In their shesh head wraps and long flowing neck-to-toe bubus they are striking. When you add electric guitars, their on-stage presence is riveting. And then Tinariwen’s hypnotic sound transports the standing crowd to the ochre, wind-swept sands of Mali.
Tinariwen’s rise from Taureg desert fighters to a nomadic world-touring band producing Grammy-award winning music is not totally unique on Africa’s contemporary music scene. Several of Africa’s top artists have made it onto the stages of Europe and America after being exiles in their own countries. Rock musicians have always been synonymous with rebellion, but in Africa it can come with a heavy metal price tag. The threat of batons and guns has tried to silence the music of several legends including, South Africa’s Miriam Makeba, Nigeria’s Fela Kuti and Congo’s Tabu Ley Rocherou. Their music outlived the regimes that threatened them and transitioned to the current African music generation, now at the center of the world music scene.
Africa’s polytonality and polyrhythms have been roots for the jazz and blues movements in the U.S. and played a role in shaping the seminal British rock bands that rose in the 1960s. Today’s top African acts offer a wide range of styles and instrumentation. They are influenced by the earlier African bands as well as the sounds emanating from Europe and America. Despite the many repressive regimes and problems throughout the continent, today’s music is less overtly political and is uplifting, according to some music critics.
“As the international mood gets grimmer, African music celebrates the positive. Wasted sneers and pallid pouts are out – big, beautiful, sexy smiles are in,” wrote the London Telegraph’s music critic Mark Hudson before the start of the 2008 WOMAD festival. That festival featured a dozen African groups including punky Algerian bad boy Rachid Taha, Senegal’s Renaissance man Wasis Diop and Seun Kuti. It was Kuti’s father Fela and his Afrobeat cry for freedom that set the continent’s musical torch aflame in the 1970s.
Music is the Weapon
Nigeria’s repressive military regimes couldn’t stop Fela Kuti, although it wasn’t for lack of trying. Kuti emerged in the late 1970s as Nigeria’s biggest pop act as his band Africa ‘70 played nightly at his hotel night clubs. Kuti’s message for Nigeria was to throw off local black oppression and it infuriated the generals. Kuti’s in-your-face style also incensed the church and the business establishment. He often led his orchestra bare-chested sometimes in his bikini underwear with a mike in his left hand and a cigarette in his right. His face was painted in traditional Yoruba mask designs and his dancing “queens” were in brief native attire and face paint.
Kuti played several instruments and was the lead singer for his Egypt ‘80 band. He was a solid sax and keyboard player who could riff in and out of jazz, funk and blues. When the army sent 1,000 soldiers to raid his Kalakuta Republic commune, his mother died after she was thrown out of a window. Kuti was severely beaten, but survived. Instead of relocating to Paris as many imperiled African musicians did, he stayed, formed a political party and ran for president.
Kuti’s songs blamed Nigeria’s poverty on corrupt local strongmen who were as detrimental to Africa as the invasion of 19th century European colonialists and 20th century multi-national corporations, who also got flak in his songs. His successful tours in Europe and America paid for his over the top lifestyle. He married 26 of his singers and dancers in a combined ceremony and it may have been that liberal lifestyle that silenced him, but not his music.
Although he died of AIDS in 1997, his youngest son Seun carries the musical torch with many of his father’s Egypt ‘80 band members who tour with him. In 2011, Seun recorded “From Africa with Fury: Rise.” During the Occupy Nigeria 2012 protests, Seun channeled his father’s spirit participating in the events.
The Desert Boys
The Sahel’s Taureg have sought an independent state for hundreds of years and although their frequent rebellions haven’t achieved it, their music has spilled onto the world’s stage in the last ten years.
When he was four, Ibrahim Ag Alhabib saw his rebel father executed. He grew up in refugee camps but was inspired by guitar music when he saw a western cowboy film and put together his first guitar out of tin cans and bike brake wire. In 1980 he was among the young Taureg fighters Muammar al-Gaddafi recruited and trained for his elite Sahara regimen. During the 1990 Mali civil war Alhabib returned to his homeland after living in exile for 26 years and fought against the government.
Following the war, Alhabib and his war buddies hung up their rifles to become full time musicians. Their music was a synthesis of new West African music blended with traditional Taureg melodies that employ a shepherd’s flute, a one string fiddle and a lute. Berber music from Algeria as well as pop sounds from there added to this idiosyncratic brew. Throw in the blues influence of Mali’s classic bluesman, Ali Farka Toure and Tinariwen had finally arrived as a global band.
With the release of Tassili in 2011, Tinariwen captured the best world music Grammy and the band is now currently touring the world, much in the Taureg nomadic tradition.
A byproduct of South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement was the rise of Miriam Makeba and her influence on today’s African diva super-star, Angelique Kidjo.
Makeba spent the first six months of her life in jail after her mother was arrested. Her singing led her to form an all-woman group, The Sky Larks that blended jazz with traditional African melodies. By the late 1950s she was appearing in the U.S. where Harry Belafonte championed her music and the anti-apartheid movement. After appearing in an anti-apartheid documentary, her passport was revoked when she tried to reenter South Africa in 1960. She would perform in exile for three decades, but South Africa’s loss was the world’s gain. She birthed the world music pop movement introducing the U.S. and Europe to contemporary South African music, and with Belafonte, won a Grammy in 1966.
When she married black power activist Stokely Carmichael in 1968, her U.S. career suffered. She lived in Guinea in exile from both South Africa and the U.S. and it wasn’t until Paul Simon’s Graceland album in 1986 that her U.S. career was resurrected. Her music never stopped being popular in Africa. Her death at 76 in 2008 while performing in Italy was not the end of her music. A budding crop of young African female singers used Makeba’s success to inspire them and their success remains part of her powerful legacy.
Angelique Kidjo grew up in Benin, and at eight started singing Makeba’s songs that her mother played. Makeba’s “The Retreat Song” became an anthem for the Benin’s women’s rights movement and Kidjo’s mother took the song’s melody and wrote lyrics for it in Benin’s Fon language. Kidjo adopted several Makeba songs during her radio debut in Benin and when her own career blossomed she performed on stage with the South African diva who she credited with her own musical development.
“Thanks to South African music, I came to integrate harmonies in my work. In southern Benin, where I come from, music is extremely linear. But thanks to Miriam Makeba I broadened my horizons and when I write my songs today I treat the backing vocals as an instrumental part, building them up like South African choirs,” Kidjo told RFI Musique, a French website prior to her tribute concert for Makeba in Paris in 2009. The event also featured contemporary African divas Mali’s Rokia Traore, Nigeria’s Ayo and Cote d’Ivoire’s Dobet Gnahore.
When Tusker founder Eddie Frank traversed Africa in the 1970s and 1980s, through Cameroon, Nigeria, Niger, Mali and Ghana, he would hear incredible music blasting onto the streets from cafes and bars. It would lead to a love affair with the continent’s music that he collected and then shared for a decade with radio listeners in Southern California. From 1979-1989 Frank’s Jungle Throb collection of records, aired regularly on the “African Beat”, a radio show on KCRW-FM. His collection featured the sounds of many of the lesser known bands and singers he discovered on his road trips that included The Bhundu Boys, Celestine Ukwu, The Four Stars and Congo’s Sam Mangwana.
“It was a different era, before the world became digitized, before everything was online or on Google. You had to make an effort to hear the music, and a community formed around it,” Frank recalls.
That community has morphed through technology to become less intimate but no less enthused for the unquenchable African sound that oppressive politics could never extinguish.