Afropop on stage: Vibrant African artists salute a groundbreaking radio franchise
The influential NPR world music series turns 25
By Robert Christgau
Special to MSN Music
D.C.-born, Wesleyan-educated Alaskan fisherman and world-music DJ Sean Barlow launched Afropop Worldwide in 1988, turning an on-spec 13-part exploration of African music for public radio into a year of shows that generated the next year of shows and so on ever since. It now broadcasts and excavates the popular music of Africa and its diaspora on well over 100 stations in the U.S., plus many in Europe and in Africa itself. Stateside, it's the chief outlet for and motor of that music, which has rallied past its post-independence heyday with a cheerfully pragmatic heroism ignored by hacks so ignorant of Africa's philosophical complexity they just naysay on about poverty and tribalism. So on September 19, the show celebrated its 25th Anniversary Gala at Manhattan's City Winery.
Needless to say, the hope was to round up some funding in the process, with the full complement of back-patting such efforts entail. Emceeing, 73-year-old Cameroon-born on-air personality Georges Collinet radiated the all-inclusive enthusiasm of great disc jockeys everywhere as various angels came on to say a few words. I rankled only once, when a former board head observed that before he discovered African music he thought dancing meant pogoing to the Ramones and the B-52's, because he implied that one excluded the other. For me it's the opposite. Each reinforces the other, because each performs the same alchemy‑-manufacturing joy out of not much. The African version's advantage is that it doesn't suggest that sex need be frantic nor togetherness spasmodic.
In New York, the African music audience is long on the kind of mature one-world liberal with whom I'd watched guitarist Mamadou Kelly beguile a casual crowd at a free outdoor Lincoln Center concert July 31. A former Ali Farka Toure sideman who talks about "la paix" a lot, Kelly and his band grooved for five pleasant songs that seemed a little slack the second time around. But the even gentler follow-up was riveting: sweet-voiced Congo-born Samba Mapangala, who became a big man in Kenya 30 years ago modulating soukous energy in a band he called Virunga Volcano, accompanied solely by Afropop producer Banning Eyre on acoustic guitar and Congolese New Yorker Isaac Katalay hitting an empty beer bottle with a fork or small wrench and getting not just beats but slide effects out of that thing. With previously advertised Sudanese singer Omar Ehsas procrastinated into visaless limbo‑-a bureaucratic outrage more widespread since 9/11‑-Eyre then introduced a pal: Malian acoustic guitarist Boubacar Diabate, master of a "big-string" style called bajouru. At one song, he was sublime.
Fluent in distinct styles from Congo, Mali, and Zimbabwe, Eyre has also written one of the two best American books about African music: "In Griot Time," which recounts his Malian apprenticeship‑-and is topped only by the magnificent "Cuba and Its Music," by Afropop producer Ned Sublette, who Barlow provided with seed money and bona fides for his research way back in 1989. Note too that the support Afropop provides its few principals is hardly the equivalent of some cushy academic think-tank deal‑-these guys are bohemians who live close to the bone. I'm guessing, but I very much doubt Afropop's budget approaches a million a year‑-and while a million used to be a fortune, these days it's well under what a couple needs to retire at the modest level of comfort the American dream once promised its increasingly chimerical middle class.
Of course, it's also a modest bonus at a hedge fund. So when Collinet announced an intermission, I prayed the assembled benefactors would bid up the silent auction as I eagerly awaited the headliner. In a terrible time for the warring nation of Mali, long a wellspring of exportable Afropop musicians, those musicians have fought back against the musical proscriptions of Islamism with a commitment that approaches fury. Bassekou Kouyate's ancestral ax is a four-stringed predecessor of the banjo called the ngoni, which he's modernized with determined showbiz chutzpah‑-hanging it around his neck, adding low strings, soloing like the Hendrix fan so many desert musicians are. His band Ngoni ba comprises his wife, two sons, two brothers, and a nephew. His son Moustafa prepped the crowd by shredding a different kind of ngoni, his solos the hottest music of the night until his dad strolled out and amiably cut him to pieces. By then Ngoni ba was rockin'. It wasn't just the bass ngoni, or the drummer who uses a stick only on a tama ruckus-raiser toward the end‑-it was the gestalt, the groove, and the leader, who whatever you call his instrument was playing the most exciting guitar solos I'd heard in a while.
"I could swear I saw this band in Texas in 1968," Sublette whispered.
Sounded right to me, so I responded, "You'd think you could just bring some Mark Knopfler fan into the room and he'd say, `Oh yeah, this is the real stuff.'" But when Sublette gave me a quizzical look, I felt constrained to add, "Only probably he wouldn't." Which is why we need Afropop Worldwide. What they need is money, if you happen to have any lying around.
Starting in 1967, Robert Christgau has covered popular music for The Village Voice, Esquire, Blender, Playboy, Rolling Stone, and many other publications. He teaches in New York University's Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music, maintains a comprehensive website at robertchristgau.com, and has published five books based on his journalism. He has written for MSN Music since 2006.
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