Archive for March, 2013

The culture of debate

March 19, 2013

Caught my eye in the newspaper this morning. ‘Program launched at Senegalese universities.’ The strapline gave the game away: ‘Promotion of the culture of debate among Senegalese youth.’

When you read a line like this, the association is immediate: some NGO or other? Correct! Does it contain the word training somewhere? It does – double bingo!

Law students at the University Cheikh Anta Diop in Dakar, an institution in the deepest crisis since its establishment, where students go without tuition for months and have even resorted to the extreme act of setting themselves on fire to get their grievances heard, that university, plays host to a team of foreigners (yep – you got that one right too – someone needs a holiday…) that will teach…er…

…Respect For Diversity. Ah, no, not that kind of diversity, that’s for Westerners in their own countries who have been taught to swallow the new gospel hook line and sinker. No: the Senegalese students will be taught the kind of diversity that is no longer taught at universities in the West, and in fact the only diversity that really matters: Diversity Of Opinion.

Tolerance of other peoples’ views will be preached, says the woman who coordinates the program, plus the ability to listen to others and accepting the public verdict in the end. All in the name of good democracy and an Open Society.

Yes, this time it’s George Soros’ outfit teaching those poor hapless Senegalese students – who only last year helped rid the country of a megalomaniac with seriously autocratic tendencies – how to do democracy. Of course, Ms Hawa Ba who coordinates the program in Senegal needs a job, like everyone else working for the Oxfams, the Action Aids, the official aid bureaucracies, the UN bureaucracies and everybody else in this more than US$60bn industry. The pay is good and the perks are nice, for as long as they last. Very few things are as fickle as the priorities of the aid establishment.

But here’s the rub.

If there is one thing the Senegalese excel in, it’s talk. “Wakh rek,” only talk, is a frequent referral not only to the increasingly irrelevant political class but also to the fact that work gets a lot more talked about than actually done. In an extremely rich place like the Netherlands, this has become a national pastime but then the Dutch can afford it – up to a point. They will eventually find out that holding meetings and shifting boxes do not constitute an economy. But that’s their problem.

What we don’t need here is more people who know how to talk; the law students will learn that in college – if the professor can be bothered to show up. What we need are people who know how things are made and done. We need entrepreneurs, like Aissa Dione, people who create factories, as the Nigerian industrialist AlikoDangote is doing.

On the Autoroute, a few metres from my flat: we want to work at Dangote cement.

On the Autoroute, a few metres from my flat: we want to work at Dangote cement.

We need people who can work and ensure that homes stay dry during the next rainy season, people who can fix schools and universities so that they start fulfilling their educational promises, people who can fix the deeply dysfunctional water and electricity systems. And so on. We emphatically do not need any more administrators, bureaucrats or people who can organise workshops and training sessions.

Oh and we need the outdated colonial laws fixed – so that the people who make things happen and create jobs are not obstructed, blocked, harassed, frustrated and thwarted Every Single Step Of The Way.

And listening lessons? Coming from a US-based organisation I find that, well let’s keep this polite, a bit rich. The times I was in the dear old USA I have been awestruck by the depth of the love affair Americans have with their own voices. It’s a place where political debate mainly consists of two people standing with their backs to each other and shouting ‘You’re wrong!!!’ (or worse) at each other. Where the soundbite was invented. And you are coming over here to teach us….wakh rek.

Hey, Open Society, I have a job for you: pulling the other one.

21st century African popular music is – mostly – shite

March 9, 2013

I am sitting in my room concentrating on a piece of writing and an editing job. Outside, there is a constant, never-ending annoying metallic drone. Someone got hold of the latest pop tune and seems to be playing it incessantly on an infinite loop. It is the kind of metallic mobile phone noise, an audio pest around the world. A pox on the houses of those who invented it…

But where am I? Not in Amsterdam, where this occurs daily. I’m in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. And the music’s not from the UK or the US. It’s from Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana. YES – it’s time we said it: the bulk of pop music from Africa these days…is…utter fecking shite. Boring, formulaic, monotonous, the same electronically modified voicelets droning on, and on, and on. Unadulterated crapola.

It’s not necessarily a generational thing. There was a clip of a band playing on Burkina Faso’s national television at the weekend. ‘Who’s that?’ I asked. One of the young men helping out at the reception said: ‘Ah, that’s from the time when we made really good music here….’

‘What do you mean…?’

‘Music today? Ah – it’s nothing.’ End of conversation.


This has pretty serious consequences for a branch of the music industry known as world music. It relied for a significant part on musical discoveries from Africa. Of which there were a lot in the 1980s and 90s, not least because there was a massive back catalogues that could be culled. Some artists from those catalogues decided to ride the World Music Wave, some pretty successfully: Youssou Ndour, Mory Kanté, Salif Keita, and of course Miriam Makeba was there before everybody else.

Sure, some rich seams remain and a label like Analog Africa continues to lovingly uncover them. But here’s the problem: there is little new input. You don’t wow an audience with 21st century shite pop music. Well, not a “world music” audience anyway.

Ah yes, that audience! The “world” music scene was, and is (let’s just continue to be honest) overwhelmingly Western, well-educated, well-heeled – and white. A part of this audience uses sounds from the rest of the world as a backdrop for endless excited conversations about their awfully eventless lives. Take Amsterdam, where the moneyed set jumped from Buena Vista Social Club to Orchestre Baobab and Cesaria Evora. They spoil concerts with their inane cacklings, play their CDs once and return them to their racks after the fad’s gone.


But there is a group of real afficionadoes, including yours truly. Snobs? Yep – and proud of it. But we are having to do a lot of thinking lately. What happens when the music well dries up? And the answer, in my mind, has been surprisingly simple: re-label. I am slowly but surely effacing the label “world music” and consigning it to memory. Three things make this exercise even easier than I thought.

1. Music today is bought or stolen online, so the original rationale for the “world” label no longer exists. Personally, I think it’s a terrible loss but record shops are no longer the first port of call for someone looking for music and that’s what the label “world” was designed for.

2. The artists who were put in that category never considered themselves “world” artists. They make pop, funk, soul, mbalax, bhangra, rumba, salsa, chimurenga, hip hop. File under those. The “world” category will shrink markedly.

3. When MTV shows clips from Côte d’Ivoire and popular radio stations ask me for a Q&A about music from Mali and Staff Benda Bilili (now split, unfortunately) plays to 50,000 people at Holland’s largest pop festival, we know that the case for “world” music is both lost and won. The consumers of that music don’t care where it’s from. They either like it or they don’t.

Which means that away from the obsolete genre discussion, we come down to the same equation: there are only two kinds of music – good and bad. Or as a musician quipped: yours and mine. That still leaves me with the question what to do about that blooming radio outside my window. Simple: file under “shite”.