Crunked Out of Africa 

A travelogue of indigenous sounds hopefully sneaking their way across the Atlantic soon.

Recently, Viacom announced plans for an MTV Africa channel, which -- like its European counterpart, and unlike its American parent -- will actually play music videos.

What took them so long?

Having just returned from a month's vacation in East Africa, I can personally attest to the presence of numerous music video outlets throughout the region on cable networks, like EATV (East African music and culture), ETV (Ethiopian programming), and Z Music (Indian music videos and Bollywood movies). There's also a Saudi-based satellite network showing a continuous assortment of Western movies unedited for language and with minimal commercial interruptions -- kinda like the way you wish TNT were.

Ever paid attention to how Western music sounds in foreign countries? Watching kids in a park listening to Jadakiss' "Why" and Mariah Carey's "It's Like That" takes on a different significance when that park is in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital. And Phil Collins' faux-Motown shtick demands to be seen in a new, respectable light when it comes on out of the blue at a cafe there. On the other hand, German techno (as heard at the Addis Sheraton's in-house club) still sucks.

Then there's the matter of how local music sounds to a foreigner. Traditional Ethiopian sounds -- heard live in a tiny nightclub in Bahar Dar, blaring from a tape stand somewhere in Addis, or wafting from a group of chanting monks in a remote Lalibela monastery -- seem strangely compelling and slightly mystical despite, or perhaps because of, the language barrier. Seen from a hotel-room TV in Zanzibar, an island off the coast of Tanzania, Indian pop culture continues to fascinate, although it's doubtful any Westerner will ever truly understand the overly dramatic, highly choreographed posing and constant hair-flipping of male singers whose music is a combination of Sinatra-esque big band crooning and '80s hair-metal clichés (David Lee Ramachandran, perhaps?).

Meanwhile, judging from EATV's programming, African rap has absorbed some of the clichés of its American counterpart, in particular an identification with the word "gangsta" and all that implies. However, from a musical standpoint, there's much more innovation happening in Africa, whose new-school griots are equally influenced by traditional tribal culture and urban street life. In both West and East African hip-hop styles, there's more melody, more polyphony, and a wider variety of instrumentation than in most American hip-hop. Also, many of the hallmarks associated with hip-hop and rap -- such as the call-and-response, and the emphasis on the drum -- have African origins, so it seems natural that young African artists identify with the genre.

Hip-hop may well represent the future of African music, but right now, reggae seems more ubiquitous -- you hear it more places, at least in East Africa. In Ethiopia, for example, the 4x4 tour vehicle drivers all seem to listen to dancehall, from classics by Supercat and Little Lenny to more recent material by Vybz Kartel and Bounty Killer. Still, despite decades of praise songs by Jamaican Rastafarians, not to mention an established Rasta community in Shashemene and numerous reggae-flavored dance clubs in Addis, an Amharic-language reggae scene is just now beginning to take off in Ethiopia, with artists like Lasta Sounds, Johnny Ragga, and Zekele (one of only two Abyssinian reggae artists with a CD out). Yet progress is slow but sure. In February, Addis' Meskal Square hosted Bob Marley's 60th birthday concert featuring Marley's wife and children and an undercard of indigenous artists, while Sean Paul's recent New Year's Eve concert at the Addis Sheraton may signal a burgeoning interest in dancehall among Ethiopia's young people.

Traveling south down the Rift Valley region to the Swahili coast, you'll find that traditional music, called taraab -- itself a mixture of Indian, Arabian, and African influences -- has evolved into a hip-hop- and reggae-inflected genre called "bongo flava." One night in the small Zanzibar village of Bweeju, I experienced what seemed like a familiar scene: a couple hundred young people in their teens and twenties, dancing and carrying on to loud music played by a DJ. The dance took place in a large room inside a bungalow on a white sand beach; the location could have easily been Miami, Negril, or Cancun. And while my ears recognized reggae artists like T.O.K., Third World, and Burning Spear, that maybe represented ten percent of what the DJ played -- the other ninety was pure bongo flava.

On another night, in the Stone Town district of the capital, Zanzibar Town, I got lost amidst labyrinthian side streets while looking for the Garage, a tourist-friendly spot recommended by the hotel concierge. Instead, I wandered into a place called the "New New Happy Club," where a throng of young Zanzibaris were getting crunk to the Swahili equivalent of hip-hop and dancehall -- with a touch of bhangra thrown in. It was perhaps 90 degrees outside; inside, the dancefloor felt like a nuclear blast zone. After maybe five minutes, I emerged for some fresh air, dripping sweat from every pore. It was awesome.

To date, much more West African than East African hip-hop has made its way across the Atlantic to our ears. However, the bongo flava movement appears to be just as talent-laden as what has emerged from the Francophone African countries. And unlike Amharic reggae, the scene is already well-represented by full-length recordings. In the duty-free shop at the Dar Es Salaam airport, I splurged on a stack of CDs, copping Masai Hip Hop by the X Plastaz (probably the best-known East African rap group), two Bongo Flava collections, a slightly mellower compilation called Zanzibar Mix Music, and full-lengths by Darubini Kali, A.Y., and Mangwair. I also picked up a CD containing the lightweight but infectious Swahili anthem "Jambo Jambo" by the Safari Sound Band, and a recent recording by octogenarian taraab diva Bi Kidude. Back home after a tedious 24-hour flight, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the music sounded as fresh and interesting in my living room as it did in its native land -- even without MTV's blessing.

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