Matrix of modern music

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Africa has fascinated generations of musicians. Steve Reich, one of the leaders of the American school of Minimal music, was very interested in African percussions and he borrowed them extensively in his musical works “Drumming” and “Music For Eighteen Musicians”. He skillfully exploited the sonority of the drums and marimbas in an aesthetics style based on a graduated repetition. After his return from his first trip to Africa, he said: “it’s amazing! They do not write music, the mother teaches her daughter and the father teaches his son, and the music goes on.” In the world of the jazz, the Afro American musicians built bridges with Africa bringing together their respective musical esthetics to serve the “great black music” concept.

This has also concept brought together followers of free jazz, the first of which Art Together Of Chicago, but very quickly of the European artists joined them. And when white musicians like the French Louis Sclavis and Henri Texier and the Italian Aldo Romano leave record in Africa of the disc-objects like “African Continuation” and “African Flashback”, they perpetuate with their manner part of this inheritance.

Rock’n’roll musicians started showing their interest in African Music in the late sixties. Brian Jones, founder and original bandleader of the Rolling Stones played with «marimbas» (percussion instrument consisting of a set of wooden bars struck with mallets to produce musical tones) in the song “Under My Thumb”. He later produced an album with a Moroccan group (Master Musicians of Joujouka), in performance on 29 July 1968 in the village of Jajouka. Their millennial tradition intrigued generations of musicians, such as jazzmen Ornette Coleman and Randy Weston, and more recently un-classable musicians such as Talvin Singh. Great rock’n’roll figures like Jimmy Page and Robert Plant also played with Moroccan musicians. But in 1971, Ginger Baker the drummer from Cream, who already started his own group «Ginger Baker’s Airforce», was undoubtedly the first pop star to exploit the musical potential of the African continent. He went for a first trip to Nigeria and finally settled down in Lagos where he set up his own music studio. While arriving at Nigeria, the discovery of local music exceeded his expectations. He became friends with Fela Ransome Kuti, who was then unknown to the public. Filmmaker Tony Palmer captured this ”initiating” trip. We are indebted to him for precious archive images of Fela in a club of Calabar, a city in the east of the country, performing his musico-theatrical ritual where dance figures of his dancers echo the hypnotic afrobeat rhythms of his group.

Other rock’n’roll musicians pass culture on through their music, as Paul Simon who recorded with of South-Africans artists (Hugh Masekela, Mahotella Queens and Ladysmith Black Mambazo) in his album “Graceland” in the middle of the Eighties, well before Damon Albarn the leader of ”Blur and Gorilla” worked with Malians musicians. The artistic directors’ approach in their own recording companies, such as David Byrne who produced Angolan Waldemar Bastos on his music label Luaka Bop, or Peter Gabriel publishing on his «Real World» catalogue recordings of Ugandan musician Geoffrey Oryema and the Mauritanian Daby Touré. We are in a context of musical influences and fusion.

If we examine the family tree of “modern “music, it is difficult to say absolutely that blues music comes from Africa. There are strong grounds for believing that descendants of African slaves were the main creators of blues music.  Without their contribution, blues and most of the South and North American music, from the United States to Brazil via Caribbean Islands, would not have existed. There are striking similarities between Afro-American blues and African music. The griots of Mali describe their music as being “the wound of the soul”, the morna music of the Cap Verde is often described as “Atlantic blues”, and maloya music of the Reunion Island is described as “island blues”. In South Africa, «maskanda» music comes from the Zulu culture but it is very similar to the blues of the Mississippi. Ali Farka Touré, who will remain one of the biggest ambassadors of Mandingue music, was the creator of a music that many journalists described as being a kind of afro blues. While playing his music with a ’kora’, his singing style was very pure and meant for him the return to the music roots of his native land. On several occasions, he said that some of the recordings made by the ethnomusicologist Charles Duvelle for the French label record Ocora, helped him to find his musical inspiration. On the other hand, he opposed an energetic veto when one presented it like the heir to a hypothetical blues of the origins.

Saying that blues and jazz come from Africa is an interesting point of view. But things could be much more complex. There are of course a parallel evolution between music created on both sides of the Atlantic.  However, the socio-economic context makes it compulsory for musicians to use rudimentary instruments in their music. This forces them to minimize the role of music instruments and to emphasize the vocals. Only artists with a very particular tone of voice or with unique instrumental playing will distinguish themselves. These musicians have authenticity in common because all of them are telling true stories. A hypothesis was proposed to explain the fact that because black slaves did not have musical instruments and were prohibited singing, they lost the use of polyrhythm which was one of their original cultural characteristics. Then, the tempo of theirs songs slowed down because the music was rhymed by their work pace in the cotton field and expressed also their pain of living. In short, we can say that blues is an American music.

It is not African music, but its roots are certainly African. Moreover, from a musical point of view and more largely cultural, what does «authenticity» mean in this context ? It is in fact purely subjective, because there are many parameters and intermediaries between the production of the music by the artist, and the broadcasting to the public, even if  the music is purely traditional : the place of recording, the way it was recorded, «arrangements» or « realization» which can give an elaborated feel of the music which in reality does not exist initially, the way the music is presented, the public for which the music is intended, and many other factors. All these factors will have contradictory effects on the average public who listen to «world» music.

The public is fascinated by the «primitive» and «poor» sound and in the meantime by the outstanding sound made from advanced audio technologies. Let us not forget that greatest African music hits from Mali, Senegal or other countries went through a marketing process just like all «traditional», rock’n’roll, jazz or rap hits. From a disco graphic point of view, «Desert Blues» and «Golden Africa», which were at the same time disc records and beautiful objects of the nineties, are both good examples. This being acknowledged, we can assert that African music has certainly played a major role in the evolution of «modern» music. Jazz music clearly found its authentic identity in the African music, while all other music styles such as «groove» music, dance floor music, and electro music (see works of Frederic Galliano who set up his own label Frikyiwa), inspired from the African rhythms with in line of sight an appropriation of afrobeat. As for rap music, it is simply regenerating itself in the African music. Congolese artist «So Kalmery» devotes himself to teach «brakka», the music of his native land, to young Africans who live in Paris. He describes it as an ancestral tradition but also a «fighting» dance. He adds: « Brakka was the hip hop in African societies well ahead of time »