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Juju Beats: The Rise and Rise of African Music

A Social History and Ethnography of an African Popular Music
By Christopher Alan Waterman
University of Chicago Press

The Pop Music of a Continent
By Chris Stapleton and Chris May
E.P. Dutton

Both these books are about African popular music, both are by guys named Chris, and both are recommended. That's all they have in common. But they make an interesting couple.

African Rock is a general-service overview of black Africa's urban popular traditions, written from the outside by Chris Stapleton and Chris May, two English journalists who underwent separate conversion experiences while residing in Nigeria and Sierra Leone during the early '70s and have been on the beat ever since. Thirty tight pages on the pre-1970 background lead into a dozen or so coherent little essays on key styles and genres, augmented by interviews with most of the important African musicians who braved the outside world before 1987. Except for a cursory postscript called "African Music in America," the new edition is identical to the 1987 U.K. African All-Stars, hence a little dated. But the stories and insights are prime enough to render the book almost as useful as the essential work on the subject, Ronnie Graham's clear, balanced, economical, painstakingly researched Da Capo Guide to Contemporary African Music.

Christopher Alan Waterman's Juju is summed up by its unglitzy subtitle, "A Social History and Ethnography of an African Popular Music." The author is the bass-playing son of the seminal American enthnomusicologist Richard A. Waterman, whose essays on Africanisms in American music are cited in the bibliography. Though he earns his keep teaching music and anthropology at the University of Washington, Christopher Waterman's soul is in Nigeria. He's no academic snob--just about every "popular" book on Afropop is also cited in the bibliography, and several are quoted in the text. Be forewarned, however, that he concedes little to the ordinary American African music fan. Except toward the very end, which is hobbled by one of those incomprehensible analyses of how music structures time, Juju is never forbiddingly abstruse, but one hopes the reason he curtailed his discussion of juju's adventures away from home is that he knew he had nothing to say about them. Even though Sunny Ade was "tailored to suit Western contexts, tastes, and attention spans," we are told, he was unable "to take over the role of the late Bob Marley in the world exotic popular music market." And there Waterman washes his hands of the whole sordid affair.

What's most impressive about Juju is how much it makes of this tired attitude. By concentrating on one long-lived, well-defined genre, Waterman helps the Western reader experience "rock" the way any proud Yoruba would--as a tributary of African music rather than vice versa. Schooled in Anglophone Africa's much broader and vaguer palmwine genre, the typical early juju singer accompanied himself on banjo ("a cosmopolitan replacement" for palmwine's acoustic guitar), backed by tambourine (an import with Christian associations) and sekere (a native gourd-rattle). Juju evolved from simple to complex much as rock and roll did--the differences between 1936 Tunde King and late-'50s Ojoge Daniel (both on Rounder's Waterman-compiled Juju Roots as well as an illustrative cassette available from the publisher) are as pronounced as the differences between Sun-era Elvis and Elton John (or Elton John and De La Soul, or Ojoge Daniel and Sunny Ade). It even developed its own semipopular variant, the "Toy Motion" subgenre of the '50s. Spearheaded by J.O. Araba and J.O. Oyesiku, skilled railway technicians who had seen the world and were described by one admiring rival as "big men with other jobs," Toy Motion fused palmwine usages and the latest Latin rhythms into a hip, aestheticized, neotraditionalist style favored by the educated. Disdaining praise singing as a form of begging, they thought it their role "to provide philosophical commentary on everyday life, and reveal the misdeeds of flawed characters."

Waterman thinks there's not enough of this particular Yoruba tradition left in juju, many of whose parttime professionals regard music as a career path to more lucrative day jobs. He sees "spraying," in which musicians are plastered with currency by the well-to-do patrons their lyrics flatter, as the linchpin of the style's ideological function within a Yoruba society that's part feudal, part laissez-faire capitalist, and part client-state--and even more insensible to divergent class interests than our own. His description of one of the ritualized semiprivate parties that are juju's main money gigs is a devastating account of popular music as engine of hegemony, so convincing that I suspect his hope that talking drummers will reclaim their critical birthright is wishful thinking by a progressive hopelessly in love with something he's concluded is hopelessly reactionary.

The question is why exactly he loves it. Does he really believe the music would be perfect if not for the incursions of the outside world--that the inequities juju glosses over proceed solely from neocolonialist exploitation of a Yoruba economy characterized to begin with by "profit motive, middlemen, formal markets, and currency," or that a more democratic Yoruba music would do anything for Nigeria's Igbos or Hausas? Or is the rebel scholar in him piqued irresistibly by juju's syncretism, by the way "this modernist bricolage could so effectively evoke traditional values"? Or has he simply been seduced by juju's unreal rhythmic complexity--the "temporal `stretching'" he describes so provocatively amid the abstruseness at the end? The answer, obviously, is that he's willing to overlook the music's built-in sociopolitical deficiencies as long as it generates such a heavy cultural and aesthetic charge.

And so while Waterman's focus on what juju means to the people who made it happen it is invaluable, there's no reason to feel guilty about coming at Afropop the way Chris Stapleton and Chris May do. African pop genres are compellingly paradigmatic subcultural forms--usually shaped, as Waterman emphasizes, not from below by "the people" or from above by "the artist," but by displaced, uprooted seekers who fight for their identities by riding the waves of cultural flux. And to a subset of European and American listeners who've been immersed in mediated African rhythmic and vocal ideas all their lives, they're also compelling as pure music. Stapleton and May contend that this subset is set to explode--that because so much Western pop has its roots in Africa, soon the African genres that redigest rhumba or reggae or whatever are bound to triumph worldwide.

Though Stapleton and May distinguish between the "copyright bands" who play what one U.K. entrepreneur calls "phonetic disco" and artists who fuse Western usages into fundamentally African syntheses, sometimes their commitment to this quest makes them overeager. If awkward hybridizers like South African expatriate Sipho Mabuse, pan-African chameleon Sonny Okosuns, and the German electro-highlife band Kantata don't prove Nico Mbarga's cautious dictum that "You can never hope to play a music better than the people who originate it," they certainly embody ambition above and beyond the call of talent. And there's a familiar ring to the way interviewees bounce between righteous avowals of African pride, pseudopragmatic analyses of market forces nobody fully understands, and indignant complaints about the failure of African or European entrepreneurs/journalists/audiences to support them in a manner appropriate to their profit potential--how often do artists of any sort attribute commercial disappointments to their own luck, shortcomings, or peculiarities? Despite the fruitful traditionalist edicts of such national leaders as Nkrumah, Sekou Toure, Nyerere, and Mobutu, however, Stapleton and May are right to regard internationalist ambition as inevitable--and to hold, like Nkrumah and Sekou Toure, that traditionalism is among other things an effective means to internationalism. Far from aspiring to "African rock," the finest African musicians regard "rock" as one tributary among many. But they do think they deserve to be "African all-stars"--stars everywhere, not just in Africa.

African Rock often falls prey to the curse of African music writing, rhythm-naming--the page-and-a-half on Côte d'Ivoire adduces akpombo, gbegbe, ziglibithy, goli, zogbo, and nyama nyama as if these terms signify even though the authors themselves would probably have trouble distinguishing one beat from the other. And like every British Afropop journalist except Ronnie Graham, Stapleton and May are a little parochial, favoring Anglophone artists because that's who comes to England and devoting 45 pages to African music in Britain while mentioning Paris's far more vital scene mainly in connection with zouk, 1987's Next Big Thing. But they have great material, and they get the basic musical stuff right from rhythm-as-melody on up. They compensate for their Brit chauvinism with a phantasmagoric field trip to Kinshasa, the high point of a book that makes almost every style it addresses sound enticing. And even more than Ronnie Graham, whose booklength discography rarely describes individual albums in sufficient detail, they suck in the sympathetic reader--without quite evoking the music they're outlining, a very tough job, they leave you longing to hear it. They leave you believing that countless artists who are still names on a page for all but the most assiduous record hunter deserve to be international all-stars.

Why that's unlikely to happen you won't learn from Stapleton and May, who despite a moderately realistic attempt to account for African pop's continuing marginalization in Europe and the U.S. are are too loyal as both fans and professionals to tell you why music isn't a universal language. They owe more respect to Island Records' Rob Partridge, who complains: "There's a terrible tendency to start things as left-field projects, where they can operate profitably and then, as soon as the optimism increases, to try and push them into the mainstream."

In 1967, soukous progenitor Le Grand Kalle presented each of 30 African heads of state with a single "in the appropriate local melody and rhythm." Ponder for a moment how the aesthetic underlying such a tour de force might be adapted for a world-pop audience that's never ventured further toward Afrocentric polyrhythm than Bob Marley (who in any case was never as big a deal with the white audience as African Rock assumes.) Roots or no roots, there remain many rivers to cross, and mapping out a plausible route is beyond Stapleton and May, who like most white commentators on African music are both geopolitically naive and too deferential about how Africans run their own affairs. Despite a few left-orthodox tendencies, Waterman is neither. One reason I so regret his inability to sympathize with Sunny Ade, whose mind-boggling musical reach did little or nothing for his cultural imagination, is that he's the kind of thinker capable of speculating fruitfully on how to turn client cultures into forces to be reckoned with. A social history and ethnography of the right Parisian world-music disco might be a start. Only by the time it's done, history will no doubt have taken Africa's would-be all-stars somewhere else entirely.

Village Voice, Nov. 6, 1990