Black tarantella and white devil

The unbearable beauty of African music

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The West’s appropriation of urban modernity stops it from grasping the totality of contemporary African musical expression, denying it any modernity, and thus depriving Western audiences of many pleasures.

« African woman dance, she goes dance, fire dance » (1)… Africa’s rhythmical ferris wheel carries on turning in keeping with the universe.
This quasi-eschatological movement is symbolized in the well-known lines of this Fela song by the figure of the reproductive and nurturing woman whose body, undulating as it dances, gives off the warmth and the light of the purifying flame.
Rhythm is the manifestation and symbol of the whole community: all the forces in the cosmos participate, each in their own place, in the circle dance that celebrates permanent contact and the mysticism of beings.
The human voice and sounds that a profoundly rich instrumentation set in motion are a powerful means of going back in time, of journeying through space. With them begins the transition towards the beyond, far-off ages erupting into the present.
Invoked by the clear and ample notes of the mbira, the Zimbabwean Shona’s thumb piano, the ancestors come down to earth during the impressive village ceremonies to give advice to the mortals.
Summoned by the sharp melody of the koubour three-chord guitar, the spirits of the river Djoliba (2) come and « ride » the faithful during their therapeutic trances in the Ghimbala region of northern Mali.
In Rwanda, the inzogera cow bells and the calabash iniyugali shakers accompany the ritual songs devoted to the mythical hero Lyangombe.
Even in profane styles like the Djeliya (3), genealogical recitals perpetrate the illustrious acts of the ancestors amongst the living.
In Africa, time’s cyclical nature perpetrates tradition, reinforcing social ties, installing a spiritual element in day-to-day life, establishing memory as an essential societal function.
This signifies a kind of epistemological rupture with Western thought in general and with French ideology (4) inherited from Illuminism in particular.
Modernity, individualism, and secularity are fundamentally opposed to tradition, solidarity, and spirituality, and promote amnesia as an antidote to the dangers of memory. « A man who remembered everything would be a sick man and would live a nightmare… A civilization that forgets too little stops creating and risks loosing its vital forces through the hypertrophy of memory and the invasion of history. »
The illustrious members of the French Academy (5), ruthless guardians of the official cult, are not inconsistent. The past is indeed a hindrance in a society whose success is measured according to the speed with which production systems are transformed and consumer objects become obsolete.
Excessively perishable, things come from, and come back from, nothingness. The roots of nihilism and Western violence can thus be located in the scientific technological progress, posited as supreme forces, that dictates the destiny of humanity (6).
One of the main consequences of Western despotism was the erasing of all forms of sacredness in society on the one hand, and universalism on the other.
The latter does not manifest itself in the same way everywhere. For the Anglo-Saxons, it has given rise to social communalism, a more or less latent version of apartheid, whilst in France, it has taken on the form of assimilation, which does not recognize the right to be different.
This constant in French ideology, this terrible conception of universe (7) encourages it to exclude or disguise all divergent cultural phenomena.
Urban African music thus comes up against a double opposition.
Firstly, because of the continuity with tradition, and therefore the sacred, that it expresses. Secondly, by virtue of the very fact that it is urban, « modern« . This is symptomatic of a particular perversion of thought which, in theory, ought to appreciate the emergence of hybrid musical forms, like, for example, the inclusion of European instruments, whilst in reality it rejects these forms as if the urban modernity were a domain that belonged to it exclusively.
People are ultimately more willing to accept that certain so-called traditional works be distributed in the albeit expanding periphery circuits of the record market, rather than to accept city-based genres like the Congolese rumba born out of an intense mixing almost 40 years ago now, and which has kept the continent swinging from Bamako to Johannesburg.
This serves to perpetuate a fixed idea of tradition as a pale avatar of an irretrievably bygone era, raw material to be recycled according to the laws of unequal exchange in the hi-tech studios of the developed world.
At the beginning of the Eighties, a mini black craze shook the Parisian cultural scene out of its torpor. The public gave a warm reception to the first African gigs held in the trendy clubs.
All this titillated the little world of show-bizz, the sound engineers or composers who had run out of inspiration, the ex-lefties looking for a revolution, all of whom realized that this was good business.
They turned themselves into the dodgy patrons of musical adventures and launched a discreet commercial operation, building it up into a new musical philosophy. It was as if a new recruitment policy for « talented blacks » was inaugurated around the music magazine Actuel, as marketing purposes imposed slogans and concepts to launch the whole operation. As per usual, Uncle Tom was called in.
An aging Cameroonian musician invented the appalling neo-colonial saying « Paris the capital of African music« …
The affable « black-white music » concept was invented in a modest acculturation attempt, in an effort to substitute the false image for the real one. Ray Lema, an accredited musician of the African diaspora in Paris, was the one behind the idea. In his view, African music lacked harmony and needed to borrow the famous « vertical drum » from its white cousin!
This is a prime example of how some people’s ambition lacks restraint, as they don’t even hesitate to invent an imposter to place a given cultural product on the market.
We were therefore told that modern African music did not exist, that it was being invented now, in Paris’ laboratories!
Confronted with the dysfunctioning of our usual conceptual tools, we once again took refuge in the fabrication of an imaginary Africa.
This transfiguration reached fever pitch as peaceful Mandingue ambiances were conjugated with an exaggeratedly hard rock sound. And as the labels flew willy nilly, the term « electro-funk griot » (8) revealed a « contradictio in adiecto« , the Sahelian climes remaining a far cry from the orgy of decibels known as techno or house.
In the specialist press, however, someone more honest and more informed pulled the alarm cord: « Although a certain type of « African » music is holding fort and is on the increase, all that will soon be African about this music is the image. This has already become clear with Manu Dibango’s Abel Dance: the commercially inspired need to bring African music into line with dominant Euro-American pop norms leads to the rooting out of everything that gives it its specificity and richness: timbre drowned in electronic uniformity, polyrhythms reduced to an unfailingly monotonous binary scansion, standardized melodies that don’t even carry any harmonic richness likely to encourage unexpected innovations. The logic behind this new exploitation of the African continent will lead to the superposing of an exotic representation and a music difficult to distinguish from forms fashionable in the north. It doesn’t take much: an extra instrument in a band, a name, a face with certain features, the clothes. Africa is then constituted without the sounds that are supposed to characterize it, which, for their part, are the fruit of the labour put in in the studios in Europe or the States under the controlling hand of an indigenous « artistic » director. One may wonder what this mystification is about (a bout of exoticism in a crisis-ridden economy – it wouldn’t be the first time. Before it was titles like « Mon légionnaire » and « Il s’appelait Boudoubadabou »…) Somebody is apparently on the make.
All this is part of the complex cultural relations built up after independence, neo-colonial relations informed by the power of the northern media and the behavioural and consumer images propagated by the media. That recognition, success and perhaps even comfort above all means recognition in Europe and America for some musicians is thus conceivable. Nobody is holding anything against anybody here, it is simply a question of whether this mystified meeting opens up the way to understanding the Other, whether these neo-African languages are, as is sometimes claimed, the sign that a new art is in the making, or the deviation of something else, of the musical forms that have developed in Africa over the last thirty years, music which constitutes authentically creative practices that are in touch with what’s going on outside the continent without stopping being informed by local tastes and needs ». (9)
In 1985, it was already very clear, but no one really took any notice considering that twelve or so years later, Angélique Kidjo’s dance style was being touted as voodo-inspired music! The same singer has been introduced as the « African Edith Piaf » (so many misunderstandings in one phrase…), although nothing in her music can be identified with black African aesthetic canons, with the music now being produced in the towns, villages and forests of the continent.
It must be added that the same thing was going on in the Sates is the Eighties. The American producer Bill Laswell tampered with the recordings of a Fela album he produced when the Yoruba artist was in prison…
To which, the still-imprisoned musician managed to reply, « As long as producers do not understand, they will destroy the African music concept. When American producers start meddling, they fuck up African reality. I don’t give a damn if it sounds better, I don’t give a damn, they ruin it!!! And when they start changing the sound because they want to make more money, because they think that’s what people will like, they destroy African history. They are even capable of destroying African musical genius… Record labels should promote this music just the way it is and keep this wonderful art intact! When they get into the studio, the fuck the art up… » (10)
The beauty of African music is decidedly unbearable for the West’s standardized thinking and its record and music business.
In a universe unaccustomed to compartmentalization, African music is the prime expression of the invisible liaison between human society and the land of the dead and of all nature’s creatures.
It is animated by a specific pulsation, as the sacred place it has always sprung forth from has not been destroyed, in spite of modernity’s invasion.
This distinguishes it from recent musical forms that have emerged in a civilization built on the ruins of an edifice erected as a meeting place between the community of the living and the supernatural forces.
It was in this respect that Senghor said « Europeans do not have the musical instruments and the poetic inspiration that enables our griots to make the extraordinary audible » (11). And, one might add, to reach the invisible.
The Guinean writer Camara Laye gives another important insight into this aspect. According to Laye, the African, unlike the Westerner, is highly sensitive to the call from the depths.
The author of the Enfant Noir cites a passage from the German philosopher Karl Jaspers: « I am attracted to Van Gogh. It seems to me that an intimate source of existence opens up to us an instant, as if the hidden depths of all lives were uncovered here directly. There is a vibration that we cannot endure for long, from which we soon seek to free ourselves… This vibration does not lead us to assimilate the foreign element… It is very stimulating, but it isn’t our world. »
Laye then comments: « Is that also our African behaviour? Not at all. Before beings and things, it seems to Africans that a source of existence opens up, nor for an instant, but constantly, and that (and not « as if ») hidden depths of all lives uncover directly. There is no vibration there that we cannot bear for long… but there is indeed a vibration that we endure without growing tired. We absolutely assimilate this element we do not consider foreign … « It isn’t our world » says Karl Jaspers. However, it is very much our world ». (12)
The ancestral vibration is there and, more extraordinary still, it survives in Africa’s urban genres which the term pop does not fit at all.
This vibration is also at the root of its richness and the attraction it has managed – paradoxically and in antithesis of what has been remarked up until now – to exert beyond the boundaries of the continent.
When it is said that Africa is the mother of all musics, we immediately think of jazz, salsa, blues, or rock (which wouldn’t in fact exist without this much maligned black African historical identity), without realizing that its influences on Western classical forms over the centuries are much stronger still.
« I realized from my research that the different African music styles had a definite impact on Western classical music », says Nana Danso Abiam, founder of the Pan African Orchestra, the first and astonishing African classical music formation, set up in Accra in Ghana some ten years ago. « Quite a few of the innovations attributed to composers like Stockhausen (« variable music »), Bartok (« accidental harmony » and « counterpoint »), Stravinski (« polyrhythmics » and «  »pointillism »), Beethoven (« free forms »), Schoenberg (« speechstimme »)… are techniques still found in Africa and which have exist here for several centuries.
These techniques were developed and handed down to us by our ancestors as they struggled to understand the laws of nature and human society. It is quite possible that the evolution of these techniques manifested itself in separate ways on the different continents. Nonetheless, it would be incredible that the analogies and similarities I referred to, plus many others I could cite, do not have a common source. »
This is a reassuring observation, indicating that there was a permanent contact in terms of major cultural developments at least up until the end of the 19th century.
Furthermore, about a hundred years earlier, Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote in the « Dictionary of Music » published in 1760: « To enable the reader to judge the different musical aspects of diverse populations, I have transcribed on sheet N a Chinese air taken from P. du Halde, a Persian air taken from Chevalier Chardin, and two songs by American savages taken from P. Marsenne. One will find in all these pieces a modulation that conforms with our music, that for some will inspire admiration for the aptness and universality of our rules, and perhaps for others will render suspect the intelligence and faithfulness of those who handed these airs down to us. »
The French philosopher whom many consider to be the « father of ethnomusicologists » viewed music from around the world less paternalistically or ethnocentrically than the people who frequent the record labels and the principal media’s top offices today.
It is always worth turning to a real specialist to weed out the rubbish the so-called experts spout. The sterile cliche of an unchanging African tradition, for example, is the invention of ignorance.
When we asked Gilbert Rouget, the most eminent and first of the French ethnomusicologists, to define « traditional music » for us, he did not hesitate a second: « I have to reject the notion of traditional music. It is highly misleading as it gives the impression that these musical forms are unchanging. They are, on the contrary, quite dynamic, even though their evolution is compatible with the logic of tradition. Indeed, the most modern forms of contemporary music can be situated under the auspices of tradition. Boulez was Messian’s pupil, and Stockhausen played the piano, European music’s traditional instrument par excellence. »
Unfortunately the entertainment industry does not share Rouget’s ideas, the same Rouget who decisively challenged some of the West’s beliefs about African music when he introduced Europeans to the polyphony of the Pygmies fifty years ago.
So, is Africa in Paris the result, the cultural branch of the infamous FrenchAfrica, on a more general level?
When you think about it, it’s not African music that looses out, but the French public. These pseudo-cultural mechanisms limit its chances of establishing a real contact with the sounds and rhythms of the eternal Africa.

(1) The chorus of the late Yoruba musician’s famous song « Lady« .
(2) The Niger in Bambara.
(3) The Djeli, or griot, profession. Griots are the guardians of oral knowledge in the Mandingue cultural zone. Their art is defined as profane purely by convention. The fact that the Djeli’s word is considered sacred reveals just how arbitrary the distinction between sacred and profane is in African animist cultures.
(4) French ideology is the vehicle, in terms of the dominant culture, for the French neo-colonial State’s desire for power. Widespread amongst all social categories, it is unfortunately believed in by the majority of the population, which makes the numerous exceptions to the rule highly appreciable.
(5) Reference to Gilbert Dragon of the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Letters. Le Monde, 22 Oct. 1997, p. 16.
(6) Cf. the works of the Italian philosopher Emanuele Severino (which, perhaps not entirely innocently, have not been translated into French), notably Essenza del Nichilismo (Adelphi, Milano 1982).
It is interesting to note that African and Africanist writers have started taking this philosopher’s work into account. In Le troupeau des songes (Editions de la Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, Paris 1991), Alain Le Pichon and Souleymane Baldé refer to the key ideas of his work although they do not actually cite him.
(7) To borrow the Martinican poet and philosopher Edouard Glissant’s term.
(8) Used to describe the Guinean musician Mory Kante.
(9) Denis Martin. « Tristes Afriques » in Jazz Magazine nº 344, November 1985.
(10) Libération, 1 April 1985. Interview with Fela.
(11) Libération, 6 June 1991.
(12) Camara Laye, Le Maître de la Parole – Kouma Lafôlô Kouma. L’Harmattan, 1978.
///Article N° : 5290


Laisser un commentaire