African music

Is show business washing it out?

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Music is omnipresent at the MASA, and unsurprisingly so… At the « world market of African performing arts », where theatre is unprofitable, and dance yields minimal returns, only African music is a safe and accepted value… At the end of a century it has enchanted, however, it is not certain that the art and its artists have benefitted from being exported.

For a journalist who has primarily « covered » all the MASAs for the love of African music, it is paradoxical to admit that one of the things that really moved me at this forth edition, was the staggering and providential minute of silence that at last reigned when Sijiri Bakaba took off his jacket in « Les Déconnards »…
Indeed, music’s worst enemy is its omnipresence. At the MASA, it is invasive to the point of often becoming highly burdensome, which is unbearable for a music lover. This year, the concerts represented three fifths of the « official » shows, and the quasi-totality of the « MASA Festival ». Worse still, the majority of the theatre and dance shows abusively used music as a « stop-gap », and overdid the decibels – the MASA sound systems are turned up, as is the fashion, to an unbearable level…
It is true that in Africa, silence is a negative attribute. Music is the rule, even in its most rudimentary forms. There is nothing more « musical » than daily life in an African yard. As soon as the cock crows, you cannot help but notice the syncopated swishing of flyswats, the resonant accents of the tonal languages, the cross rhythms of the pestles and beaters.
What is more, no one would ever dream of complaining about a neighbouring bar that spews its decibels forth night and day: music, no matter what music, and whatever the volume, is always welcome.
Travel, even if it means dying a little…
However, other than the already famous singers, African musicians are almost always treated as outsiders. At best, if they are griots, they are a parasitical nuisance; if they aren’t, they have no social standing, are marginal. In most big towns (notably Abidjan), since the Seventies it has become all the more difficult to make a living, as live music has been literally exterminated by the cassette boom.
This is not a viable alternative even for singers, who are relatively privileged, as, despite a whole arsenal of recent laws, over 70% of production is pirated. For the other musicians, it’s a disaster: recording sessions are scandalously poorly paid (under 10,000 FCFA), and employ less and less personnel thanks to the massive recourse to synthesizers and rhythm boxes.
To emigrate, or at least to perform in the West, has become an obsession for most musicians.
This is all the more the case due to media globalization – including, amongst other things, the popularity of the RFI, BBC, Africa nº 1, or MCM programmes. Now – and it’s a new phenomenon – everybody is convinced that there is a large potential audience waiting to be conquered in « the north ».
The MASA was basically born from the late realization in the different quarters that music represented a promising and still undeveloped market. It came just at the right time to measure this as yet poorly defined, but singularly important, cultural asset against the economic reality that Western civilization (and its Japanese offshoot) shows an undeniable enthusiasm for African music, or, more precisely, for some African music…
For, that is precisely the heart of a problem that certain musicians (such as Francis Bebey or Manu Dibango) perceived and raised a long time ago: this attraction in the West is far from being unconditional. Indeed, it rests on both a highly subjective dimension – a naive exoticism which is still marked by the clichés and fantasies of the colonial era – and an objective reality, which depends on the superficial, but decisive, assimilation of a consequent part of Africa’s musical heritage.
A diaspora-dominated market
The MASA is not a simple artefact, nor a more or less effective tool generously made available to African artists by the music business! On the contrary, as the century closes, it is the logical conclusion of a certain tendency to appropriate which posits the African performing arts (and first and foremost music) as a cultural good amongst others, and as an essential element in the « globalized » heritage of the rich nations.
Let us go further still: shortly after colonization, and at the time of Marxist utopia, integrating part of the patrimony of African musical into the Western imagination was a decisive stage in the globalization process. And, it is worth recalling, that this product was first and foremost an off-shoot of slavery!
Indeed, it was the music born out of the shock of African mass deportation which slowly but surely paved the way for the export of music from the black continent. This « Afro-American » and « Afro-Caribbean » music had (and has conserved) a moving sense of urgency and survival which immediately made it the strongest witness to human memory. Everybody likes it, as it simultaneously celebrates the refusal of upheaval, and the optimism of blending and globalization. For the descendants of the « sans-papiers » [immigrants without resident permits – NDLR], victims of a system of slavery, it also serves both as a cultural identity card and a passport for the future. The inextinguishable vitality remains, more than a century after all the « abolitions », the absolute proof of the unbridled force culture represents vis-à-vis the ephemeral domination of the economic order.
A spiritual force: all types of African diaspora music, without exception, are born out of the remnants of the ancestor and spirit cults that emanate from the original environment…
A universal force: throughout the twentieth century, these erratic and highly localized inventions, which have been baptized by the emergent music business (blues, gospel, biguine, calypso, jazz, rumba, samba, reggae, etc.), have gradually won over the imaginations of the whole of humanity, who is sold on the new idea that music can become a planetary language.
A reversible force, finally: all modern forms of African music are born, above all, out of the unpredictable reimplantation of these far-away off-shoots in their land of origin. From Ghanaian highlife to the African reggae of Alpha Blondy or Lucky Dube, to Congolese rumba, this return journey happened as naturally as could be, and without the decisive intervention of a West that had all the cards in hand in all the other domains…
Thus, on the eve of the year 2000, we can safely say that there has been a fecund osmosis between black African music and that of its diaspora. This convergence would be simply miraculous if it were not for the fact that it has resulted in a dangerous confusion at the same time. For, the Western market, which, thanks to its economic clout, increasingly fixes the rules of the game, ultimately risks imposing its own more or less nebulous vision of « black music », which is a shady reflection of its own contradictions.
The ambiguous quest for Africanness
For the Europeans, and in particular for the Americans (black or white), or the Japanese, « black is black », and thus the infinite subtleties that make the music of each African people a unique and precious heritage go unperceived. Born out of the fashion for jazz and the dance music of the Caribbean, the reductive concept of « black music », the aural facet of « black art », imposed itself right from the Twenties. Ever since, it has continued to predominate, via a whole range of misunderstandings. Up until the Fifties, no one in the West – with the exception of a few clairvoyant musicologists, such as André Schaeffner, or the Surrealist poets with enchanted ears, such as Philippe Soupault and Michel Leiris – was remotely aware of the incomparable wealth of African music.
Whilst blues and gospel, jazz and rhythm’n’blues, biguine and calypso, Afro-Cuban son, then samba and bossa nova albums invaded family record collections by the millions, recordings of African music remained confidential. And even then, these were only recordings of traditional music: the entire history of urban African music was deliberately ignored thanks to the influence of the ethno-musicologists who, with sovereign disdain, considered them the vulgar manifestation of a rampant acculturation.
To discover the living reality of African music, you had to go there. The first intercontinental African music tours only began after Independence. These generally involved « folk » groups formed especially to promote the new states, based on the impressive model of Fodeba Keita’s famous Guinean « Ballets Africains ». Under the pretext of wanting going beyond tribal differences, they offered a « national » fusion which, in general, privileged the dominant ethnic group to the detriment of the minorities…
In the same period (and particularly from the latter half of the Seventies onwards) an anarchic, but efficient and autonomous commercial circuit which, by successfully exploiting the popularity of Congolese music, targeted the emigrant communities and imposed itself in Europe and the States. This virtually underground, community-based and lucrative network, whose promotion depends on the distribution of flyers in well-targeted neighbourhoods alone, still successfully continues to organize most of the Paris, London and New York concerts where the rare « Whites » present remain the object of a perplexed and bemused curiosity.
The Eighties and Nineties have been marked by the the West’s recognition of other urban music styles from Senegal (Xalam, Touré Kunda, then Youssou N’Dour), Mali and Guinea (Salif Keita, Mory Kanté), Nigeria (Fela, Kind Sunny Ade), and then from southern Africa and the Lusophone countries…
Along with the private promoters, militant bodies (« Africa Fête » in France, the « Center for African Culture » in Harlem run by the Nigerian percussionist Olatunji), and several festivals (Angoulême, Amiens, Africolor, Peter Gabriel’s WOMAD, etc.) have managed to impose African music in a global framework, in partnership with the recording companies.
How to break free from the African context?
The MASA was set up in 1993 under the auspices of the latest cultural project left over from the colonial period (« Francophonia »), but also at the time when a real pro-African music world lobby was beginning to emerge.
This forth edition has confirmed the obvious: this music has an autonomous existence, and will never be reduced to what the « clients » of the world market expect of it… Its history evolves imperturbably in relation to the tastes of the African public, and all attempts to make it into a product that conforms to the world market have repeatedly failed.
The proof: MASA 99 was marked by the eruption on the commercial circuit of a « pure », or barely adapted form, of the « pre-colonial » music styles hitherto condemned to the closed circuit of the cultural institutions. The producer Régis Sissoko, who has toured village musicians from Centrafrique the world over, was inundated with propositions for Nzamba Lela, a group of Aka Pygmy singers from the region where the ethno-musicologist Simha Arom recorded the historic Ocora and Unesco anthologies. Moreover, a couple of Baka Pygmies featured in a « modern » band (the Cameroonian group Patengue), which is a first…
The difficulty of staging music which is not destined for the stage has engendered some lively debates; it is the object of a new discipline, ethno-stage direction, which was recently the topic of some fascinating seminars at Unesco and the Maison des Cultures du Monde.
If there were an ethno-stage director’s « Oscar », it would have surely gone to the « Groupe Loi Nii » from Guinea who, in the « theatre » selection, presented an extraordinary re-enactment of the Guerze funeral rites – an oppressed ethnic group which most of the members of the troupe belong to, and who Suleymane Koly considers the best of his home country, whose actors are also remarkable musicians.
African instruments, which were utterly overlooked in the first MASAs, were omnipresent this time. Neba Solo, the Senoufo balaphone group from Mali, definitively proved its festive qualities (they are currently preparing a C.D. with the « techno » D.J. Frédéric Galliano).
Wind instruments – trumpets and flutes – were admirably represented by the groups Hewale Sound (Ghana) and Mantsieme (Congo). Mandingue strings and percussion predominated in three highly original ensembles: Hirdey Music (Guinea), Seguedji Djanjere Boni (Mali), and Ndilaan (Senegal). Ratovo and Tearano proved the the young Madagascans’ ability to integrate ancestral sitars and vieles into a contemporary language…
Another tendency confirmed by this MASA was the ascension of an intimate « neo-folk », whose songs abruptly evoke urban social problems to the highly minimalist accompaniment of guitars and percussion. The success of the Frères Kafala from Angola, the Senegalese Cheick Lô, and above all the young Malian Rokia Traoré, confirms the renaissance of this kind of poetic-musical genre, which has a very rich history, from « palm wine highlife » and the songs of the Copperbelt miners, to the first albums of Francis Bebey, Lamine Konté, or Pierre Akendengue…
Three great female figures of African music belong to the same generation, and their « come back » at the MASA was, for many, the first time they discovered them: namely the Kenyan Malika, mother of « taraab », the Cape Verdean Herminia (a more « husky », but equally moving version of Cesaria Evora), and the Cameroonian Anne-Marie Nzié, all of whom have their frankness and the generosity which Africans attribute to grandmothers, in common.
Côte d’Ivoire was represented in this year’s official programme by one of its most authentic voices: Luckson Padaud, who has masterfully updated the frenetic Bété dance music from the west of the country. In addition to this, the production company Showbiz presented a very complete panorama of Ivoirian music in the « Village-MASA », which was dominated by a remarkable concert by the rasta Ismael Isaac. In the space of a few years, this inspired singer, accompanied by a rhythms and brass section worthy of the best Jamaican formations, has managed to successfully rival his elder, Alpha Blondy, and his lyrics are considerably more pertinent!
This marathon festival also confirmed the vitality of « zouglou ». This local equivalent of rap, born in the student milieu some ten years ago, is increasingly popular, with its corrosive or disillusioned texts set against village-style polyrhythms. It is no doubt too focused on Africa’s real problems to be exportable. But, for a year now, it has been revitalized by the sulphurous « mapouka » fashion: an erotic traditional dance of the coastal populations (Ahizi, Avikam, and Aladja), whose rear-end movements are both subtle and suggestive. It only took a smart producer to devote a video, judged a bit too crude by local the prudery, for the habitual « scandal-censure-voyeurism » to work perfectly: of all the styles presented at the MASA, mapouka was the favourite of the American and Japanese « buyers »!
But the real hero of the 1999 MASA – the only person who just about managed to stir the lifeless Palais des Congrès audience – is light years away from all that stuff: Antoine Wendo, the great pioneer of Congolese rumba, who came to discretely celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of his career. Time has not caught up with this elegant and frisky seventy-something-year-old yet, the founding father of the most popular form of music on the whole of the African continent. Recently rediscovered thanks to a very fine documentary (broadcast on Arte, then on TV5), Wendo made the most of this trip to Abidjan to do an impromptu recording, which will be his first C.D. (apart from the soundtrack of the film), and which will shortly be released by Label Bleu/Harmonia Mundi.
When Wendo finished recording the last take of « Marie-Louise » (his 1949 hit, an archetype in the genre!), a magical atmosphere reigned in the JBZ studio: at last it was there, that swing, that undefinable grace that an event as rigid as it is haphazard had deprived us of during a whole week of concerts…
Forgotten, vanished, were the stupid M.C.s and the deafening sound systems, the freezing « air con » and the stiff protocol, the hollow speeches and the behind-the-scenes scheming, the globalized small-talk and the servility of corruption, the market and all its failings…
Wendo sang, transported in a smile, and the fraternal wink he exchanged with his guitarist at the end of each verse magicked it all away… Far from the cameras, close to the mikes, this improvised session resumed all the impalpable truth of African music.
Never mind, then, if that was all the MASA was worth…!

///Article N° : 5370

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