are trapped in this kind of way of viewing the situation.

B.E.: Finally, let’s talk about women in this music, in the contemporary music, other than gospel. When you make of their scarcity, and of the struggles that they face?

M.L.: What’s interesting to me as someone who grew up in the hip-hop world is how the situation of women here in Ghanaian pop and rap and hip life really mirrors in some ways the situation of women in American hip-hop in the 90s. The difference is that most of the women in straight up hip-hop eventually faded away in the US. They didn’t have very very long careers. So these young women in Ghana are really very conscious about trying to build their own brands and build their careers and develop a kind of economy that they can manage for several decades. But there really is no blueprint for doing that. Because in the US it didn’t happen. And so many of these singers are looking at people like Beyoncé and Nikki Manaj, who are almost impossible for anyone to emulate because of their very unique circumstances. They become models that can’t be copied. But young women who are trying to create a viable seen for themselves that they could control really have very few other examples besides Beyoncé or Nikki Minaj, maybe Madonna is an older example that they can emulate to try to take control of their own destinies.

B.E.: Thanks, Mark. Much here to pick up on. Our dialogue will continue.

M.L.: Absolutely. Until our next adventure in the funk belt…

Originally published @ 


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