Archive for December, 2022

In praise of…Afrobeats

December 31, 2022

It has been a long time since I last wrote about music on this blog. There were references and mentions of it here and there but the last piece that I devoted entirely to music must have been…I don’t know. Actually I do. I wrote an entry about the glory that is zouglou. I also did a radio piece on the same music for the ever delightful Music Time In Africa (MTIA) program and I promise the wonderful editor of MTIA that I have a bag full of musical goodies that I am dying to share as soon as 2023 gets under way. 

And then there was a time that you did not get to see any live music. At all. Covid. Shows were called off, entire festivals were cancelled – sometimes even in mid-flow. My own visit to the endearing village of Yanfolila in April last year was cut short when Mali’s then government announced emergency measures, just as Oumou Sangaré was getting ready to prepare the second day of her Festival Internationale du Wassoulou (FIWA). As always, she was unfazed by the event but there’s no denying that Covid has had a devastating effect on the music scene worldwide and one that’s never been taken fully into account by governments discussing compensating entrepreneurs for losses made during the pandemic. 

These last few years there’s been no shortage of non-musical stuff to write about, even in Mali, the heart of music as I never tire of telling anyone who knows me. Armed gangs committing crimes under the guise of religion, political tumult in Bamako, a cascade of coups, and away from the Sahel we had the attack at Grand Bassam… The strongest riposte to that debilitating act of blind hatred came in the form of…music. Zouglou of course.

However, dear friends, it’s time to make another foray into the world of music, if only because I am going to be at the next Ségou’Art festival, which features a generous helping of music. A lot of that music will fall under the moniker ‘urban’, which I consider rather meaningless – but hey: the desire to label everything and anything under the sun is only human. 

Now, almost one decade ago I wrote something about computerised musical trash and I still stand by that – but not entirely. Watch me making something of a half U-turn (“Oh shut up already, you’re just turning left or right…!”) and telling you that I absolutely adore Davido, Wizzkid, Tekno, Asake and all the others. Yes, I love Afrobeats! 

Pic: Punch Nigeria

Yes, I know, some don’t like the term, some think that the association with the music the late giants Tony Allen and Fela Kuti invented (Afrobeat without the ‘s’) is linguistically way too close for comfort and they have something of a point. After all, there is a huge gap between the two, even when the two genres extract some of their rythms from the same very African roots. Afrobeat is instantly, explicitly and emphatically political; Afrobeats is none of these things. Afrobeat comes alive on stage; Afrobeats is first and foremost studio music that gets performed live. Afrobeat drags you onto the dance floor; Afrobeats makes you sit and coolly observe the scene. Both heavily feature women who,  thankfully, besides looking gorgeous also do things like handle dance routines, background choruses and in the case of some Afrobeats tunes take the lead singing. Progress!

So…why did I write a piece about electronically propelled music in one breath and sing the praises of electronically propelled music in another? Yes, ahem, right, I can explain (three words men usually utter before they become a hot mess of utterly unconvincing contradictions). Alright, there are ten years between the first breath and the second and this immediately qualifies me for entry in the Guinness book of World Records. So what made me change my mind? The better question is what does Afrobeats have that the rest of the similarly electronically propelled music genres do not? 

In one word: listenability. 

Most modern pop, and that’s what we’re talking about here, is instantly annoying because boring, unimaginative, formulaic, samey, blah. Afrobeats avoids that trap by being sweet, nice, and seriously – I mean seriously – smooth. And this to me is the exact reason why Afrobeats not only has gone global but has gone globally mainstream. In the past, artists from the continent managed that, like Miriam Makeba, who basically invented world music a good three decades before the term was dreamed up in a London pub. But Afrobeats is an entire genre of popular music, invented, refined and expanded in West Africa (mostly Nigeria and Ghana with a bit of the UK thrown in) and exported to every corner of the globe entirely under its own steam. 

Pic taken from YouTube

So when a cover band plays an (admittedly, atrociously bad) cover version of Davido’s love anthem If (they hardly sing about anything else by the way) in a posh Marrakesh Hotel, airlines put a channel up of pop music and stuff it with Afrobeats tunes; when bars and cafés across Europe put it in their algorithm-driven piped music programs and mainstream radio stations everywhere put it on without batting an eyelid…then you can truly say that this is a global music phenomenon. 

And there’s one more thing Afrobeats has done: it has finally (FINALLY!) removed those insane barriers between music from the French-colonised and English-colonised parts of the continent. Walk into a bar, restaurant, club in Abidjan, Bamako, Dakar…Afrobeats. That would have been unthinkable not even that long ago. A force uniting an entire continent and that force is music. Only in Africa. So there it is: I Love Afrobeats and here’s a playlist to get you going.

Have an excellent 2023 everyone!