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THE BIG MIX : Pop Music : Pop Goes African : Sounds a continent away make waves on U.S. radio

February 05, 1989|DON SNOWDEN

"Everyone quiet, please."

The noise level in the KCRW-FM control room instantly subsided as closing time for "The African Beat" radio program approached. The strains of "Aki Special" by Prince Nico Mbarga suddenly went silent in the monitor speakers as C. C. Smith, co-host of the Saturday afternoon show, faded down the track and flipped open the mike.

Smith and co-host Solomon Egbuho (who has acquired the on-air nickname of Solomon Solo), ran down the closing credits. But the moment Smith cut off the mike and the vibrant song again blared out of the studio speakers, a handful of studio guests and Solo--who was wearing traditional white Nigerian robes with avocado green trim--exploded out of their seats in an exuberant dance.

"Seven days a week, we're going crazy," the ebullient Solo, 35, said after the show. "Hey, Saturday, 2 to 5, come on now. Let's get loose. Put your hand on the radio and get healed."

Pop music sounds from around the world are fast becoming a more integral part of the American pop scene. But for most Angelenos, the first exposure to the vast variety of international pop styles will come from specialty radio programs like "African Beat" that are broadcast on local National Public Radio affiliates like KCRW, college stations and independent FM stations like KPFK-FM.

The process of discovery that American pop fans often undergo is reflected in C. C. Smith's own experience. She had met Roger Steffens, founder and former co-host of KCRW's "Reggae Beat" program, at the 1981 Sunsplash Festival in Jamaica. She became the reggae show's telephone volunteer, and, one afternoon in 1981, Smith announced the program's calendar over the air.

"I never had any plans of being on the radio and it knocked me out," said Smith, 40. "It was really exciting to hear your voice feeding back in the earphones, so I immediately signed up at Pasadena City College for a couple of radio courses."

Smith went to KPFK-FM for a few shows before returning to KCRW and picking up experience behind the mike on some less-than-prime-time shows at the station. She had just settled into a blues programming slot when Nigeria's King Sunny Ade came through town on his first American tour early in 1982.

"(KCRW program director) Tom Schnabel saw him, said this is the next big thing, and bingo! C. C. is doing an African show," Smith said with a laugh. "I knew nothing about African music at all."

Smith teamed up unsuccessfully with a pair of African co-hosts before Solo called one day and offered to bring some Nigerian records to the station. Solo had produced high school concerts in Nigeria and a cousin owned a record label there.

Solo, who came to the United States in 1975 to attend the Aerospace Institute in Chicago and moved to Southern California three years later for graduate school, had maintained his musical interests here by working as a deejay at Nigerian social functions around Los Angeles. He officially became the show's co-host in 1983. The program currently runs from 2 to 5 p.m. Saturdays.

Smith said that selecting the material for the "The African Beat" is often a haphazard process. Smith sometimes just grabs a handful of records when she leaves her Glendale home, or supplements them with new selections she might purchase at Rhino Records in Westwood on the way to the studio on the Santa Monica College campus.

Solo will bring in records he buys on trips back to Nigeria, and sometimes listeners help out. One fan who runs a safari company in eastern Africa picks up records from Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Zambia and comes on the show when he returns here.

It is an expensive proposition. Even though American labels are starting to release more African pop material here, much of the music Smith and Solo program is only available on high-priced import albums--and those expenses come directly out of their pockets. There is also the constant battle to keep abreast of current developments in Africa and to maintain a geographical balance of the music presented on the show.

"I try to keep a perspective on what's happening all over the continent," Smith said. "Sometimes I'll do a show that's geared to a particular country--an hour of Senegalese music, say, and then an hour of music from Kenya. Zaire and Nigeria are the two main producers of music right now in Africa so it's easy to program that."

The focus of "The African Beat" has broadened in recent years to include zouk and other forms of Caribbean music. Smith's curiosity led her to travel to Guadeloupe and Martinique, the islands where zouk was born, and she also became fascinated with Haitian compas music. Both styles have strong links with much current African pop music.

"It was really exciting when we first started learning about (leading zouk group) Kassav'," said Smith. "When I first heard their hit 'Zouk-La-Se Sel Medikaman Nou Ni,' that really changed my direction.

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