West Africa's Music Enchants the West

By Humphries, Stephen | The Christian Science Monitor, June 6, 2008 | Go to article overview

West Africa's Music Enchants the West


Humphries, Stephen, The Christian Science Monitor


West Africa may be one of the poorest regions in the world but it boasts a natural resource of astonishing wealth: its music. In recent years, the aural riches of Mali, Niger, Senegal, and Gambia have been gaining currency in America and Europe through several ambassadors.

Take Niger's Etran Finatawa, for example. When the six-person band came to the United States in April, they weren't sure what sort of reception to expect given their exoticism. Half the band are Tuaregs who resemble Saharan astronauts in bright blue turbans; the others are Wodaabe tribesmen whose traditional dress consists of face paint, patterned tunic, and towering headdress feather. But when audiences heard the syncopated clapping, hand drums, and tribal chants that swirl around the centrifugal force of the guitarist's bluesy melodies, the response was ecstatic. Rave concert and album reviews followed in The New York Times and Rolling Stone magazine.

"I was really very surprised," says Sandra van Edig, the band's manager, in a phone interview from Africa. "The audience in those cities we played was very enthusiastic. More enthusiastic than the European audience, actually."

Though African music has penetrated Western consciousness in the past - most notably when Nigerian singer Fela Kuti broke through in the 1970s and, later, when Paul Simon introduced the world to Ladysmith Black Mambazo on the 1986 "Graceland" album - it is "back in vogue," according to Q magazine. The difference now is that the music is receiving sustained attention. Chalk that up to globalization. In an information age where niche genres can find a sustainable following, West African music in particular - with its accessible sounds ranging from trancey pop to unvarnished blues - is acquiring fans beyond the region's savannah and sand-dune belts.

"Of all the areas in Africa now, it's West Africa which has found the most sucessful fusion between contemporary and traditional styles," says Simon Broughton, editor of Songlines, a magazine about world music. "It does sound very different from Anglo-American pop music because there's a bounce and a swing to it, and fantastic instrumental play. And this warm, sunny side to it. Most people are not intimidated by it because it's not ethnic music - it's popular music which is very popular in West Africa and caters to a large, popular audience."

The region's high profile is evident on the tour circuit. American stages have welcomed the likes of songwriter Habib Koite and fellow Malians Salif Keita - known as "the golden voice of Africa" - and Vieux Farka Toure, whose father, Ali, was Africa's most famous guitarist. It's significant, too, that Amadou & Mariam, a blind Malian couple whose joyous pop has been feted by publications such as Entertainment Weekly, are playing Chicago's Lollapalooza festival. Another sign that "desert guitar" groups such as Etran Finatawa, Tinariwen, and Toumast are ueberhip: Online- music magazine Pitchfork recently posted a primer to "Rebel Blues in Africa."

There's a limit to such popularity, of course. It's fanciful to imagine Ryan Seacrest playing Orchestra Baobab on his radio show just because the Senegalese band garnered a glowing write up in Rolling Stone.

But the iPod generation is so attuned to diverse genres that many listeners are discovering world-music artists through other avenues. The soundtracks of films set in Africa, such as "The Constant Gardener" and "Blood Diamond," have played a role. New-media outlets ranging from MySpace to Afropop.org offer sound clips for curious explorers. On iTunes, numerous regional offerings include Oumou Sangare, Mali's top female singer. …

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