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Westernizing Anglophone West Africa

Home of the Brave

Insofar as it uses electric instruments or horns, all African popular music is, to use the strange Orientalist term, Westernized. Afrobeat, however, took Westernization to new spiritual heights. The style invented and still dominated by the late Fela Kuti is easily the most convincing Afropop fusion. From South African disco to Sahel New Age, eager-to-please African imitator-emulators are so unhip and unschooled they barely achieve competence; the singularity of Alpha Blondy and Orchestra Baobab only points up the dullness of Lucky Dube and Africando. But Fela was no imitator, and few artists anywhere have been less inclined to kiss ass.

As an arty young Nigerian who'd gone to music college and led a highlife band on saxophone, Fela got into Black Power and then pan-Africanism via an American girlfriend in L.A. in 1969, where he cut some sides that sound more like James Brown than the sides he cut when he got back to Lagos. But granted, after Brown toured West Africa a year later there were plenty of exceptions (Fela's first big Lagos hit, "Jeun K'oko," was very JB, especially its tricky horn chart), and in general, Fela's relationship to Brown is murkier than you might think--dig around a little and you can find him described as a rebel against the Godfather as well as, absurdly, his "disciple." Since there have been many James Browns, this basically means that Fela didn't like the way soul overran Nigeria but did hear the Africa in funk, interpreted loosely as long groove songs emphasizing forward motion more than offbeats and other rhythmic contradictions. Afrobeat as he developed it, which happened well after he'd named it, combined such Brownian elements as chicken-scratch guitar with full-chorus call-and-response, minor-key melodies both African and jazzlike, and a groove that owed Yoruba percussion ensembles and his longtime trap drummer Tony Allen. Topping it off--and defining it, really--were pidgin lyrics more righteously anti-white than any in Africa beyond chimurenga and South African freedom songs.

What's most Western about Afrobeat, though, is that it's not at home in the world. It's a questing music, a discontented music, a neurotic music, and this sets it apart from all the great Afropop styles. Soukous, juju, mbaqanga, mbalax, Wassoulou, many others--with qualifications that would only distract us, all achieve a synthesis of time-honored and modern you need no grounding in the traditions it reconstitutes to feel. The affirmation they fabricate once fed off a postcolonial high, but has rarely been brought as far down as you'd expect by post-postcolonial AIDS and privation. Afrobeat was never like this. Fela was too ambitious, too defiant, too arrogant, too crazed. Issuing pronunciamentos, taunting the feds, sporting spliffs the size of stogies, he was rock, not funk. Like Jim Morrison or Grace Slick in the throes of 1968, and unlike an occasional satirist like Luambo Franco or a homiletic progressive like Youssou N'Dour, he thought his music could change the world, even constructing something meant to suggest a utopian community off its proceeds. It's because they identify with all this extra-musical stuff that Westerners form Afrobeat bands rather than mbalax bands, although it helps that Afrobeat is easier to play. Mix in some clubbies looking for the perfect beat and you have a commercially plausible premise for the boomlet in not just Afrobeat bands but Nigerian funk reissues--headed by MCA's giant Fela project, which in August 2001 catapulted from 13 titles to 28.

Having somehow processed the first half of the series, which typically puts two LPs comprising one or two songs each on a single CD, I grabbed one blind for a Sunday outing and was delighted when the title track of Roforofo Fight/The Fela Singles got me all the way from the Tappan Zee to Yankee Stadium. Turns out that its jumpy 15-minute dance numbers make that CD the prize of MCA's second wave--and that, because Fela songs tend to blur together, I already knew "Roforofo Fight" from the superb, gingerly edited The Best Best of Fela Kuti. But after September 11, any quixotic thought I'd had of devoting three days to playing each new CD twice went the way of all flesh. In fact, I haven't played them all twice yet--certainly not Live in Amsterdam or the complete original "Army Arrangement" Fela hated Bill Laswell for condensing or the Roy Ayers session or the endless Ginger Baker rumble, which closes on a previously unreleased Baker-Allen duet more reminiscent of Yoruba percussion ensembles than most Westerners need. There are enough interesting things on these CDs--from early highlife dates to the avant piano on the late, dark "Underground System," plus many marginally differentiated highways to an irascible infinity--that if you owned just one you'd be glad you did. Play any Fela up against Talkatif, the second album by Antibalas, and wonder why you ever thought the best of the Afrobeat revival bands had their man's funk down, however well their imitation suffices in a vacuum. Then play Talkatif up against the bland Fight to Win, by Fela's feckless scion Femi, and ask yourself where the father's musicianship would have taken him without his rage. Not far enough.

For one thing, as brief comparative exposure to a decent James Brown comp should convince anyone this side of the African Chamber of Commerce, his musicianship had its limits, especially to the Western ear. Polyrhythm is a collective commitment in Africa, whereas the idea of a trap set is one man reinforcing/undercutting himself--and the music. Allen's quick, light, complex pulse is the greatest trap playing the continent has produced, but over here many of us prefer things busier and/or more obvious--the eccentric cross-beats of Ziggy Modeliste, say, or the thwomp of Al Jackson Jr. Nor do any of Fela's bassists match up against Fela fan Bootsy Collins. Also, Laswell knew what he was doing. Though Fela always claimed the marathon duration of his songs as authentic Africanism, many note that it smacks too of authentic weedism, and I would add that the extended forms of traditional culture always get pared down as society urbanizes. Epics went on all night because people didn't have much else to do.

Yet for all that, Fela looms over the local competition like JB and P-Funk combined. Two Afrofunk comps now on the racks have the cheap aura that makes beat-seeking DJs foam at the mouth in secondhand shops everywhere. The U.K. import Afro Beat, on Blow, leapfrogs from '70s to '90s occasionally, devotes a quarter of its semiliterate notes to a band I can't find on the record, and ropes both Antibalas and Manu Dibango into its vague concept. There are more catchy novelties here than you'll find on most funk samplers. But there's also more generic dreck. And even the speedy funk readymades, bongo breaks, and wild vocal arrangements of Antonio Carlos's dancefloor-ready "Simbarere" don't pack the musical attraction, never mind authority, of the obligatory Fela entry. Booniay!!, on Afrodisiac, avoids similar embarrassment by recognizing no such obligation, and while it lacks its own "Simbarere" (closest is "Good Samaritan" by Matata, who also lead Afro Beat), it's more consistent and more fun. Maybe one of those choruses or hookbeats will end up in somebody's mix. Maybe a lot of them will.

And then there's Nigeria 70: The Definitive Story of 1970's Funky Lagos, on U.K. Afro Strut. Comprising 23 tracks on two CDs, a documentary DVD, and some 7500 words of notes, this one's anything but cheap. Its intent is to argue for Lagos as a scene even if many of the featured artists also sojourned elsewhere. Yet its hit-or-miss ratio is no better than Booniay!!'s, and as on Afro Funk the Fela tracks (there are three) smoke the competition--even such big daddies as Victor Uwaifo and Shina Williams (although not Sunny Ade's evergreen "Ja Fun Mi"). The funk's more American and rarely just generic. But to my ear it's best at its most African--the Sahara All Stars Band Jos's Hausa-flavored "Enjoy Yourself," the spare jam that takes over William Onyeabor's "Better Change Your Mind." And funk per se is too frequently an ancillary goal. Afro Strut wants to establish the skills of individual artists here, not remember one-shots, in a manner that's once again rock, not funk. That's why the notes cite such legitimating associations as Carlos Santana, Paul McCartney, Mick Fleetwood, and Vangelis. It's individual artists who essay solos, social commentary, fusion. And the music of these individual artists, like Fela's but to less bracing effect, doesn't always sound at home in the world.

Nigeria 70's notes chide "'world' music fans (who) ignore vast swathes of quality western-influenced music . . . in a patronising, ill-advised (and ultimately pointless) search for 'ethnic purity' or some such similar nonsense." These fools exist, but most Afropop fans are more open-minded. You don't have to be a purist to look askance at African artists yearning after the significance and status of beaux ideals like Santana and Vangelis. Many Bob James samples and punkoid Montrose fans later, we know how readily pop recontextualization transmutes dreck into gold. Too often, however, imitator-emulators end up no better than their models, just poorer--end up boasting about their big job with the Crusaders or the Capitol contract their management frittered away.

So don't call me names if after all this Nigeriana my favorite recent reissue from Anglophone West Africa is Electric Highlife: Sessions From the Bokoor Studios, on Naxos World. Highlife was the name long ago attached to Western-influenced Ghanaian dance music by people who couldn't afford to get in, and musically it's always been protean. The East Nigerian specimens on the Oriental Brothers' classic Heavy on the Highlife! go on like Fela songs, but most tracks here are in Afropop's typical six-minute range. All were recorded by John Collins, a Ghanaian-born white who was also one of the first to write about African music, but where the artists on Nigeria 70 tend to show up in the reference books, these aren't even in Collins's own Musicmakers of West Africa. The brief trots reveal such familiar Afropop themes as "My enemies wish to disgrace me/But because of God's grace this won't ever happen" and "In olden times people trained their children well so that they became responsible people/These days such training is scarce." And yet I find all 13 tracks cheerful and inspirational, tuneful and rhythmically engaging.

Pinning down their pleasures, I find myself tripping over the word "charming," a concept that always raises the red flag of exoticism. But when I examine it more closely the charm feels more like spiritual awe. When Collins founded Bokoor Studios in 1982, Ghana had an inflation rate of 100 percent under the second tyranny of Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings. How did F. Kenya manage to yoke pain and ebullience describing his family problems under such circumstances? Where did the Black Beats find the perky melody that subsumes their alarm at the irresponsible young, and why did they set one to the other? Why did they stay with old-fashioned highlife at all, sticking guitars where the horns used to be? Something about a style that still synthesized the time-honored and the modern, I guess. Something about making the best of what small choice you have. Not designed to change the world. But custom-made to help any human being live in it.

Village Voice, Jul. 30, 2002