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POP MUSIC

Africa Has a Personal Message for Pop

Young artists with diverse backgrounds are bringing a gentler sound to the traditional music of the continent.

June 21, 1998|Don Heckman | Don Heckman is a frequent contributor to Calendar

When singer Henri Dikongue says that his music was influenced by James Taylor, and that he listened closely to George Benson and Aretha Franklin when he was young, and that his favorite music is Brazilian, it's a little hard to buy. A musician from the West African country of Cameroon inspired by American and Brazilian artists--and, especially, by singer-songwriters such as Taylor and Gilberto Gil? Seems unlikely.

But the proof is in the music, and even a brief hearing of Dikongue's work on "C'est La Vie" (Tinder Records), his first American release, reveals an unusual mixture of Taylor's gentle introspection and Gil's thoughtful writing. It is music that, in addition to its appealing acoustic qualities, takes decidedly assertive points of view via lyrics and attitude, and it represents an important new shift in African pop.

Southland listeners will have an opportunity to make their own judgments Friday, when Dikongue makes his L.A. concert debut at LunaPark.

"I grew up with a lot of different kinds of music," he explains through a French interpreter. "But, because I'm African, I understand traditional African music, as well. And because I had schooling in classical music, I had a chance to search out every different kind of music. And those are the three principal influences I have experienced."

The comparison between Dikongue and '70s American singer-songwriters like Taylor is intriguing, of course, but it is only one part of the picture. Along with such performers as Wasis Diop, Lokua Kanza, Ismael Lo and Sally Nyolo, Dikongue is producing music filled with acoustic sounds, socially pointed lyrics and lovely melodies--an African music that is also international, reaching out to embrace Latin rhythms, bits of reggae, Brazilian samba-bossa nova and American jazz.

"It may seem as though all this music comes from other parts of the world," he says with an ironic laugh, "but they all began in Africa, so what I am trying to do is really just return them to their roots."

Dikongue's initial album, "Wa" (unreleased in the U.S. thus far), dealt with such weighty topics as racism, colonialism, economic imperialism and Cameroon's military establishment. "C'est La Vie" has more gentle moments, but it too manages to address such issues as spousal abuse and, in the title track, expresses his feelings about fatherhood. (The singer's son, Fabian, is 4.)

Dikongue, 30, sees his approach to music, with its subject matter and its international style, as part of a new generation of artists who are moving past the dance rhythm orientation of much African pop.

"I definitely feel I'm part of a new group," he says, "that I'm carrying a torch. A lot of what you hear now, that people think of as traditional African music, isn't traditional at all. It uses synthesizers, and to me, it's just dance music--a pop music where you make a lot of noise to make people dance. And that's not what I want to do."

The intriguing thing about that "new group" is that it is neither exclusive nor singular in style; it includes artists of varying ages from a number of countries.

Nyolo is a fellow Cameroonian and a former member of Zap Mama. Her first solo album, "Tribu" (Tinder), was a blend of sparse but effective acoustic instruments, underscored by contemporary beats with her voice--a beautifully narrative-sounding instrument--floating on top. As does Dikongue, she sees her music as part of a new African wave she describes as "new music, new rhythms, a new kind of way to sing, and new sounds."

Similarly, Zaire's Kanza starts with the music of his own country and recasts it via the use of myriad sounds and styles from around the world, contemporizing without losing touch with the essential roots. His "Wapi Yo," on BMG, is filled with tracks that move easily from love songs to spiritual outpourings. "Beyond our so-called intelligence," Kanza sings in one number, "there are the spirits."

Lo ("Jammu Africa" on Mercury) from Senegal--more of a veteran than the others--was originally known for his work with Super Diamono, a mbalax band, and was often referred to as the "Bob Dylan of Senegal." His more recent outings, however, have moved strongly toward a soul-style expression. His songs, like those of the other members of the new African wave, often touch on the issues of racism, poverty and personal relationships. On "Jammu Africa," he sings one number--"Without Blame"--with English chanteuse Marianne Faithfull.

Diop may have one of the most gently sensitive voices of the emerging artists. On "No Sant" (Triloka), he frames it in settings that touch on an extraordinarily wide array of sources. Jazz saxophone, bagpipes, vocal choirs, talking drums and rap artists--to name only a few--drift in and through the backgrounds. On two tracks, Diop sings with Lena Fiagbe, performing songs that make frequent metaphoric references to his childhood.

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