Not AfroPop! Afro Rock!

Not AfroPop! Afro Rock!

At last! A music festival that treats AfroPop as a melting Good Humor Thing. Last weekend’s Malawi Music Festival did it right.

The music of Africa has never been just drums and air blown through hollowed out animal horns bashed away on xylophones. And in Malawi, they just proved it!

Human voice in vibrant, distinctive exhalations is something the west has successfully adopted into its own music for centuries. And for the last generations good African musicians have been sticking punk into reggae!

Malawi hasn’t been a place for great African music festivals. In the past it was South Africa, Nigeria and Mali, more or less in that order. And South Africa will always dominate African music. But Nigeria is too complicated and Mali is now too unsafe.

So taking up the slack this year was Malawi’s Lake of the Stars. And what I particularly liked about it was they didn’t pretend to be AfroPop. This ridiculous notion that AfroPop is something discovered homegrown, sort of like a baobab tree, is nonsense. Modern African music has been a very recent work in progress, including so-called AfroPop, and is heavily influenced by the west, Britain especially.

The Lake of the Stars featured this perfectly. Not only were the great African stars included, but also western stars whose music is considered heavily influenced by African artists.

It is a two-way stage.

I’ll let you decide as you enjoy:

Peter Mawanga, a home-grown Malawian about as far away from AfroPop as Chicago is from Dakar. Great music. And his video really shows how modern life works its way into times of old.

Nyali is fantastic. This video explains specifically how they are trying to mix African culture into (in their words) “modern instruments” and music. What I find really interesting is a definite Arab cum-Egyptian vocal style.

Fabulous reggae by Malawian Chiozo. And the lyrics of this song explain why modern music anywhere, even Africa, will always be influenced by the west, for it was the west that conscripted Reggae and turned it into Chiozo’s style. (Go on YouTube to hear a blastful of Chiozo singing Frank Sinatra!)

Representing Big Time, the Noisettes, one of the UK’s 6th most popular bands according to Entertainment Weekly, came to the lake with their remarkable mix of reggae and early rock. The band has morphed from wild and crazy to a style that today evokes a close kinship with African love songs.

Now I’m not sure I like this. Oliver Mtukudzi-Raki : traditional African songs mixed (sometimes too mixed) into mixtures of mixed modern instrumentalism. It’s too mixed up for me, but he’s incredibly popular.

Sam Duckworth: Get Cape Wear Cape Fly. After a run-in with a conservative British politician several years ago, the British rock star Sam Duckworth became a converted political radical. His free concerts for poverty eradication at home and abroad have gained him international billings, but Africans feel some of his earliest music (D.A.N.C.E., in particular) shows a deep African affiliation.

There weren’t too many traditional performers, but here’s one. Aly Keita is from the Ivory coast and is famous for making his own xylophone-like instrument as a modern version of an ancient African hollow flute drum.

I hope like me, many of you won’t like this. But the point is that from the earliest bands in Africa, disco prevailed: Reverend and the Makers. Disco to me it is, no matter how interrupted the tempo or beautiful the video. AND disco will forever be in the African soul.

The epitome of the amalgam of Africa and the west is Afrikan Boy. From Nigeria, he’s made it big in the U.K., and now sends it all back home.

Zimbabwean Tinashe is widely considered to be the next rising star. This particular video is before he was signed by Island Records. You can go on YouTube to see how they polished him up, but I think this original is better.

The Sound of Somalia

The Sound of Somalia

Who Represents Somalia?

By Conor Godfrey

On April 3rd, Hizbul-Islam gave Somali radio stations 10 days to stop playing music—or else.

The latest bit of absurdity was most likely an effort to prove that they are as resolutely against culture as their erstwhile partners-cum rivals al-Shabaab.

Of course al-Shabaab would most likely agree with this ban if they were not too busy using the radio stations in question to preach jihad against Westerners and the transitional government.

If music goes against the grain of Hizbul-Islam’s draconian interpretation of Islam, that only shows how out of touch Hizbul-Islam is with Somali culture.

Music played a celebrated role in Somali culture before the arrival of Islam and has continued to do so ever since.

My introduction to modern Somali music came through K’naan , the Somali born rapper from Toronto.

Singing mostly in English, but weaving in words from Somali, Arabic, and even the odd word in Swahili, his lyrical prowess puts him in the same league as American rappers like Lupe Fiasco and Mos Def.

On his second album “Troubadour,” K’naan splits his time between telling stories from his childhood in “Fatima” and “People Like Me”, talking about his aspirations for Somalia and Africa in “Wavin’ Flag” and “Somalia”, and cranking out fast paced dance hits like “Dreamer” and “I Come Prepared”.

K’naan is hardly alone.

Somali-Jazz phenom Maryam Mursal walked across the horn of African with five small children in tow to escape the civil war only to become a world-music mega star on Peter Gabriel’s Real World music label.

I just listened to her album “Journey” all the way through and almost felt moved to thank HIzbul-Islam for giving me the excuse to discover her

To the uninitiated (like me) her rhythms sound vaguely Arab, but the driving beat gives her music a trance-like quality that makes for a truly heightened listening experience.

Sample some of her music here.

Before the war shattered the professional music scene, the Somali National Theatre supported groups like Waaberi.

This traditional music super-group in turn launched the careers of several prominent Somali musicians including Abdullahi Qarshe, Hasan Adan Samatar, and of course Maryam Mursal.

Listen to Waaberi’s sound.

Today, a modern Somali pop music dominates the scene, along with foreign music from the Somali diaspora, America and the Middle East.

However, traditional musicians continue to play at ceremonies and other important events.

In exile, the diaspora continues to pump out music, of which K’naan is merely the most commercially successful example.

Websites like and others help musicians and their music reach compatriots at home.

I hate the thought that Hizbul-Islam and al-Shabaab might represent Somalia.

Next time the extremists steal the headlines I hope you listen to Maryam Mursal and let her sound, the sound of Somalia, drown out the drivel coming from Hizbul-Islam.

Must See: Habib Koite & Bamada – Live in the U.S.

Must See: Habib Koite & Bamada – Live in the U.S.

Traditional Music Resonates Today
Traditional Music Resonates Today

By Conor Godfrey

This month Habib Koite and his group Bamada will be playing in venues across the U.S.—you must not miss them.

Before I rave about Habib’s music, we should talk about the Griot tradition he comes from.

When I first arrived in Guinea, I stayed with a Malinke family (an ethnic group prevalent in Northern Guinea, Southern Mali, and the Northern Ivory Coast).

As an adopted son of this family, I was given the name Mamadi Dioubate. Mamadi is simply the name Mohamed re-engineered to fit the phonetics of the Malinke language. The history of Dioubate however, is the history of the West African Griot.

The following story was first related to me by another Peace Corps volunteer baptized a Dioubate, and subsequently recounted numerous times by Guineans and Malians with both major and minor variations to the story.

Listen to some balafon music while you read the story…

‘Sundiata Keita was the founder and most celebrated king of the Malian Empire. He also possessed the most famous balafon in the whole of the empire.

His balafon was made of ebony from the Central Africa forest, ivory, teak, and all the best materials the empire could offer, and no one could touch the balafon but Sundiata.

One day as Sundiata and his retinue rode out from his compound they heard stunningly beautiful balafon music coming from the Emperor’s compound.

Two things were immediately apparent. First: the music was coming from the Sundiata’s personal balafon. Second: the doomed soul playing it was beyond a doubt the best player in the empire.

So Sundiata and his followers turned around and followed the music back to the compound where Sundiata planed to kill the upstart. The emperor left his retinue outside and entered the room with the balafone.

There he confronted a peasant playing the balafon with such skill and beauty that even he, the emperor, could not have hoped to compete. Eventually the music petered out as the player realized his time was up.

Just as Sundiata opened his mouth to condemn the man the player took up the balafon mallets and started praising the emperor in time with the music.

He sang about how just Sundiata was, and how generous. He sang about how healthy the empire was, and how well Sundiata guided his people.

After a few minutes of this effusive and articulate praise, Sundiata made up his mind. He would not kill this peasant.

Instead the man would become his official praiser, following him across the emperor to extoll Sundiata’s virtues to his subjects. And thus was born the Griot tradition….

According to my older Malinke brother, Dioubate is a modern corruption of this original Griot’s family name.

Today numerous “Griot” families claim this legend or one of its variations as their founding myth.

Whether Dioubates or Cissokkos or Sussos formed the original caste of Griots, the Griot tradition is alive and well across West Africa.

From Mali down to the Ivory Coast all the way up to Western Sahara, Griots act as the keepers of oral tradition, entertainment at weddings and baptisms, and current affairs pundits.

In my village on Thursday nights, people showed up at the local youth center in droves to dance the Marmayia to traditional music played by Griots. (Until the local elder banned them; village rumor mill said his wives were having too much fun at the dances)

Habib Koite and countless other West African singers keep this tradition alive.

He sings mostly in Bambara (a Malian national language), and to a lesser extent in French, though he experiments with other Malian dialects and sometimes will even switch into English.

Habib blends regional styles from across Mali as well as incorporating flamenco rhythms and guitar from the Afro-Cuban tradition.

He is the darling of American stars like Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt, has been featured in Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair, and he even made an appearance on David Letterman.

I saw Habib & Bamada in Bamako, Mali and it was one of the best live performances I have ever seen.

Most Americans listen to world music because it intrigues them; the music uses new sounds and might produce a new and interesting mood.

People play world music in the kitchen while doing something else, or in the background of a cocktail party to lend the apartment a certain exoticism.

Habib’s music goes well beyond the merely ‘different’, or ‘interesting’—it will blow you away. You will soon be reaching for his CD in your car and trying your best to sing along in Bambara.

Watch a Burkina Native make the Balafon talk.

Concert schedule.

A great example of Soulful Habib Koite: N’Terri