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LISTEN. THE heartbeat of the planet is thudding louder and calling out to be heard, the African heartbeat, resonant with centuries, tattooed out on logs and skins and drunk with electricity. It’s about time we paid attention. Some extraordinary things have been happening in popular African music in recent years and are only now making their way to western ears. There have been numerous invocations of African muse over the years – whether it’s sophisticated black African jazzers returning to ‘the source’ (and copping a sharp Afro name in the process), Brian and David whacked out in the bush of ghosts, or simply Adam’s Burundi codpiece – and good luck to all of them. No need for any shouts of ‘cultural plunder’ when Africa itself has been so very receptive to all manner of western and Caribbean musics from disco to dub.
None of these familiar evocations, nor even the work of the few African artists to make any impression here – Fela Juti, Dudu Pukwana, Gasper Lawal, yea even unto Osibisa – are any preparation for what’s been bubbling out of Western Africa lately. A sound which confounds our expectations. The cool elegance, freshness and vivacity of today’s African pop, its understated, insidious rhythms, its humour, above all its dancing mesmeric guitars, have already been showcased on Island’s Sound D’Afrique’ compilation from Francophone West Africa: Zaire, Congo, Senegal. Cameroon and the Ivory Coast.
Nigeria’s Sunny Ade has been a force in that more warrior like state’s music for some years, a trail of impressive and highly successful recordings behind him helping to stake out the identity of ‘Juju Music’, the Yoruba tribe’s individual blend of trad and mod elements, talking drums and chants heavily laced with that distinctive African guitar styling.
Now in his mid 30’s, this is Ade’s first recording for Island, and attempts to extend his customary strengths into new and more determinedly sophisticated areas. Recorded in Togo and mixed in London with Monsieur Martin Meissonnier de Paris at the controls, it features a variety if Ade’s already successful tunes and places them in a more adventurous, electronic context, being unafraid to use the technical facilities available and even adding synthesiser to the rhythm and guitar brew.
Ah, the guitars, Caarruthers, the guitars. Chattering, wailing, flapping and gliding, literally warped by the climate, tuned to different harmonies, picked and strummed and pitched in a way that mocks the instrument’s virtual redundancy in most of the more adventurous western music (special exemption for Defunkt).
It’s a startling, original style, a heady amalgam of funky riffs, ‘50s Ventures –style twang, country and western melody and whine, and, for all I know, African thumb piano.
Ade, who plays lead here, and his cohorts take the Afro-axe action a stage further than most by adding a shimmering, almost surreal steel guitar to the proceedings. Meissonnier’s synthesised, dubwise treatments of the same – notably on the instrumental ‘The Message’ – has already prompted one Afrophile to complain to me about “that synthesiser shit”, but while the production sometimes teeters on the sensational, the overall effect of ‘Juju Music’ is undeniably powerful. It’s a compelling voyage down dark, sinuous currents of rhythm, a jangle of melodic colour clamouring up above, with periods of lilting, almost placid vocal delicacy and plunging instrumental rapids to complete the scenery. Since it’s sung in what one presumes to be Yoruba, there isn’t much one can divine from the lyrics, but doubtless life and love are the principal inspirations.
There will doubtless be those who find the marketing of this music distasteful, and with a slew of African releases upcoming elsewhere, a trio of London Afrobeat club nights already in action, along with the commendable Afro-Pub combo The Ivory Coasters, there are certainly ears pricking up at the first rumble of bandwagon wheels turning. Personally, with African music so largely unobtainable and unheard, I would reckon all exposure to be a good thing, simply part of the ‘80s admirable appetite for musics outside the confines of our glorious 25 years of, ahem, rock. Meantime take a dive into ‘Juju Music’, it’s magic.
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