Mining African Blog Riches

A fresh wave of globally minded music websites will broaden your horizons

Frank Conakry, a/k/a DJ Soulpusher, recently spent three years living in West Africa for the sole purpose of crate-digging. He scoured 30-year-old private music collections and the homes of old musicians in search of "Afrobeat, jerk, and soul" records—"not high life or rhumba or cha-cha," he clarifies. During this search, he was robbed at knifepoint, battled scorpions inside record sleeves, and endured respiratory infections from colonies of mold spores. A documentary about his "vinyl archaeology" trip, tentatively titled Take Me Away Fast, is currently in post-production, but the real hard documentation exists on his Voodoo Funk blog (voodoofunk.blogspot.com). After every excavation trip to Benin, Guinea, or some other nearby country, Conakry chronicled his experience, assembled his musical findings into an hour-long mix, and posted it as a free MP3 for all the world to reap.

And reap the world did. Voodoo Funk receives reader feedback from the U.S., Tanzania, India, New Zealand, Brazil, Japan, Ghana, and Russia. "I even got contacted by a former singer from Nigeria who lives in Sweden now," Conakry says, "and was pleasantly surprised to have found some of his old music online." In a relatively short time, the blogger has absorbed an array of occupational functions, from journalist to novelist to diarist to teacher; the recent spate of international music blogs has introduced the roles of ethnomusicologist and archaeologist. Under different, more academic circumstances, you could picture Conakry's findings remaining deep in the stacks at a university library until a stray enthusiast started a pet project and squeezed out a run of maybe 500 CDs, probably with little fanfare or attention. But free, communal blogs provide a real alternative to that scenario: Every blog can take its own specialized approach to an arcane musical niche, so that even within the region of West Africa, there exists a vast cornucopia of variety. John Beadle, a machinist at Harley-Davidson, tends the Likembe blog (likembe.blogspot.com) because he "wants to bring to light some little-known Nigerian sounds, particularly Igbo music, which is almost unheard outside of Nigeria." And Brian Shimkovitz, a "trained ethnomusicologist" who traveled through Ghana on a Fulbright scholarship, stocks his Awesome Tapes From Africa blog (awesometapesfromafrica.blogspot.com) with the lo-fi recordings that he picked up along the way. Despite his background, he takes an "overtly nonscholarly" approach to his posts, limiting his commentary to a few terse sentences.

In general, these blogs (and the bloggers themselves) challenge the accepted terrain of "world music," a term that has come to connote a very limited number of instantly palatable foreign sounds. Australian Aboriginal music, for instance, would probably be too experimental for most lazy-Sunday world-music enthusiasts, while Angola's kuduro music would lean too far toward hardcore urban sounds. " 'World-music' purists look down their noses at a lot of this stuff because it can be cheesy and derivative," Beadle says of Likembe's output. "But this is the sort of music that the masses in Africa listen to."

Frank Conakry (left)  strikes gold in Guinea.
Amadou Bladé
Frank Conakry (left) strikes gold in Guinea.

Though the focus here is often on historically lost genres and out-of-print records, there's also an array of scene reporting on newer international genres. Ghetto Bassquake (ghettobassquake.blogspot.com), to name one of many, covers baile funk, reggaetón, dancehall, and other international dance-club beats. Matt Yanchyshyn's "world music for the masses" blog Benn Loxo Du Taccu (bennloxo.com) follows his travels from China to Syria to Denmark, where he quizzes locals about their music scenes and unearths everything from Turkish hip-hop to Argentine classical music. "More and more of my friends and associates who do not fall into the stereotypical world-music demography—i.e., old, white, and male—had started paying more attention to music from outside America and Europe," Shimkovitz says. "There seemed to be an opportunity to encourage younger people like my friends, who weren't around for the initial world-beat boom in the '80s."

Unsurprisingly, some of these newer converts include musicians. When Vampire Weekend, a New York City band with allegiances to all sorts of non-American sounds, discovered the Benn Loxo blog, they saw its readership as their ideal audience and sent Yanchyshyn some of their earliest demo tracks. "I posted their song," he recalls. "Suddenly, it's picked up by a few key indie blogs, and next thing you know they're famous." Likewise, the Spanish electronic artist El Guincho recently sampled songs that originally resurfaced on Awesome Tapes.

Elsewhere, Tony Lowe, a member of the band Skeletons and the Kings of All Cities, started up the Cool Places blog/radio show (myspace.com/coolplacesradio) with Dean Bein, owner of the True Panther record label. Essentially, the blog is a vehicle for their credo, "Global musical thinking will be part of what saves us as a species," which seems to be a more elaborate way of articulating what all these blogs are achieving through endless research, writing, mixtaping, and, in a way, proselytizing. Cool Places does their part by tracing the roots and development of Peruvian chicha and Southeast Asian music while sharing anecdotes about extraordinary cross-cultural musical influences, such as Javanese slaves in Guyana who play Eastern-tinged dancehall reggae. "We think it's actually part of a larger shift in musical awareness," Bein and Lowe write. "Music blogs and new breeds of international-music-focused labels have a lot to do with people opening their ears to music they would've dismissed before. If we can expand that acceptance and enthusiasm into all aspects of foreign cultures, we'd truly be living as the global nation we should be. Music is just one of the first smoke signals."

 
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