Music notes: New, extraordinary music out of Africa

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The Independent Online
IN 1985, I went to live in a small community in rural Gambia, with the intention of writing a book about the women of the village. Having some interest in music, I was crestfallen to discover that I had arrived in one of the few places in Africa where drumming was forbidden, and where there were no professional musicians.

I need not have worried. Music was everywhere. A group of women pounding grain with their long wooden pestles would beat complex syncopations that resonated deep into the hard earth. The women sang as they cooked, as they washed clothes, as they worked together in the fields - improvising verses on traditional themes or inventing their own songs. And when the harvest came they danced for pure joy, beating out rhythms on household implements: upturned basins or plastic water containers. Every woman was some sort of singer, dancer or composer - if not all three.

The intervening 15 years have seen a tremendous growth not only in Africa's recording industries, but in Western interest in African music. African musicians have appeared on Top of the Pops, and there's a sizeable market for the music of the griots - West Africa's traditional praise singers. But you still don't have to go far in Africa to encounter the kind of completely non-professional music-making I found in my Gambian village: music that is bound up with the passing of the seasons, with the cycles of birth, initiation, marriage and death.

Whether it's the hummings of village women or the CDs of the continent's biggest stars, music has a peculiar importance in Africa. With high levels of illiteracy, traditional art a thing of the past and modern art the preserve of a tiny elite, music is often the only form of expression. And, where the media are largely government- controlled, music is, over vast areas, the only source not only of alternative view-points, but of basic information. Musicians like the Nigerian Fela Kuti, Franco in the Congo and Senegal's Youssou N'Dour have been national heroes on a scale that can barely be imagined in the West.

They've done this not by rejecting tradition, but by embracing it. A musician like Youssou N'Dour takes the kind of songs sung by my village women and gives them back to his young audience as an affirmation of national, of African identity. When the messages circulating about Africa in the world's media, and even in the people's own minds, are overwhelmingly negative, music is one thing at least they can be proud of.

Events like the Rwandan genocide, South Africa's bitter political violence and the recent atrocities in Sierra Leone create an impression - not unreasonably - of a continent sliding backwards into barbarism. But you won't find much reference to these phenomena in African music. The messages of hatred and aggression peddled by punk rock and American gangster rap are not only completely absent from African music, they would be totally incomprehensible to most of its audience. Even African rap tends to accentuate the positive, calling for collective harmony, respect for older people and traditional values. This may seem like hypocrisy or naivety, but African music does genuinely seek to embody society's finest impulses.

On an old LP, I've got a praise song for the Mwami, the king of Rwanda, recorded in 1952. It is sung by a father and his son, and its beauty and dignity are not only moving in their own right, but, in the light of everything that's happened to that country since, almost unbearably poignant. A whole world of court music disappeared when Rwanda's monarchy was abolished in 1960.

But I have no doubt that in time it will be replaced by something remarkable. African music's capacity to renew itself, to take on new and extraordinary forms, in the face of apparently overwhelming competition from the West, has - so far - been inexhaustible.

Mark Hudson is the author of `The Music in My Head' (Vintage, pounds 6.99)

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