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Musical diversity is the pulse of Africa

Think you know the sound of this continent? It's time to listen again. Home-grown and global impulses are interacting in dynamic ways.

March 22, 2009|ANN POWERS | POP MUSIC CRITIC

What does the phrase "African music" mean to most Americans? Light-spirited guitar lines made danceable by polyrhythmic talking drums; big bands led by tall men in regal garb, smiling as women in bright headdresses dance behind them.

In the two decades since rock stars such as Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel enlivened their music with an African tinge, a stereotype has formed, created by those crossover hits, many charity concerts and "The Lion King": an ethnographically rich pageant, politically relevant but somehow separate from the rest of pop.

Now, as part of a movement toward a truly global music marketplace, the American cliche of African music is falling apart -- or, really, exploding. Greats like Senegal's Youssou N'Dour and Mali's Oumou Sangare maintain fruitful careers within the usual avenues of what's become known as "world music." But a new wave of artists and archival releases is exposing the diversity of sound that's always been the African reality.

In the past few months, a select group of African artists has made its way to America to promote new releases or play shows. In conversations held in hotel bars or over the telephone with a translator at hand, they've discussed their relationships to tradition and to globalization, and their hopes for making music at home and for a worldwide audience. And they aren't all wearing those bright colors we know so well.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, March 27, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
African music: An article about African music in Sunday's Arts & Books section identified James Diener as chief executive and president of Octone Records. His correct title is chief executive and president of A&M/Octone Records.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, March 29, 2009 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part D Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
African music: An article last Sunday about African music identified James Diener as CEO and president of Octone Records. His correct title is CEO and president of A&M/Octone Records.

"For me that's not really how it is," said 44-year-old South African star Vusi Mahlasela, who has released two albums on Dave Matthews' ATO label in recent years. Mahlasela's storytelling gifts and glistening tenor have gained him a cult audience around the world; he even performed at the world's most elite nerd-fest, the TED conference, in 2003. "I have been going on stage with T-shirts and jeans. I don't need to project that identity because my skin tells it all."

Rokia Traore might agree. "I never have done traditional music, because I can't," said the 35-year-old Malian singer-songwriter during a chat about "Tchamantche," her gorgeous, electric-guitar-focused second album for Nonesuch, released in February. "I don't know how to think and how to compose in that language. There are some schools for that, and I didn't have this chance to learn this music. My style is unusual, and in Mali I have a special career."

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Changes of address

Traore grew up a diplomat's daughter, traveling the globe. Fluent in Bambara and French, she sings one song in English on "Tchamantche" -- a cover of George Gershwin's "The Man I Love" that recalls the best work of jazz queen Cassandra Wilson.

"I started listening to American traditional blues, jazz and R&B when I was 5," said Traore. "I was listening to this the same time as I discovered African music. To say that the blues began in Africa, everybody knew about that. And African music comes back to American blues for people like me."

Amadou & Mariam, the blind married couple from Mali whose career-changing 2005 album, "Dimanche a Bamako," helped define the current African shift, have a similar relationship to their homeland and the world. Their new album, "Welcome to Mali," was partly produced by Brit-pop elder Damon Albarn and takes their "Afro-blues" sound into unexpected corners.

"The way we are doing this music is a positive side of globalization," said Amadou Bagayoko in a phone call from London, promoting the American release of "Welcome to Mali," coming March 24 on Nonesuch. "For us to be able to collaborate with people from different cultures is good. We're still doing our own music, but we are open to others."

For Somali-born, Toronto-based hip-hop artist K'Naan, "African music" can't be contained by any one definition -- and not even by the boundaries of the continent itself. "Troubadour," his just-released second album and debut on the A&M/Octone label, incorporates samples of vintage Ethiopian funk along with reggae, rap and even hard rock influences. Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett solos on one cut.

"In my music, I do address Africa in general," said K'Naan, 30, in Hollywood last month for a date at the Roxy. "I address Somalia more specifically because I know it more intimately. I was made in that stream. I owe a debt and gratitude to that world. But I think there is no real start and stop between being African and being an immigrant. My spirit is obsessed with movement, and the distance that is caused by the movement. So I never allow myself to feel at home anywhere."

Nowhere outside its own boundaries is the African idea of "home" more fraught than it is in America. The fundamental links among African music, jazz and the blues were forged through the slave trade and have been well documented. Another parallel emerged during the 1960s, when South African exiles Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela came to represent the civil rights struggle on a global scale.

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