POP / More than just another love song

From aphrodisiac to prophylactic: Philip Sweeney on African song-writin g in the age of Aids
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The Independent Online
In 1987, half a dozen years after the recognition of Aids in Europe and America, the virus spread to the lyrics of popular music, challenging artists somehow to rise above triteness. In West Germany Kool Moe Dee's ``Go See the Doctor'' was adopted for public information ads. In Britain, the first Aids benefit concert at Wembley starred Elton John and George Michael. In France, Sida (Aids) found a dramatic adversary in the Rive Gauche chanson-singer Barbara, who released her bitter-sweet cocktail of word-play ``Sid' amour a mort''. Before embarking on a year of concerts and broadcasts devoted to Aids education, she added prophetically: ``The best love song now could be in a way a song about condoms. It would have to be sung with love and humour . . .''

If a love song about condoms seemed, to Left Bank tastes, to flirt with ridicule, other areas of the world - most notably Africa, where the musicians, especially in central and eastern areas, are in the front line of one of the worst epidemics of the disease - had no such reserve. By 1994, African Aids awareness lyrics, often rapped, have become commonplace: Senegalese rappers in Wolof; Ugandan rappers paying homage to the Kampalan star Philly Lutaaya who died of the disease in 1988. In 1987, the great Zairean Franco's ``Attention Na Sida'' (Beware of Aids), still the most striking of the African Aids records, stopped short of condom instruction - but not much else. ``Attention'' is a 20-minute Churchillian rallying call, and no artist was better qualified to deliver it. Franco's rich, brown voice was known across the continent, which he addressed in a stream of Lingala and French over a mesmeric snare drum and a sombre, hopping bass. A number of factors deepen the texture of ``Attention'': the fact that the opening guitar figure ironically echoes Franco's scandalous 1970 song ``Jacky'' (with its references to oral and anal sex); the fact that Franco died, officially of kidney failure, two years later.

``Attention'' was not the first African Aids song: the previous year, the Gabonese singer Hilarion N'Guema had released his ``Sida'', notable for its melodiousness and ominously resigned lyrics. Between catchy female choruses, a ``French doctor friend'' dispenses to the singer dubious advice and information: ``If you drink too much, you'll get liver trouble / If you eat too much, it'll be the stomach / Planes, cars, death is always there . . . / You'll die anyway . . .'' And with a perplexed ``Ay ay ay!'' the singer heads into another chorus, and by implication another night-club, no wiser or safer.

A few years - and many thousands of deaths - later, practical advice was much more evident. The Nigerian / Ivorean reggae artist Waby Spider's 1990 ``Sida'', has perhaps the most unappetising introductory verse ever written: ``Gonorrhoea you can cure, Blennorrhea you can cure, syphilis chaude pisse''. Failure to use protection is ``pas du tout cool''. Equally straightforward is the Tanzania-based singer and bandleader Remmy Ongala, with good reason: six members of his Orchestre Matimila have died of Aids-related illnesses.

It is the safe sex message that, understandably, emerges most strongly from world Aids songs. So in Colombia we have La Sonora Dinamita, over a loping cumbia beat, singing ``La Cumbia del Sida'', a record used for health campaigns in Mexico and the Latin USA.

In Cuba, La Original de Manzanilla's ``El Cinturon del Taxi'' stresses the importance of the seatbelt when getting into a strange taxi. And in Jamaica Buju Banton, in an engaging but hopeless attempt at political correctness after the heavily criticised, homophobic ``Boom Bye Bye'', contributes the couplet ``Ragamuffin don't be silly / Put a rubber on your willy''. But it has been left to another French lyricist to point out that not everyone is pushing condom use: Francois Hadji-Lazaro, the shaven-headed, anarcho-traditionalist leader of the group Pigalle. His message in ``Crime contre l'humanite'' is tragically blunt. It translates: ``The Pope has said `Plastic you shall not wear' . . . while they die in Nigeria . . . and even right here . . . it rolls onward, Sida''.

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