Dancing to a different beat
The Troxy in east London and 2 500 pairs of hands are in the air. It’s been four years since the R&B duo P-Square played Britain.
They’re household names back home in Lagos, were named artist of the year at this year’s Kora African music awards in Burkina Faso and the brothers’ hook-driven blend of Western and African rhythms has brought London’s Nigerian community out in force.
“They’re just so wicked, man,” says a teary-eyed twentysomething over screams. “Where’ve you been?” she asks, incredulous when I tell her I’ve only just discovered them.
Lately I’ve been looking for African artists other than those beloved of the world-music scene, which has had the West African colossuses Salif Keita, Baaba Maal and Youssou N’Dour on heavy rotation for years. When they—and the likes of the Gibson-toting Malian chanteuse Rokia Traore, the funky Congolese veterans Staff Benda Bilili and the red clay-smeared Ivorian diva Dobet Gnahore—come to Britain, they play to crowds that are largely white and middle class, with little sign of the African diaspora.
So there must be a whole other bunch of African artists to whom Britain’s African communities are listening.
Of course there are, says music promoter Biyi Adepegba, whose company Joyful Noise presents the annual London African music festival. “There are two different societies around this one genre of music,” says Adepegba, who founded Joyful Noise in 1990 with his business partner Barbara Pukwana, the former wife of the late South African saxophonist Dudu Pukwana. “There’s the concert-hall market run by a European network of promoters and agents and an underground market, which can fill the Troxy or the O2 Indigo. It’s very difficult to bring them together.”
Right across London—in Peckham to the south, Hackney and Leytonstone to the east and along the Old Kent Road—a host of African communities enjoy music made by artists whom your average world music fan hasn’t a clue about. Artists such as Congolese crooner Koffi Olomide and his jaunty soukous stylings, or Nigerian fuji star King Wasiu Ayinde, a man who sells more than three million copies of each album he releases (both played the London African music festival in 2007). If this audience is listening to N’Dour at all, it’s to the hard, fast recordings he churns out for the home market, not the more diverse and polished discs he makes for the West.
“When you visit clubs in Africa, what you usually get is African dance rhythms mixed with drum machines and synthesisers,” says world-music promoter and producer Maurice Dezou, a Middlesbrough-based Ivorian. “No one minds that the sound quality is dodgy or that it can often sound like bad Seventies pop. People just want to sing and dance along.”
The African music that does well on the world-music circuit is usually that perceived by white audiences as more authentic, meaning free from the influence of contemporary Western pop: Toumani Diabate’s multitextured kora playing. Oumou Sangare’s jittery wassoulou music with its kamelengoni (12-string harp-lute) hunters’ harp. The desert blues of the guitar-toting Tuareg band Tinariwen, whose members come dressed in indigo-dyed robes and turbans. Music that feels slightly exotic, but vaguely familiar.
Earlier this year the African Soul Rebels’ tour of the United Kingdom arts centres was roundly criticised for including the South African post-punk electro outfit Kalahari Surfers on the bill alongside Sangare and the Beninese funksters Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou. “African music should have call-and-response vocals and polyrhythms aplenty,” wrote Howard Male at theartsdesk.com. “And at least one vegetable-based percussion instrument.”
The term “world music” was only ever coined as a marketing tool for artists overlooked by the record-buying public; the story of its invention—in a north London pub in 1987—is well documented. “If ‘world music’ means anything,” said the late BBC broadcaster and world music champion, Charlie Gillett, “it’s about music made for domestic consumption, which then has an appeal outside its intended audience.” That appeal is now so widespread that the term has arguably outlived its usefulness. And world music has created its own mainstream of music, the primary audience of which is not domestic but international.
Last week the Albany theatre in south London (in Deptford, an area with a large African community) was privy to hundreds of expat Ivorians marking 50 years of independence with a free concert by artists far from the world-music mainstream, including Awilo, DenverDenver and IceTCool. The vibe was upbeat, synthesiser-happy; the dress code seemed to be lycra. “There’s African music going on all over Britain all of the time,” says Adepegba.
“Everywhere from churches and community halls to bars, clubs and stadiums.
‘Most concerts run for three or four hours like they do in Africa. Some of them go all night.” All of which is a far cry from the concerts promoted in the mainstream media to white audiences, many of which—as Dezou points out—are priced beyond the means of the African diaspora, especially those who came here as refugees.
Atif Malik, events manager at the Troxy, is content to bypass the mainstream media entirely when promoting acts from Africa; hence the invisibility of this music to the crowds at the Barbican or the Southbank Centre. “Our promoters don’t see much point in going for that sort of coverage,” he says. “If we’ve got a Nigerian act like P-Square playing, it makes more sense to target Nigerian publications, Nigerian radio stations, Nigerian TV channels and Nigerian community centres. As long as we start far enough in advance, that’s where our ticket sales will come from.”
Nonetheless, in the same way that, say, big-name Australian acts play huge London venues full of homesick Aussies, then go back with exactly the same UK profile they arrived with, there are African artists who would rather not perform to the diaspora for that reason.
“Britain’s African community might want to go to a concert and feel like they’re back home,” says Dezou, “but what good does that do a visiting artist? They want to play to European audiences. They want their music to be worldwide. Koffi Olomide would secretly love to be a huge star in the West like Youssou. But he never will be, because the world-music critics hate him.”
Hip-hop and the musics that have adopted and adapted it—hip-life from Ghana, kwaito from South Africa—are some of the few areas where world music and African audiences overlap. But this is more of a generational thing; in the same way young British Nigerians wouldn’t be caught dead at a King Wasiu Ayinde gig, you’d be hard-pressed to find your archetypal world-music fan nodding along to Tinchy Stryder.
Well, not unless he plays the Womad festival (UK). But even that bastion of world-music respectability provides proof that modern African pop can appeal to a Western audience, if only they get to hear the music. “When we played Womad a few years back,” says the London-based Nigerian rapper JJC, “we had this crowd that was like 95% white and 5% black going wild, really crazy. They felt just like the naijas [Nigerians] I get at venues like the Troxy, the ones who follow me on Facebook, MySpace and YouTube. The vibe was no different.”—