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'The African Beat' Grows Stronger as It Marks 10 Years on KCRW

April 04, 1993|STEVE APPLEFORD | Steve Appleford writes regularly about music for The Times

The African sound hadn't yet landed on the Boston music scene when Ade James arrived there as a student from Nigeria in the early 1980s. Live acts from his home continent rarely passed through town, and local radio stations showed little interest in playing what little African music was available in American record shops.

"In the back of my mind I was thinking, 'They are missing out on beautiful music. Why don't they play it?' And I knew somewhere, somehow, there would be a break somewhere," remembers James. "Americans would discover African music. But I did not realize that dream until I moved to L. A."

It was here that James found C C Smith and Solomon Solo already the hosts of a show called "The African Beat" on KCRW (89.9 FM), the eclectic public radio station, broadcast from 3 to 5 p.m. Saturdays from Santa Monica College. The duo had been doing the show since 1983, spinning records of music from across Africa, and inviting friends to bring hard-to-find recordings by the studio.

James was just another one of those new friends before he joined "The African Beat" himself in 1986, becoming the third voice on what has become one of KCRW's longest-running programs. Smith credits the music. "It's a very deep and rich mine of music. It's varied; it's got a history, and it's something that's so different from the experience of most Americans.

"The Africans that listen get a taste of home. That's very important to them."

The three hosts of "The African Beat" will celebrate the show's 10th anniversary Saturday with live African music at the Music Machine in West Hollywood. "The African Beat Dance Party" will spotlight the contemporary Afro-pop of the Zaire-based band Makina Loca and the more traditional dance-drum act Francis Awe and the Dun Dun Ensemble from Nigeria. The deejays also will spin records between acts, and African food will be sold.

The party, James explains, is not just to celebrate but to encourage involvement with KCRW, which depends largely on individual subscriptions for its funding. It's the first event of its kind for the station, and the $25 ticket price for two admissions includes one KCRW membership. (For KCRW subscribers, admission is $10.)

By 1983, Tom Schnabel, then the station's music director, was already dedicating an hour of air time to African music once a week on his "Morning Becomes Eclectic" show.

But after witnessing King Sunny Ade's first Los Angeles performance that year, Schnabel decided the station needed a program dedicated to African music.

"His mind was so seriously blown, and he decided that this stuff is so great, that we had to have a show to play it," said Smith, who was the host of a program on New Orleans rhythm and blues. "And he promptly assigned me to host it. Don't ask me why.

"Overnight we changed a blues show to an African show."

The only problem was that Smith knew little about the music coming out of Africa. But soon she was reading books and magazine articles and talking to Africans about the music, which was still difficult to find in any quantity in American stores.

She was helped first by co-host Ibrahim Cole, who came from Sierra Leone, and later that first year by Solo. "It gave the show a lot more authenticity to have an African voice on the show," Smith said.

"The music was becoming popular in Europe," she added. "There was so little availability of information in America, it was kind of pathetic. But things were starting to happen. The best source was Africans bringing stuff from home." Up until 1988, James said, "we were really scrounging for music to play."

The years since those early days has seen an explosion in interest in African music, accelerated by Paul Simon's successful "Graceland" album, which blended Simon's smooth pop melodies with the soulful energy of South African music. New record labels in Europe are producing more African-based music than the show can now fit into its two-hour weekly slot.

"You can get African music very easily now," said Smith. "Certainly we still have people bringing music in, but usually, we already have it, and have been playing it for six months."

"The African Beat Dance Party," featuring performances by Makina Loca and Francis Awe and the Dun Dun Ensemble, celebrates the 10th anniversary of KCRW's "The African Beat" Saturday at the Music Machine, 12220 Pico Blvd., in West Los Angeles. Showtime is 8 p.m. Tickets are $25 for two admissions ($10 for KCRW subscribers). For more information, call KCRW at (310) 450-5183.

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