Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A Primer on West African Music

Unlike the U.S.’s melting-pot culture and our music scene’s incessant search for new sounds and styles, West Africans seem comfortable reserving only a handful of music categories to which they typically listen. (A Virgin Mega store would probably be a very intimidating place for your average Beninese.) On a recent bus ride I decided to try creating a taxonomy of all the sounds I’ve heard. This wasn’t too arduous a mental activity, but I am also no sophisticated connoisseur or technician of music. In any case I came up with 5 main categories of music that is commonly “locally” produced in West Africa:

- Traditional music. Yeah, Duh. West Africa’s traditional music can vary quite a bit depending on what region you’re in—each has its own personality, language, and canon of instruments. In my opinion there are certain regions that put out more beautiful and skillful music than others, but I won’t say which.

- Rumba sort of type stuff. Not a very technical term, but there you have it. I think this originates from the Congo, at least all the major artists seem to be there. Some of it sounds quite Latino.

- Cote d’Ivoirien Beat Music. This thrives all along coastal West Africa and is characteristically identified by a very overt electric drum-beat driving each song. Often there’s some trumpet involved. A lot of West African musicians seem to come from this stock— and it takes a lot for such an artist to sound original.è

- I want to add a sub-category to this one. I say sub-category because to me its just a more mellow version to the just-mentioned. But it probably (and as I am told) actually warrants its own category. It’s called, Zouk: a style actually originating from the Caribbean, and featuring slower beats.

- Reggae. Cote d’Ivoire is again the bastion of this school, but there is more variety and often more depth within. This music’s lyrics thrive get a lot of their inspiration from social issues.

- Hip-hop. Not sure if West-African hip hop has its roots in any particular place in the region, but many successful artists of this genre seem to come Senegal, perhaps because it is most one of the region’s countries most connected to Western culture whence rap comes. In any case, hip-hip is being attempted enough all over the subcontinent to warrant being its own category.

Here are some of my favorite albums. Some of them are produced in Africa so I’m not sure how widely availably they are, but I’ve tried to include links where possible:

- Habib Kioté: Malien singer. Exemplifies the best of acoustic traditional music. Hear samples here.

- Tiken Jah Fakoly – Noveau Albume. Probably my favorite reggae artist. Amazing lyrics and original sounds. He’s from Cote d’Ivoire but lives in France. A music video from this record.

- Magic System. I’m usually not a fan of the common-stock Cote d’Ivoirien stuff, but these guys are pretty good-O, good-O, good-O. Their website.

- Petite Miguelito. I had to throw at least one Beninese artist into the mix. I’ve seen Petite, and he really is small. But his songs are fun. Hard to find him one the internet but heres a picture at least to prove he's a little guy. Scroll up.

- Rokia Traoré. Beautiful, haunting voice. A rare example of the softer, more melancholic music that’s rather rare. Her website.