Do the continental drift

To make it big, more and more African artists come to Europe to showcase and develop their talent. But at what price to the listening public and music industries at home?
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The Independent Culture

Another mega-season of African arts, the biggest since Africa 95, is upon us. Entitled Africa: Roots & Shoots, the Barbican's line-up is impressive, with a big film programme and a music cast ranging from the British debuts of Maurice El Medioni and Lili Boniche, two great old figures from the Jewish entertainment world of peaceable colonial Algeria, through a quartet of evenings devoted to the heavyweights of Mali, Nigeria, Zimbabwe and South Africa, to a shoal of up-and-coming artistes, including examples of the new breed of Afro-European remix creators such as the Moroccan U-Cef. What does all this tell us about the state of Africa?

Another mega-season of African arts, the biggest since Africa 95, is upon us. Entitled Africa: Roots & Shoots, the Barbican's line-up is impressive, with a big film programme and a music cast ranging from the British debuts of Maurice El Medioni and Lili Boniche, two great old figures from the Jewish entertainment world of peaceable colonial Algeria, through a quartet of evenings devoted to the heavyweights of Mali, Nigeria, Zimbabwe and South Africa, to a shoal of up-and-coming artistes, including examples of the new breed of Afro-European remix creators such as the Moroccan U-Cef. What does all this tell us about the state of Africa?

On the face of it, that no matter how deep the roots are, Africa's shoots are increasingly emerging in Europe. And often via France. For one thing, Europe is demonstrating a new appetite for African music and a capacity to fuel it that makes the home continent's infrastructure look more and more precarious. It's difficult to imagine a Barbican-style event in Africa itself.

"Big prestige festivals in Africa are usually arranged by non-professionals, by political leaders maybe," said Rokia Traoré, the young Malian singer recently, discussing the debacle of the continent's first festival attempt of the millennium, a big bash scheduled at Timbuktu in the middle of the Sahara by the Malian Ministry of Culture, which fizzled out amid equipment breakdowns, no-shows and refusals to go on stage without payment. "That's why I'm concentrating my career in Europe."

A couple of weeks ago, by contrast, Europe showed just what is possible today, when 18,000 people, by far the biggest audience for an African artiste yet, turned out to see the Congolese singer Koffi Olomidé perform at the huge Bercy auditorium in Paris.

Eighteen thousand mainly African people, too, dressed to the hilt in Hilfiger, Versace and Nike, and women in elaborate Afro couture, dancing till 6am, putting up with the poor sound and only getting ratty once, to throw a few paper cups during an oddly-conceived warm-up by a French Spice Girls look-alike act.

Most impressive of all, an audience assembled without any of the publicity an equivalent event by Sting or Patricia Kaas would entail. Just word of mouth, fliers in the last Olomidé CD (which sold 100,000 copies on a specialist label) and posters around the clubs, hairdressers and little ganda bars of the Paris African quartiers. Although the newest trends and dance crazes emerge from the streets of strife-torn Kinshasa and Brazzaville, every one of the young musicians who contact Koffi Olomidé daily looking for a leg-up, dreams of "joining him in Paris one day and staying".

Back-stage at a Bristol club the weekend after the Olomidé gig, Paris was also in the conversation. Headlining was the band of drummer Tony "just don't ask me about Fela" Allen, the former arranger for the late Fela Kuti, now one of the idols of the new generation of London Afro-beat devotees who form the audience of The Shrine event organisers, responsible for the ancillary music programme at the Barbican.

Though Nigerian-born and educated, like Fela, at the Royal College of music, Allen is nowadays promoted as a French export by the quasi-governmental French Music Office. "I live in Paris because it's convenient and I record on a French label because they made me a good offer," said Allen.

Opening the bill was U-Cef, the young Moroccan DJ and mixer, born in Rabat but domiciled in London, where he's just released an album, Halalium, attracting a good deal of interest as a skilled new entry in the burgeoning stakes of African electronic fusion music.

Following a pattern established a decade ago by a Swiss-based Marrakesh-rooted collective, Aisha Kandisha's Jarring Effects, Halalium mixes a range of Moroccan music, from traditional gnawa bass and castanets and melhoun song to young Casablanca rappers, the latter recorded on U-Cef's regular trips home.

"I take along blank contracts, and if I hear a musician in the street, I get out my recorder and paperwork right there." There's so much interest in Moroccan music now, especially from American jazz/experimental circles, that U-Cef's subjects are probably seasoned pros with New York agents anyway. "You can find some unknown old fiddle player sitting on the ground in the medina and you talk to him and it turns out he's got a band of famous American jazz musicians coming to stay with him," says U-Cef. His avowed aim is to "preserve the traditional culture", but for the time being, it's preserved for a European youth public. "The record isn't out in Morocco," he says, "you have to start in Paris to get anywhere in Morocco." Merde alors! The French again.

But wait - Halalium, it transpires, is on a UK label, Apartment 22, which financed the project via a grant from the London Arts Board.

Another Francophone African act preferring a UK alliance is the great Malian singer and guitarist Ali Farka Touré, one of the stars of the Barbican season, whose career is a model of balance between the worlds of international music business and deep rural tradition. Thirty years into a double career as musician and farmer, Touré was presented with a world hit album Talking Timbuctoo, courtesy of Ry Cooder and the British company World Circuit.

Touré's appeal relies on a guitar style uncannily infused by the spirit of John Lee Hooker coupled to a repertoire largely based on the folk music of the Sonrai peoples who live across the Sahara. Touré's success has allowed him to take over the old EMI Mali studio in Bamako, set up his own cassette label, but, above all, continue expanding his desert farm land around his River Niger home village of Niafunké.

For five years Touré has farmed rather than performed, and his return is accompanied by a kindred spirit, acolyte and possibly artistic heir. Afel Bocoum, an agriculturist and son of a wedding musician from Touré's village, has played since he was 13 as a rhythm guitarist for Touré, and at local events across the region with his group.

Afel Bocoum's first record was recently released by World Circuit. It will get to the Malian public too, thanks to Ali Farka Touré's cassette plant, but it's got to Europe first, and it certainly won't reach much of the rest of Africa. Cultural exchange within the continent is still rare. Among the side-events of the Barbican's Africa film season is a series of workshops designed to increase inter-African production co-operation. "A Sembene Ousmane film is primarily viewed by audiences in France and Senegal," commented Keith Shiri, the organiser of the film event. "Its audience in Zimbabwe or Ethiopia is minimal."

The same applies to music. South Africans only recently heard West African music for the first time. Which makes the rare pan-African success all the more admirable. Koffi Olomidé, for example, is a popular star with a fan base transcending Europe and the Congo. Others, such as the Nigerian King Sunny Adé, can afford to disregard Europe altogether, so populous is their home territory. Good: roots and shoots are all very well, but it's the tree in between that really counts.

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