African music homegrown in the USA began in the late ’50’s/early ’60’s with Babatunde Olatunji‘s New York concerts, his Drums of Passion LPs, and his establishment of a Harlem drumming and dancing school. From the beginning he danced around the issue of authenticity; lacking enough musicians and instruments from his parent Yoruba culture, he was obliged to collaborate with many instrumentalists and dancers from other parts of Africa and the New World. Almost every subsequent US-based African bandleader has followed this model. Olatunji has performed in exceptionally fine intercultural efforts with Carlos Santana, Mickey Hart, and Glen Velez, among others. The majority, if not the entirety, of his discography has been produced in the USA, including his most recent collective-improv disc Love Drum Talk.
Combining African instruments and musicians with Western ones is the province of a few traditional instrument masters. Olatunji was first but Obo Addy, Samba Ngo, Foday Musa Suso, Hassan Hakmoun, and Ibrahima Camara have joined him. (Numerous musicians abroad have also been doing this.)
Ghanaian percussionist Obo Addy has worked effectively with Americans since settling in Portland in the early ’80’s. His band, Kukrudu, features thick brass textures and virtuosic solos by jazz-trained cats and mixes Ghanaian instruments like the Dzili xylophone, talking drums and various other traditional idiophones and membranophones with brass, drum kit, electric bass, and electric guitar. Addy rejects the sweet, major key dance music of his homeland, known as “guitar band highlife,” in favor of the stirring minor key melodic structures of his Ga ethnic heritage. There’s a strong resemblance between Ga vocals and early Black American spirituals and field hollers. Obo tours with Andrew Cyrille and has also collaborated with the Kronos Quartet.
Samba Ngo, a fine guitarist and sanza/likembe player has just released an innovative and beautiful CD: Metamorphosis. It’s made-in-the-USA with a nationally mixed bag of excellent players. Ngo’s live show is reputed to be a thrilling combination of African roots with Santana-like blues rock that sends purists running for the hills and gets everyone else up on their feet. He too rejects the major-key simplicity of his homeland’s dominant pop music style, soukous, instead employing modes and song forms that are based in Congolese folk music. Like Obo, Babatunde and all the other genre-bending artists mentioned in this paragraph, Samba has a problem attracting African audiences based in North America who eschew live, adventurous cross-pollinated music in favor of DJ’s spinning endless 120-beats-per-minute drum-machine soukous. Thus the audience for all this music tends to be Afro-centric African-Americans and college-educated artsy intellectuals of all ethnicities and national backgrounds. In fact, Obo’s main source of support is educational institutions, while for Ngo, it’s the big music festivals.
Mandinka kora master Foday Musa Suso has lived in Chicago for many years making experimental cross-cultural fusions with the Mandingo Griot Society, Bill Laswell, Herbie Hancock, Philip Glass, and the Kronos Quartet, as well as traditional and original solo recordings. For those who wish to be exposed to the gentle, elegant, sophisticated, stately, acoustic side of African music, Foday’s Village Life, Hand Power, and Mansa Bendung albums are must-haves. In addition to his mastery of traditional and folk music, Foday has a passion for the interaction between technology and tradition, and therefore his Mandingo Griot Society and later solo discs feature explorations of that realm. He has even experimented with the gravichord, an electronic kora developed in the United States.
From Morocco, a very like-minded musician, Hassan Hakmoun, has established himself in the American concert and recording world since 1987 playing traditional Gnawa music in addition to fusing it with rock and world music. Like Obo and Foday, he has worked with the Kronos, and like Foday he has worked with Adam Rudolph. He plays the sintir, a three-stringed, long-necked lute that has similarities to the banjo in its construction, its playing technique, and its Senegambian origin. He has released recordings on Peter Gabriel’s Realworld label and most recently on Alula Records, a US-based world fusion label run by Japanese banjo innovator Akira Sakate. Hakmoun is a uniquely entrancing performer and has therefore been able to attract American audiences and achieve the kind of US TV exposure that no other African musician has achieved.
In Boston Senegalese master drummer Ibrahima Camara teaches traditional drumming and dance in various community centers while also leading an African-Jamaican-American crossover experiment called “Ibrahima’s World Beat.” He’s an excellent resource for the dissemination of traditional Senegambian music and dance there, but “World Beat” is not very strong.
There are plenty of African non-masters in the US whose forte is dance/party music, exploration of American songwriting ideas, and/or the deliberate incorporation of Latin, Caribbean and African-American rhythmic grooves into their music. Based in L.A. with his multinational band, Prince Ndedi Eyango is one of Cameroon’s leading makossa stars and also an independent label entrepreneur who is America’s best source for Cameroonian recordings.(Preya Music Co.) He has been studying music in L.A. and has incorporated American structural songwriting ideas into his music, though he has so far resisted writing in English. For American ears, it’s still his village-based songs that are the most exciting. In Boston, Congolese soukous guitarist Kadima Tshibangu leads American and African players in a very authentic-sounding group known as “Rumbafrica,” and has to date favored training his Americans in the proper way to play Congolese music, rather than blending and crossing over. Similar in nature, guitarist Dominic Kanza, who has performed with Paul Simon and Sting, runs a soukous outfit in New York called the “African Rhythm Machine” which features a Pan-African line-up and a smattering of English lyrics. Kanza can be found incorporating some jazz licks and breaks into his music, but that’s something that guitarists in his homeland have always done. When I’ve caught Dominic in NY jam sessions, I’ve seen his versatility with American musical forms; he’s definitely a polyglot guitarist.
New York is also home to some successful African-led crossover projects that perhaps shouldn’t be considered African music — they’re something else. Bassist Baghiti Khumalo, a friend of Kanza’s who also performs and records with Paul Simon, has released a CD of his own music, pretty much a well-played ‘smooth jazz’ effort. Congolese singer-sdngwriter Alain N’kossi Konda has recently signed with Harry Belafonte’s Niger Records (affiliated with Palm Pictures/Rykodisc) and released his first CD: an effort which mixes the rumba-rock influence of Papa Wemba with the spacious pop aesthetics of Sting, Peter Gabriel and Seal. Afroblue (with whom I’ve played guitar for four years) mixes African, Latin, Israeli, Caribbean, and US players to achieve a euphoric diasporic groove. Kanza, N’kossi and Afroblue have all written in both African languages and English and have also relied on New York’s fine base of Caribbean and Latin players to fill out their rhythm sections with people who, because of their musical heritage, fit in automatically. All these artists can be found hanging out at each other’s gigs, performing in the same venues, sharing pickup players, and appearing at the same jam sessions. They can also be said to have created a young New York audience for their music which is completely separate from the typical ‘world music’ audience, a subtle but important distinction which indicates that these sounds are becoming organic and less ‘foreign.’
Other Africans one may find living and performing in the States include Nigerian O.J. Ekemode, Ghanaian Gyedu Blay Ambolley, Ethiopians Aster Aweke and Seleshie Demassie, Ugandan Samite, South Africa Tony Cedras, and Afro-European Angelique Kidjo — a recent arrival.
African music for the concert hall is still in its infancy in the US, not having gotten much farther than the Kronos Quartet’s Pieces of Africa recording. So far, all of the African musicians who have come to the US are traditional, pop, or jazz players who, if they write music down at all, are usually doing so as arrangers, not composers. Unlike the Chinese and Latin musicians, the African players have by and large been unable to penetrate the foundation and performing arts center funding syndicate (Obo is an exception) and this has slowed down the process of infusing the fine arts world with US-originated African music projects. It also must be said that the fine arts world and the media have demonstrated a shameful prejudice against Africans who live and work in the US, regarding them as impure and inauthentic. This ignores the agency of the African musicians who live and create here, for whom the idea of working with Americans and other non-Africans is a thrilling learning experience.
From The Unlimited Flavors of American Pie
by Sid Whelan
© 1999 NewMusicBox