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Vendant l'Afrique

book cover

The most arrogant Francophone wouldn't spend five days in Boston or Washington and tell the folks in Paris he'd experienced America--St. Louis, maybe, San Antonio, but not Boston or Washington. So I'm not going to spend five days in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire, and tell you I experienced Africa. Not only is Abidjan a single city on a land mass far more vast, various, and nonurban than our own, it's highly atypical even for the non-South African sub-Sahara. As shaped by Felix Houphouet-Boïgny, who for the 32 years before he died in 1993 was the most Francophile and bourgeois of all Africa's postcolonial leaders, Abidjan has a thing for European commerce and Northern-style modernity. Only Nairobi, almost 3000 miles east in Kenya, and Dakar, a mere thousand miles northwest in Senegal, share its reputation for amenities--highways, croissants, et cetera. What's more, having been flown in by MASA 95, the second biannual Marché des Arts du Spectacle Africain, I didn't spend much time in Abidjan's downtown. My base was a commodiously landscaped enclave, the five-star Hotel Ivoire, site not just of MASA but of a continent-renowned dealer in masks and (that's right) ivory and the only ice-skating rink between South Africa and the Mediterranean basin.

Yet there I was May Day evening, 18 hours after Air Afrique had landed 18 hours late, 10 meters from a truckbed stage in the barren sandlot that was the Place Saint Jean, enjoying the Sahel-inflected harmonies of five singers and four drummers--all male elders in their forties and fifties, most dressed à l'Africain but one wearing a D.A.R.E. T-shirt and a porkpie hat. Although the venue was only half a mile from the hotel, there wasn't another white face or MASA badge in the makeshift crowd. This was the Programme Off, where every day from 4 to 8--en principe, as the Ivoirians say about scheduling; I never heard of an Off show that began before dusk--a dozen music acts, dance groups, and theater companies who didn't make the organizers' final cut were given a chance to peddle their wares even if all the attendant promoters and arts-festival bigwigs were elsewhere. The elders made the last live music I saw at the Place Saint Jean. After that it was lip-synched hits or misses over an equally hit-or-miss PA--Gallic Afrodisco from Zaire, dancehall with Cairo strings from Burkina Faso--capped by a stand-up comic in shades who made me chuckle even though I don't understand spoken French in France, much less West Africa. As with a lot of the Marché; I half knew what this was--imperfect free-music-in-the-park for casual pleasure seekers. But this was my first trip to Africa, and the culture shock of différance Côte d'Ivoire-style was still severe. If Abidjan was Bordeaux, say, I wondered what an African city as huge as Lagos or as impoverished as Conakry might be like. In the end, however, I got what I wanted: to peel off a layer or two of Afropop exoticism.

Not that the business of MASA was Afropop--its business was la langue Française. Although its professional meetings rang with North-South rhetoric and its 38 official selections represented 17 separate African nations, MASA was by design and definition a Francophone venture, funded by the Agence de Coopération Culturelle et Technique in Paris as part of its mission to prevent the uncouth gutturals of l'Anglais from further polluting world culture. And its Francophonie had musical consequences. Since France's African empire was concentrated north of the equator, it guaranteed a strong Islamic tinge and excluded the mbaqanga, mbube, jit, benga, highlife, juju, fuji, and whatever of former British colonies. And it insured a measure of pallid Gallicism at the nightly tripleheader concerts in the Ivoire's Palais des Congrés theater, with acts from two tiny Indian Ocean nations especially egregious--Mauritius's zouk-derived Windblows, who accented their mild fusion with a balletic ballad, and Comoro Islands folkie Maalesh, at 33 a member in good standing of the International Brotherhood of Sensitive Young Middle-Class Men.

I doubt in any case that even the most striking groups featured were ripe for export the way the marché's marketers dreamed. With the dubious exception of Malagasay guitarist D'Gary, whom I arrived too late to see, there was certainly no Baaba Maal, who climaxed MASA 93. There was no Youssou N'Dour, whose porkpie-hatted Senegalese manager was all over the Ivoire, or Angelique Kidjo, a sharp-witted panel participant who foisted off the hopelessly dull Bénin jazz-rockers Karavan in recompense, or Papa Wemba, who sat in at several venues, among them the hotel lobby--where a tight and enthusiastic band of Zaireans called Lokito The Best played salsa, lounge jazz, and anything else a tourist might desire, including the only live soukous I heard all week. The rippling guitars that make the most beautiful sound in pop music were plentiful on radios and tape players and a PA staple at MASA's outdoor Village Gastronomique, where grillades of free-range chicken cost less than continental breakfast at the Ivoire. Maybe there were none on stage because MASA figured that portion of its sell required no bureaucratic intervention.

Nevertheless, I couldn't get enough of the music, which was rarely disappointing at the Palais de Congrés and continued to roll out of far-flung maquis and theater spaces long after the big shows ended at 11:30. The experience was so intoxicating that I still regret opportunities clumsily missed--five Ivoirian musicologists playing "musique traditionelle de chambre" at the Goethe Institut, or the Bronx, a specially created ghetto rap club I didn't have the guts to seek out without a Francophone guide. At the simplest level, it was a revelation and a relief finally to encounter musical usages I knew intimately from a distance in a context where they determined the norm, and most of what I heard was ear-opening at least and tremendously enjoyable much of the time. Groups were usually large, guitar-keybs-bass-traps plus drums and perhaps horns plus singers and dancers, and since costs mount when multiplied by 10, 12, or more, this may well present an export problem. But it also boosted musically undistinguished acts like Niger's Takeda Group, 13 musicians and singers joined at the outset by a statuesque chorus of four male Peuls in robes and makeup RuPaul could take to the runway. And troupes like Guinée's Nyamakalas, who worked up a frenetic funk on kora, balafon, earthbow bass, double oboe, and such, then brought on increasingly acrobatic dancers who were upstaged by a hefty middle-aged woman singer rolling her eyes and twitching her hips, seemed committed to ritualistic scale--16 strong at the Palais des Congrés, in Conakry they bring it up to 30.

Takeda Group, would-be modernists cloaking their proud tribal-national roots in a generic rock format, and Nyamakalas, practical preservationists rendering traditional culture into easily grasped entertainment, represented the aesthetic poles favored by the French and African "experts" who decided which of hundreds of aspirants would go to MASA's market. The vital, realized, reliably self-generated new Afropop styles that ought to be springing up organically in between these two poles, as soukous and mbalax once did, were not readily apparent. Yet even at the international-pop and folk-art extremes, MASA occasioned some amazing doings.

The veteran Guinéean 12-piece Kaloum Star played the surest music of the festival, arraying confident vocals and jazzy chops over a relaxed groove that seemed Sahel in shape and Kinshasa in mood. And while Abidjan reggae heartthrob Serges Kassy, wildly received by local fans who could pay the tariff, was way too slick whatever his political message (I'm told he urged the rich to pay their taxes like the poor, always a worthy goal), the less established Tangara Speed Ghôda took the right cues from Côte d'Ivoire's only major musical export, Alpha Blondy. A professed Muslim, Tangara was Lee Perry as jive messiah in the most memorable outfit of a well-turned-out festival--shades, yellow snowhood over full dreads, purple robe over red jumpsuit, high brown combat boots, pigskin gloves, two books he never put down, and a bow and arrow. One French informant complained that his lyrics were too mystagogic, but his voice combined the gruff strength of dancehall's macho men with the embattled faith of a Bunny Wailer or Joseph Hill. Providing the other ranking international Afroprotest style, hip hop, was Dakar's Positive Black Soul, starring Amadou Barry a/k/a Doug E. Tee, a quick-lipped adept who slipped effortlessly from rap to ragga, speech to song, Wolof to French to, holy shit, English. "L'Anglais!" I cheered at the top of my lungs.

There were two problems with Positive Black Soul. One was the music, predictable beatbox chukka-chukka that would have sounded old in the States five years ago. My last day in Africa I thought briefly that I'd met a solution in the lobby. François Konian is a well-connected black Ivoirian who in the '80s started the first recording studio in Abidjan if not West Africa, whose current project was an African-run FM station in the city (somehow French francs always impose French control), and whose "gift" to MASA (and "the kids") was the rap club the Bronx--where, I was told, Côte d'Ivoire's minister of culture had declared that at MASA 97 this new ghetto sound would get its due as the voice of the nation's youth if not, as Konian's interpreter insisted, "the future of African music." But while the Ivoirian rap stars Konian introduced, R.A.S. (Rien a Signaler, "Nothing To Say"), wisely sought site-specific beats in indigenous percussion, the cassette they brought me was way pop even so. I hope they like the Brand Nubian tape I gave them in return.

The other problem with Positive Black Soul went a lot deeper and couldn't be blamed on them. It was that horrible hip hop staple, death. Before or during their show, a scalper had been gunned down by police. Needless to say, I didn't delude myself about solutions for that one, especially since I was part of the problem--the need to keep things orderly for acheteurs and visiting dignitaries like myself could only make the flics more trigger-happy. But the incident, comme on dit, did serve to point up MASA's fantasy quotient in a relatively prosperous nation where scalpers get shot and Serges Kassy's fans can't afford the Palais des Congrés. Early in the professional meetings, which would have seemed as platitudinous as the confabs at any other alternative music convention if the autonomy the Africans harped on weren't of such historical moment, someone used the phrase "cultural resources that are a sort of wealth." This was the dream. If Africa's so damn musical, people wanted to know, why isn't it rich? But rich it ain't, and rich it is unlikely to become. Konian argued that African Francophonie was just the latest imperialist con game, a cover for exploitation--that MASA's 1.3 million franc budget was three times what it would cost to train two students from every French-speaking African nation in each of five crucial music-business skills. His numbers may have been off, his motives mixed. But he obviously had good reason to conceive development differently than the Agence de Coopération Culturelle et Technique.

Two images, then.

While awaiting my chicken at the Village Gastronomique on the final night, I was approached by the sweet young manager of Zizimazi, a Programme Off act who'd been moved down from the Place Saint Jean and was scheduled for 8. He wondered what I'd noticed most about Africans--their warmth, perhaps? He also wondered if I'd wait to see his group, but there were no signs of movement on the tiny stage. After midnight, however, I returned, and at 1:30 Zizimazi actually went on. As promised, the singer was fairly fantastic, a lithe tenor in a sleeveless white jacket, white shirt, and gaily patched grey trousers who did splits and rolled in the grass to the delight of an adoring claque. Later I learned that in two years this was the third time the group had played out. They were all in school or had day jobs--the singer was a bookkeeper. But like most aspiring African musicians, they couldn't amass enough capital to invest in instruments.

And then there were the surprise-hit preservationists, the teenaged Merveilles de Guinée, a side project of Ballets Africains choreographer Mohamed Kémoko. At first I took them for another of the percussion-heavy dance troupes that had long since sated my appetite for unadorned polyrhythm, but it was nice to see women drumming for once, and over 40 minutes or so the solo turns and acrobatic derring-do kept getting sexier and more spirited. The audience was already deeply into it when they unveiled their showstopper--a polio survivor who walked out on his hands like a crab and proceeded to carry off a phenomenal series of steps and leaps and feats of strength with his matchstick legs folded on his chest. He was thrilling, he was corny, he was miraculous, he was hard to look at without cringing. He controlled a cultural resource that was a kind of wealth. And to convert it into crass old economic wealth he would happily dance on his hands for us.

Village Voice, May 23, 1995