In my last long post, I wrote about some of the DJs who are helping direct the tastes for African music in the U.S./European market. They didn’t seem to like stuff that was too ‘world music’ sounding, but preferred more raw electronic beats.
Recently I’ve found someone on the opposite end of the critical Westerner’s taste spectrum at the World Service Blog (via the Matsuli Blog) complaining about the use of ‘Western’ marketing terms like Funk and Disco to sell African music. The traditional as authentic argument for music is something that can be quite bothersome for me. Sometimes I slip into such criticisms per my tastes (I’m not too keen on revival music that tries to make a copy of older styles without really innovating in any way) but generally believe if someone wants to be something let them be it, as long as it doesn’t infringe on another person’s right to be what they want to be. Everything is an authentic representation of something, right? At the same time, I understand that things can get a little fuzzy and a lot more controversial when considering issues such as access to material resources, a history of colonialism, and general privilege.
These are all sentiments that are familiar from the days when I was actively participating in the discussions spurred on by Matt at Benn Loxo du Taccu. Since I’ve gotten into producing myself, I’ve had conversataions with friends, like Rapper Chosan, who have expressed annoyance at the defining by ‘Westerners’ of African hip hop as a beat with African percussion on top. Something I’ve been reading recently seems to tie all these thoughts together for me, and at the same time, offer a fresh perspective on the topic. This is a passage from the book The Da Capo Guide to Contemporary African Music, by Ronnie Graham:
“Given the centrality of music to many aspects of everyday African life, it becomes almost impossible to conceive of a division between ‘classical’ and ‘popular’ music in Africa as obtains in the west. In this sense, all music in Africa is popular music and we should not forget that not only does ‘traditional’ music continue to flourish but indeed remains the musical mainstay for the vast majority of Africans. At this stage, it is perhaps necessary to clarify our use of the term ‘traditional’. Almost every music is a combination of tradition and innovation… in Africa, repetition is used as the basis for innovation in relationship to traditional patterns or those aspects of music which do not change significantly over a given period of time. To reinforce this important point, John Collins, the Ghanaian-based writer, has rejected the traditional-modern dichotomy entirely in favour of the concept of the urban-bush continuum… This is a much more dynamic approach to the classification of music and can indeed be extended further to encompass a metropolitan-periphery continuum reflecting the truly international dimensions of popular African music.”
Academic discourse and thought is something that is relatively new to my engagement with African music, and the thoughts expressed above really bring me back to a time when I never really thought about the implications of marketing or uses, it was just part of my life. My father, or other relatives, never talked about what the music meant, or whether it had too much of a certain type of influence. I do remember my father expressing disappointment when rapping started to creep into ‘his’ music (I actually started my own Dancehall Reggae collection from cast-off CD’s of my Dad’s that started to incorporate too much Ragga) but when I was home for the holidays, I was surprised to see an African hip hop album in his collection. Maybe the way my father interacts with ‘his’ music is similar to my co-worker’s, who is a middle-aged black woman, and has T-Pain as the ringtone on her phone. It’s part of her environment, she enjoys it, that makes it part of her. Perhaps that way of owning culture is similar to the way tradition is understood in African society. Things are passed down from ancestors, whether orally, spiritually, or physically. Tradition is the people who are around you, not generally something put in a museum, or captured, like so often happens in the ‘West.’
Another writer who expresses this much more eloquently than I is DJ Rupture who wrote this article, a review of Toumani Diabate’s Mande Variations.
“Both fans and detractors of globalization in music tend to see it as a new phenomenon, somehow tethered to the electronic: drum machines, cheesy synthesizers, remix culture. Listening carefully to the acoustic beauty of The Mandé Variations suggests a different tack. There’s something radical about refusing to erect a line between an ancient locality and a modern cosmopolis, about letting 71 generations of collective memory speak and listen today. ‘The griot’s role is making communication between people,’ explains Diabaté, ‘but not just historical communication. In Mali I can work in the traditional way; elsewhere I can work in a different way. Why not?’”
I love that last quote. Tradition is not a thing of the past. Any global citizen, from anywhere, who chooses to participate in the global discourse can still be represent who they are. Akon is the son of a master African percussionist. Is it any surprise that he excels at making bass and beat heavy pop tunes?
Sir Wayne Marshall, echoes off the homies with this post about Somali-American rapper K’naan. It is one that for me reinforces my belief that we who are alive and participating and creating, who are citizens of the same world, are a culmination of our past, and the foundation for the future. We are a mix of tradition and innovation.