Home of the Brave

Westernizing Anglophone West Africa

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.

Electric highlifer Anthony Scorpion
photo: John Collins and Naxos World
Electric highlifer Anthony Scorpion

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.

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