Wednesday, March 3, 2021

The Good Music Now is African

You can't possibly overview "African music" in one blog post. Like most things condescendingly filed by Americans in a "World" (or, worse, "Ethnic") catch-all drawer, it's a universe, not a genre. Vastness, not slice.

I can't possibly do justice here even to the marginal realm of African avant-garde, which hardly existed until a few years ago. So this will be a haphazard grab bag of a post. But if you dive in, taking time to chase down links and listen with due eagerness, you'll transform your pre-vaccine pandemic experience, filling it with whoozily cool and refreshing music.

The first thing to understand is that African music has completely transformed in the past twenty years. I myself only recently noticed. Like, a couple months ago. Which is shameful.

Music's been overdue for a major shakeup since, Jesus, I guess the drugged-out psychedelic hippy wailings of the late 60s. I should have watched more vigilantly for the inevitable wave. Sublime individual things have been played over the past half century, but isolated bursts do not a zeitgeist make. And now Africa is once again birthing an evolutionary step. Monolith's back!

European and American musicians were always the radical innovators, while the musicians of Mother Africa played it straight. Percussionists plied their impossibly complex and syncopated beats, guitarists twanged, and, as with folk music the world over, there were few surprises but copious delights. Nothing changed much. It was "folk", with infrequent minor fusions and refreshments. It more than got the job done.

That's changed. In fact, it's flipped. European and American innovation has frozen in amber; audiences have been numbed into rote enthrallment with recreation of styles once deemed rebellious (see my enriched analysis of how music evolves in the big picture). For decades, now, Western music has been dominated by obedient imitation of the inimitable, safe-playing revivals of the once-dangerous, and smug nostalgia for congealed modes of spontaneity. Supposedly artsy musicians have struck bold poses while tamely reiterating the edgy innovations of yesteryear.

Imagine a punk revival in a Vegas lounge. That's how music has struck me for a very long time. I've dipped my toe in from time to time to check up, devoting brief attention to what inevitably sounds like a sonic photocopy of a sonic photocopy. I switch off the music with a contemptuous snort, jump in my chowmobile, and redouble my quest for yummy yum-yums. That's been my coping pattern.

But music (and quasi-musical expressions of honking, banging, plucking joy) that's scintillatingly alive and fresh is surging out of Africa. There's usually still groove and syncopation (African players would be fools to renounce their continent's second greatest gift to the world, after the birthing-of-the-human-race thing). But from that foundation, it branches in every direction, from jazzy to head-banging to chant to blends beyond description.

And it's loose. So, so loose. Gloriously loose. Music went to hell at the moment when tightness became obligatory (not a single Woodstock-era hit would be remotely acceptable to any current record producer). As good musicians know - even while they make every possible effort to tighten themselves up - the goodies lurk amid the looseness. Wynton Marsalis often fakes at missing notes in his desperation to puncture his own antiseptic bubble of bland, stilted anti-funk.

To whet your appetite, here's a quick preview of a video featured lower down. This is the band of a taxi driver collective in Ghana:

Looseness (suppressed for a half century to oblige the abnormal and counterproductive dictates of the soulless overlay known as The Music Industry) is overdue for a comeback, and Africa's delivering. God bless you, Ghanian taxi driver honking horn band. You are the groovy messiahs eager listeners worldwide have long awaited. As a generation of musician wannabes diligently drill Hayden etudes and Clapton transcriptions, you smash the smithereens out of them all with your unkempt joy and brio. You remind us we're still human after all.

More stuff below. It's in essentially random order. It's disorganized and there are redundancies and formatting errors and grungey kludge and early draft writing, all which I chose not to polish and tame and make professional, because that's not what this is about!

So...dive straight into the cacophony, listening with open ears. It's a sin to cavalierly pass negative judgement on the unfamiliar! Get to know stuff before you hate it! Everything here is lovable and brilliant and valuable, and it's your challenge to find that perspective! :)


You know what a kalimba is. They're also called thumb pianos, and many of us have fooled around with kalimbas like this as kids:
So what if you hooked up oversized kalimbas to car batteries so you could play them through giant speakers to make them AWESOME? And then had a group of them plucking hyper-amplified metal tines, all together at top volume, while chicks from the village danced? Well, then you'd have Congotronics.

Brace yourself.

The CD comes with an awesome DVD. You want this!

Honk Bands, Baby

Congotronix spirit has also appeared in Mali. No giant over-electrified kalimbas, this time it's brass horns and bells.

Here you go:

Here is the full album (Buy it! Pay for it! Show some support! The CD comes (the CDs always come!) with cool booklet and packaging!)

John Coltrane Worship Bands

The ethnomusicologist (who is, naturally, a trombonist) who recorded the Ghanian taxi driver horns and bells band has also documented a bizarre Ghanian John Coltrane cult nobody previously knew about. Most of the links on Steven Feld's recordings page are dead (CDBaby's out of business), but I hope to track down titles like “Accra Trane Station Tribute to A Love Supreme” and “Jazz Cosmopolitanism in Accra”. Here's a track from the former. I'm not sure I need to listen to it a lot, but I couldn't possibly argue against it.

Update: Fantastic! Feld's up and running again, on a site called VoxLox (sans shmear).


Check out Al Bilali Soudan, a group from Mali (more info here)

You can also grab the sound file here. None of the players/groups I'm writing about are particularly capitalist; it's easy to download for free and listen. These guys hope a certain fraction will pay. And as my joy and eagerness have increased, I find myself avidly searching for ways to support them. Because I selfishly want more. Also: it's a pandemic. If you don't pay for your goddamn music in a pandemic you're evil. What do you spend in a year on concerts and nightclubs? Buy a damned CD!

Anyway, these guys from Timbuktu play more familiar genres of African music (you've heard them in movies even if you're not a devotee).

Most of this music is available via CD or paid digital download plus sort of given away via videos and soundcloud. It's a non-capitalist mess, and I try to figure out a way to pay the artist whenever possible.

Also, CDs in this realm tend to be super cool, beautifully packaged and full of extras plus not expensive. So I explore via video, research more deeply via soundcloud, and finally buy via CD when possible (or download in cases like the Saharan guy,

Music from Saharan WhatsApp

African dudes record on their cell phones and shoot it, via WhatsApp (a messaging service) right to the record label which puts it out for free though you can pay a few bucks (do it!). It disappears quickly and can never be bought again. Your eagerness is required. Here's info, and here's more info

I own #10 (illegal download link just for you guys; also please buy some stuff from him), by Malian guitarist "Bounaly" who's good but is supported by a genius calabash player (a gourd used for percussion), Hamadoun Guindo, who I've been trying to follow (like one of my peripatetic chefs) as best I can. He's just some random dude playing around villages in Mali, but I've focused my all-seeing eye of Sauron on him, trying to buy everything he's on.


Also from Sahel Sounds (the company behind the WhatsApp series:

Zerzura, the feature length Saharan acid Western is now available for streaming on Vimeo. Starring Madassane Ahmoudou (Mdou Moctar / Les Filles de Illighadad) Zerzura follows a young man from a small village in Niger on a surreal journey across the Sahara, crossing paths with djinn, bandits, gold seekers, and migrants, in search of an enchanted oasis. A collaborative project, featuring all original guitar score. Here's the trailer:

Here, you can rent it for $5 to view on iOS, Android, Apple TV, Roku, or Chromecast. I opte for the $15 DVD, which comes with a 12 page booklet. This is where my COVID stimulus check goes. Supporting genius musicians in Africa and getting cool tunes and merch.

Sahel Sounds

Sahel Sounds runs this wonderully creative and enticing whatsapp operation, and they also have a more traditional music label operation. Their web site is a must-browse. They don't offer sound samples for most of their releases, but just google the titles for the usual overflowing bundle of youtube videos and soundcloud downloads. And, again, find a way to cough up a few scheckels to support these players and the company that finds and records them. CDs in this realm are, again, super cool and often come with art, photos, and booklets.

Here's one of their recordings, by a dude named Mdou Moctar from Niger. It's great at the surface (nice droning groove, trippy percussion, and vaguely devotional sounding music). The beauty is in the looseness. Not bad, sloppy looseness, but the good kind. Which is elusive hereabouts and greatly needed. Immerse in the looseness, this is what music was like for the millennia prior to 1980....yet also contemporaneously in touch with current music (Moctar is apparently buddies with one of the ZZ Top guys, per this NPR report calling a recent recording "The Most Fiery Psych-Rock Of The 21st Century").

Dances and Trances

Special bonus. Not experimental. Not even music. The late great Allan Evans (the Indiana Jones of obscure historical recordings) released an album of Moroccan sacred calls-to-prayers and chants and whatnot, called "Dances and Trances: Sufi rites and Berber music from Taroudannt, Morocco" in 2000.

It was recorded by music raconteur James Irsay who may or may not have converted to Islam specifically to gain entrée to scenes like this. I played portions for some musicians I jammed with a couple years ago in Rabat (Morocco's capital), and their reaction (expressed in broken English and Spanish) was complex. They expressed 1. titillation ("How the hell did anyone get access to record that?"), 2. mild disapproval ("This shouldn't be out there in a commercial wrapper!"), 3. caution (exact quote: "Be care, this take you OUT! You go OUT!") and, ultimately, the heavy eyelids and syrupy head nodding that normally results from smoking a big wet chunk of black hash.

The only way to get your hands on it is via a $10 digital download from Apple, and you can read Irsay's liner notes here.

You should also take a long stroll through the web site of Evans' record label, Arbiter Records. They mostly offer historical classical finds (including great stuff from Michael Hambourg, who I profiled here, but there's also World Arbiter, releasing material like the Moroccan recording. It's truly all great. I know that sounds hypey, but it's true.

Few of the "to buy" links are productive, but you can search for album titles on Apple/iTunes as well as the other usual suspects. Or just read through the liner notes, which are interesting and extensive.


Related to the preceding recording, there's a nascent genre without a clear name. Google "soundwalk" or "ambient" or "field recording". The aforementioned Steven Feld has put out a number of such recordings, capturing sound scenes from Finland to Ghana

It's basically some person walking around recording - or sitting down and recording - the random everyday sounds of a faraway place. It's transportive; an ideal tonic for pandemic fatigue. Check out "Soundwalk Through Little India - Penang, Malaysia" Obviously, you can't just listen to a few secs and feel like you've grokked the vibe. You need to sit with it. It's fun. Do it!

Here are "The Ghats of Varanasi", the spiritual center of south India. Another, just because I'm into Varanasi (without having been there): Evening Soundscape of Varanasi Ghat

Less exotic, how about Haverford College Soundwalk?

I have a long history of doing slightly feeble and fuzzy versions of things that go on (not because of anything I've done; the first popping kernel doesn't make the other kernels pop) to become popular and ubiquitous and shiny. I'm pretty sure I wrote the first food blog ("What Jim Had for Dinner", a daily diary when Chowhound first opened in July 1997), and I also produced this very early soundwalk, "A Visit to the Arepa Lady" (MP3 link).

I over-narrated (the genre's rules had not yet been established; the first guy always seems to break rules in retrospect), but it was still immersive, conveying a you-are-there impression of hunting for Colombian street food under the el in Queens very late on a weekend night.

Fwiw, here's my original article about the Arepa Lady


Al Hunter said...

Thanks, links much appreciated!
Yes, a looseness that makes you grin!

Val in Seattle said...

Wow Jim. Thanks so much for these links.

Jim Leff said...

My pleasure, Al and Val! Happy surfing!

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