Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Afropop Without Guilt

As self-defeating as it is to try and guilt-trip people into liking what you like, I find myself suspected of doing just that. So for those who still think I harbor internationalist illusions, let me state yet again that it's not my hope or expectation to convert the world to Afropop. You see one of those intimidating polysyllabic names or heat-seeking compilation titles in a Consumer Guide, skip ahead to the next rapper or postpunk or over-40 if you want. Afropop's aesthetic relevance is speculative and its political correctness is overestimated, and since I rarely know enough about it to joke around, the main thing you'll miss is a geography lesson. Just don't think I'm fabricating enthusiasm out of weirdness-hyping critical one-upsmanship. Leave that shit to Byron Coley. I hate it as much as I love this music.

Even in the '60s, African music had undeniable theoretical charms. Whatever else it was, Africa was not-Yurrup, probably at the root of what made American music something new under the sun. But Nonesuch musicology got me nowhere, and neither did the special-export Negritude of Olatunji's "Drums of Passion," or the nightclub-concert folk of Miriam Makeba, or the Monterey-bummer jazz of Hugh Masekela, or Osibisa's Santanalike Ghanaian-U.K. "Afro-rock." What bothered me about these artists wasn't their commercial compromises--good pop generally makes nice to the market one way or another. The problem was the middlebrow market they courted. Proudly honoring the kind of watered-down academic ideas about artistic value that pop always fancies at its peril, they freighted their musical materials--potent materials in the case of Olatunji and Makeba--with the fantasy of significant entertainment that tinges all schlock. This is not the place to argue the pros and cons of schlock, which by now has its posthighbrow defenders, much less to scrutinize anybody's sincerity. Deeply concerned with self-improvement, these Africans had a lot more in common with their target audience than with most Rolling Stones fans. But perhaps as a corollary, they had scant interest in the Rolling Stones aesthetic--that is, the rock and roll aesthetic, in which simple, time-tested melodic patterns meld into a groove that's trusted to underpin a large measure of value and signficance all by itself.

I might have paid closer heed to Manu Dibango, whose 1972 protodisco fluke "Soul Makossa" highlighted a far jumpier album than Osibisa ever put out, or gone looking for Fela, a hot rumor well before Mercury picked up Zombie in 1977. But it's just as well I waited for Africa Dances, which I first heard in 1976, three years after John Storm Roberts, a sometime Voice critic who grew up in Kenya, assembled it from his prized collection of Afropop singles. I see now that Roberts's material is too Anglophone, and bypasses internationally fruitful developments in the Sahel. But I'm struck more than ever by how seminal it is--and how rock and roll. These '50s and '60s hits are where time-tested African melodic patterns meld into a groove--where the country goes to the city, where folk becomes pop. After listening to it again, I pulled out Originalité, a '50s compilation by Franco's O.K. Jazz that I'd always found thin by the standards of soukous interweave, and suddenly I heard a whole bunch of tunes. Most of these were no doubt adapted or appropriated from one of the multifarious tribal traditions that are threatened by the pop process as they are by every other encroachment of Western technology and economic exploitation. But they're no less sweet in themselves for that.

We know by now that dislocation afflicts all aesthetic experience--users invariably sever works of art from their ideal contexts. Naturally or willfully, imperceptibly or drastically, we're always contorting stuff to suit our circumstances. But the recontextualizations that occur within industrialized cities, regions, nations, linguistic cultures--within the most far-flung parameters of Euro-American world hegemony--are far less wrenching than the ones Euro-Americans impose on African music. Whether or not they understand the words, as does sometimes happen with Francophone soukous, they like African music for the music itself. But in traditional Africa music-itself isn't even a category, because for Africans music-itself is inseparable from the-words-that-are-part-of-it. Even when the express purpose is to make people dance--which is common enough in village settings and almost always the case with Afropop--it's the rare non-African who has more than an inkling of the formal assumptions Africans bring to the process.

And of course, that's only the beginning. In his introduction to Wolfgang Bender's Sweet Mother, the latest half-swipe at an Afropop overview I bet never materializes, John Miller Chernoff doubts Westerners really want to know what Africans are singing about. For the average Euro-American Afropop fan, silly love songs--more numerous and banal all the time, if I read my cribsheets right--are fine as far as they go, but tributes to backyard gardening campaigns, Star Beer, and "the bourgeois or corporate sponsors of the gigs" are not. How many capitalist commonplaces can a white hedonist-humanist's well-meaning fantasies of black liberation support? Nor would good politics--whatever those might be in the welter of poverty and lesser-of-multiple-evils that is modern Africa--necessarily be a big improvement. Bender believes that efforts to bend African song to revolutionary uses in socialist Guinea and Mali reduced many tribal musics to "a residue of form," accomplishing "with much greater efficiency what the colonial attack on traditional culture was not able to achieve."

Maybe bending it to pop uses, even progressively conceived pop uses, is just as much a distortion. Classic rock and roll was buoyed by the promise of upward mobility--among other things, it was the sound of kids who hadn't forgotten where they came from and couldn't wait to get where they were going. All over Africa Dances, you can hear the same confused delight with urban possibility, the same hopes for a just plain modern future--hopes that in pulse and instrumentation and cultural aspiration make nice to Euro-American hegemony. I can hear them, anyway, and you'd best believe the Euro-American in me is flattered. Many African popular musicians have no interest in (or for) cultures other than their own. But there are excellent reasons to wonder whether the hopes of those who do aren't a hoax--whether Afropop's urban dream is an evolutionary adaptation or a cruel waste of precious personal resources on a continent leached dry by "development." And I also have to wonder whether the indomitable good cheer of this music lifts my spirits at least partly by letting me off the hook--by helping me feel that this place I care about and benefit from is better off than there's any reason to think.

But if I don't believe in guilt-tripping you, I don't believe in guilt-tripping myself either. If you'd told me back when I was a Rolling Stones fan that I'd be into music-itself before I got old, I would have hoped to die. Nevertheless, Afropop stands as music-itself. Especially early on, circa Africa Dances and before, its famous rhythmic complexity took a back seat to more Eurofriendly beats, though that music probably isn't loud enough to suit the straight rock and rollers disconcerted by the polyrhythms that have surged back over the past two decades--which for sure increase Afropop's appeal to bent rock and rollers like myself. But in any case those polyrhythms are only part of the story, and maybe not the most important part. Africa is the home of many hundreds of musical traditions. Every one of its indigenous peoples has its own store of songs, and its own variations on scales, beats, polyphonies, and vocal techniques that are spread over the continent in patterns of happenstance no one fully understands. Many of these traditions are endangered, by pop and lots of other things, and those striving to preserve them deserve our support. But experience suggests that some of them will survive only as formal residues--formal residues that seem to meld more fruitfully with Euro-American pop usages than do comparable scales and whatnot from Asia, Australia, or the Americas.

Melds vary, of course--there isn't just one Afropop. Those put off by the relentless functionality of the guitar-based dance music that swept the continent from Zaire can probably find something more suitable without looking too hard--the squarer beats of the south or the Islamic declamations of the Sahel, the gentle undulations of juju or the witty intricacies of mbube, Ali Farka Toure's near-blues or Pierre Akendengue's near-rock. They may even favor the a&r-conscious fusion strategies of Jumbo Vanrenen's Mango roster: Mory Kante, whose latest stab at world pop has Toto's Jeff Porcaro setting the beat on the lead track, or Salif Keita, who gave an album's worth of traditional-style arrangements to Sona Diabaté and went back to the control board with Joe Zawinul, or Ray Lema, who named his latest album Gaia, "the mystical name for Mother Earth" popularized by New Ager James Havelock.

But though none of these efforts is especially pandisgusting, I prefer labels that compile and license. It can be frustrating to buy Afropop out of the bin--even with the written guidance of Ronnie Graham and his epigones, I've found a few must-hears and too many collectibles that way. But Trevor Herman at Earthworks, Randall Grass at Shanachie, and Robert Urbanus at Stern's appreciate the recording techniques and musical touchstones that make strange styles signify without ever succumbing to dumb ideas about massive crossover. Sifting through records whose half-life can often be measured in months, they preselect the good stuff, and anyone who thinks there's no way so much of it can be good is forgetting how much they reject. It's not like their release budgets have no ceilings.

Many well-informed people have many provocative theories as to why Africa's songs meld so well with Europe's, some of which imply by the by that Africa's musical resources are the richest in the world. All I'll say is that there's obviously a goldmine of amazing music-itself coming from that direction. That doesn't oblige you to connect to alien cultures any more than it obliges me to make like an ethnomusicologist. It's certainly not wrong to ignore the stuff. But if you've ever loved the Rolling Stones, it may be kind of foolish.

Village Voice, 1991