Monday, April 15, 2013

Joyful Noise: Pop Culture in Africa


By Jenni Gate

From some of the least hopeful places on the planet comes some of the most hopeful music. Throughout Africa, the trend in pop culture is for musicians to uplift and inspire, with folk instruments, upbeat rhythms, and lyrics.  They sing of their own transitions from desolation to optimism, or give tribute to the struggles of their compatriots.


BOMBINO Photo: By Modiba Productions (CC-BY-SA-3.0)
Last week, Bombino, one of Africa’s fastest-rising musicians, released the album Nomad to critical acclaim. The album was produced by Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys, and the result is mesmerizing. Omara Bombino Moctar is a Tuareg born in Niger in 1980 in the midst of cultural and political upheaval. The Tuareg are a nomadic ethnic group common throughout northern Africa from Burkina Faso to Mali, Niger, Algeria, and Libya. Due to their nomadic lifestyle, they have been the subject of violent suppression since the days of colonialism. With North African governments seeking to restrict their movements as population growth stresses the desert environment, the Tuareg have found themselves marginalized and repressed. This led to several uprisings and reprisals from the 1960s through the present. Bombino grew up in the midst of violence. His family was forced to flee Niger several times to neighboring Algeria and later to Libya. During his years in exile, Bombino taught himself to play the guitar, watching videos of Mark Knopfler, Jimi Hendrix and others until he mastered their styles. In 2007, the government of Niger outlawed the guitar and executed two musicians, forcing Bombino to flee once again. His sound is electrifying with a voice like butter accompanying high-energy guitar and in the process encapsulating the sounds of rebellion and optimism. His music speaks of peace and rights for the Tuaregs spread throughout the Sahara.

This video about the making of Nomad includes background about Bombino and the history of the Tuareg people: 

Watch Bombino’s performance of a simple, yet beautiful Tuareg dedication song:

Listen to sample tracks from the album Nomad and discover more about this fascinating nomadic musician here: 

http://www.allmusic.com/album/nomad-mw0002494357
 

Photo: Harry Wad, CC by SA 3.0
Africa’s most inspiring musical couple is Amadou and Mariam. Amadou Bagayoko became blind at the age of 16, and Mariam Doumbia lost her sight at age 5 due to measles. Amadou and Mariam, both from Bamako, Mali, met in 1975 at an institute for the blind. They married in 1980 and began touring, recording, and playing at festivals worldwide. A 2004 collaboration with Manu Chao, a world-famous Latin musician, to produce the album Dimanche à Bamako propelled the couple to worldwide fame. Their music blends rock and blues with traditional Mali, Middle Eastern, and Indian instruments. Their French lyrics uplift and inspire, giving hope for the downtrodden of Mali. Many of their songs are love songs, like Je Pense à Toi. Themes of friendship, happiness, and community infuse their music.

In the midst of the current conflict in Mali, the couple has joined with several other musicians to speak out against the violence. See the story about this effort at: http://www.npr.org/blogs/allsongs/2013/01/18/169730172/watch-a-supergroup-from-mali-sing-for-peace

Je Pense à Toi:




A recent video about the current political situation in Mali:




Watch and listen to their official videos and songs here: http://www.youtube.com/amadouandmariam


Baloji. Photo: by Peter Forret, CC by 2.0
An edgy R&B rapper is making a mark on the African and European music scenes with a compelling personal story of triumph over adversity. Baloji, whose name means sorcerer in Swahili, was born in 1978 in Lubumbashi, Congo to a Congolese mother and Belgian father. When he was 3, his mother sent him to live in Belgium with his father. His father lost his fortune in Congolese investments when Baloji was 7 and deserted him. Baloji grew up in a school for delinquent children run by nuns. Angry, alienated, and out of sync with mainstream Belgian culture, he ran away at age 15 and joined a rap group. The group eventually became known as Starflam. They cut an album, Survivant, in 2001 that went platinum. Due to disagreements, Baloji quit the group in 2004, turning his back on music altogether.

Out of the blue, he received a letter from his mother who had not been in contact since 1981. His mother commented in her letter that when she sent him to Belgium she had intentionally sent him to the land of Marvin Gaye. Baloji deeply considered that musical legacy contrasted with the current condition of people in war-torn Congo. He realized that his life perspective was skewed. Rather than being a victim of a cross cultural childhood, he was fortunate to have escaped the intense poverty and violence of the Congo. When they spoke by phone, his mother asked him what he’d been doing for all the years they were apart. He produced his first solo album, Hotel Impala as a way to respond with the highlights of his life. Compelled to return to Kinshasa, a city built for 500,000 people but now home to over 12 million, he began a journey of exploration and self-discovery. Music in the Congo had not changed much in 25 years. Caught up in the feverish energy of the city, Baloji turned his confused cross-cultural identity into a strength. In just six days, he recorded the album Kinshasa Succursale with Congolese bands Konono No 1 and Zaiko Langa Langa. The album reworked several songs from Hotel Impala with several new songs, all blending Congolese instruments and rhythms. Gritty music videos were filmed on the streets of Kinshasa.

Karibou Ya Bintou (meaning Welcome to Limbo) is the signature track. It tells the tale of how he evolved from an angry young man to a music sorcerer, a creative spirit fully engaged with his cultural identity. Here is the video with English subtitles [for mature audiences only]:


Mellower sounds abound in Le Jour d’Après, which harkens back to the more constrained musical days of Independence.



If you happen to be in Britain this summer, catch a train tour called the African Express. About 80 musicians, including Amadou and Mariam and Baloji, are riding a train across country to promote the best in African music. Many of these artists have compelling personal stories, coming from war-torn areas, or overcoming lives of turmoil. http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2012/aug/26/africa-express-bound-for-glory

7 comments:

  1. Love it! Being from Chicago, I hear so much of the blues in Amadou and Mariam's music...they would be right at home on the Maxwell Street of old, or in a club there today. Thanks for the fascinating post!

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  2. Thanks Kelly. They have been one of my favorites for a few years now. I find myself walking around with their tunes in my head all the time. :)

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  3. Unfortunately I'm not on my PC, so I can't watch the videos.

    That's terrible what happened to those musicians and that guitar playing was illegal.

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    1. Thanks Stina. It is terrible. The government of Niger apparently felt that the guitar and folk music in general were the source of radical ideas that could be a threat to the regime.

      I hope you have an opportunity to listen to some of their music at some point. :)

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  4. What an exhilarating post! I've spent a fair amount of time in West and North Africa but didn't know any of these musicians. Thanks. (I've tried to post this comment three times; I hope it only goes through once.)

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  5. Hi Carole, thank you so much for persisting to post your comment! I'm so glad you did. And happy that it helped you find the music. I was born in North Africa and lived in West Africa as well. Nice to "meet" you. :)

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  6. It's a sad situation when guitars are outlawed.

    Thanks for introducing us to a whole host of musicians!

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