A bunch of American indie-rockers saunter into a bar, take up a host of continent-spanning, percussive African instruments, and start jamming out a jubilant, guitar-driven, border-hopping sound that bridges Congolese soukous, Saharan desert blues, Ethiopian and Eritrean synth-and-sax pop, and hints of Ghanaian highlife. Sound like the setup for a joke? Or does it just sound familiar?
Los Angeles collective Fool’s Gold is yet another harbinger of what we should probably go ahead and call the Vampire Weekend Conundrum: Those globe-trotting preppies and their “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” have earned the most hype (and ire), but their Afro-pop predilections are shared by the ethnically and culturally disparate likes of the Very Best, the Ruby Suns, and Justin Adams, while artists like Chicha Libre, Dengue Fever, and Diplo are similarly fixated on Andean chicha, Cambodian pop, and Jamaican dancehall, respectively. Yes, Western rockers are currently slightly obsessed with so-called “world music.” Which is both thrilling and, for some, terrifying.
Explanations for this phenomenon abound, centered on a growing sense of global citizenry and the ever-increasing movement of people across and around the planet. Fool’s Gold guitarist Lewis Pesacov, calling from London during the band’s first mini-tour of Europe, cites two more factors: first, the Internet, which has made far-flung sounds more accessible than ever before, and second, an increasing Western fascination with what some perceive as the kind of rawness and sincerity that can only be found abroad. As he puts it, the African music that inspires his band is “more punk than punk rock has ever been”; as it has often been made under less-than-ideal recording conditions, Afro-pop resonates for fans of punk, indie, and “the old rebellious feeling of rock ‘n’ roll.” Tinariwen, for instance—the band for whom Fool’s Gold is opening (and a major influence)—use their desert blues to rail against the persecution of the nomadic Touareg people. Pesacov mentions Tinariwen’s new album, Imidiwan, cut in their desert homelands with only generator power, as an example of the ways Afro-pop, like punk, is “extremely DIY, extremely honest, sincere, and very rebellious in a way.”
This view is a romantic one, of course, and runs the risk of simplifying the extreme sociopolitical strife of the developing world into mere fodder for fantasies of rock ‘n’ roll revolution by citizens of the comfortable, industrialized world. Nor is it a particularly new perspective on world-music fandom, which has long been predicated upon ideals of roots and routes. For connoisseurs, the problematic blanket term of “world music” has often carried strong connotations of travel—or, at least, of armchair/eardrum tourism amid distant, disparate musical cultures.
At the same time, a part of that journey is a quest for tradition, for something more “real” than the manufactured sounds of American pop. Westerners’ relationships to non-Western music has often hinged on this juxtaposition, a thirst to find something both exotic and pure: think the Beatles in India, the Stones in Morocco, Paul Simon with South Africa, David Byrne with Latin America. It’s a Ye Olde Authenticity Crusade, a story that has often revolved around the connection of white boys with guitars to the music of non-white people, only translated across a few continents and a couple languages.
What might set Fool’s Gold’s pan-African fixation apart from the more cavalier gestures and almost smug sound-bites offered by, say, Vampire Weekend is both the seriousness with which they pursue their obsession and their apparent (and slightly self-mocking) self-awareness. The band’s name itself implies that they get their own joke: They are not the “real” thing. What they are instead is a group of up to a dozen earnest, dedicated students of African music, convening loosely over years of jam sessions, an eclectic group ranging from former We Are Scientists drummer Michael Tapper to Argentinean pop star Erica Garcia. And the band deals with the “roots” issue in a rather interesting way: At its core are Pesacov (a classically trained composer who draws connections between Baroque, Indonesian, and African forms of polyphonic music) and Israeli-American vocalist/bassist Luke Top, who often sings in Hebrew atop a hodge-podge of African styles that technically don’t “belong” to him. And the result gels rather effortlessly: Top’s melancholic, almost Morrissey-esque vocals bounce off the echoing Ethiopian pop soundscape of “Nadine,” twisting and twirling around the plaintive sax line, while the lyrics of “Ha Dvash” (“Honey”) seamlessly fold into the choral chants and trance-like grooves of the track’s desert blues.
This sort of alchemy is nothing new, of course: Soukous, for instance, was born of Congolese appreciation for Afro-Cuban music in the 1960s, while Saharan blues bands filter Touareg folk music through Hendrix-esque classic rock. Tinariwen, in particular, have been heralded for their gorgeous, guitar-god reworkings of Touareg folk styles. Imidiwan finds the group both returning to the rawer, less-studio-polished sound of 2007’s Aman Iman, and underscoring the cross-cultural trajectories their music traces like never before on tracks like “Tenhert,” a swampy blues that pairs a kind of Temashek rapping with choral responses. Pesacov says it’s precisely this emphasis on dense layers of many rich musical ideas that has made Tinariwen such a powerful inspiration for his own multifaceted group: “It’s like we’re coming at a goal from two completely opposite directions, and it’s really interesting to see how we arrive at it.”
Of course, such cultural exchange must be treated with a great deal of caution. This kind of friendly borrowing and bartering is heavily rooted in colonial histories of exploitation; uncomfortably, it often takes a band of mostly white boys to make this music more palatable for American audiences. The common goal shared by Tinariwen and Fool’s Gold, for instance, should not overshadow the “opposite directions,” as Pesacov puts it, from which they’ve approached it. These two desert-based bands hail from very different deserts: While Fool’s Gold espouse travel and exploration from a position of relative privilege, Tinariwen, whose members met in a Touareg refugee camp in Libya, speak in terms of displacement and uprooting: The band’s name, which means “empty spaces” in Temashek, encompasses both the potential of filling those spaces and the mourning for what once lived there.
Fool’s Gold, for one, seem willing and perhaps even eager to discuss the potentially complicated math of this exchange. Pesacov aims to use these shows to encourage dialogue, both among fans and between the artists themselves—a rare chance to “communicate musically” with a band he greatly admires but with whom he does not share a common verbal language or history. When entered into from a position of respect and open-mindedness, the polyglot sounds of bands like Tinariwen and Fool’s Gold can hurdle both musical and sociopolitical boundaries, providing inspiration that is at once joyful, innovative, and, most importantly, mutual.
Tinariwen and Fool’s Gold play Highline Ballroom February 18 and the Bell House February 19