Indie Rock Embraces an African Invasion

By LARRY ROHTER  NY Time  1/30/11

THE indie record company Sub Pop first earned a reputation as a tastemaker in the late 1980s, when it signed and recorded the Seattle bands Nirvana and Soundgarden and other exponents of what came to be known as grunge. But one of its best-received recent releases is “I Speak Fula,” by Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba, an ensemble that plays small lutelike instruments and sings in various West African languages.

The Chicago label Thrill Jockey is another indie trendsetter, whose best-known act is probably Tortoise, the experimental post-rock band. But last week Thrill Jockey released Sidi Touré & Friends’ “Sahel Folk,” a lilting collection of songs played on acoustic guitars and related African instruments like the kurbu and kuntigui.

Everywhere you turn these days, it seems that the indie rock world is exploring African sounds. Labels like Dead Oceans, Secretly Canadian and True Panther have also begun releasing new recordings by African musicians, those acts have begun playing American gigs, and African music regularly gets attention on the indie-minded Web sites of Pitchfork, Mojo and The Fader.

“As a record buyer, someone who consumes music all the time, I buy music in all shapes and sizes, so this is not a big leap for me,” said Phil Waldorf, a founder of Dead Oceans. “The boundaries have been broken down over time, and I think there are a lot of really curious people out there. This is just another kind of music that they will share and talk to each other about, and we’re putting it out because we think it deserves a place in that discussion.”

Part of the joy of discovery for such music fans is the sheer variety of styles to be found on a continent that has a billion people living in more than 50 countries and is the ancestral home of American genres like jazz and the blues. The South African quartet known as Blk Jks favors a heavy rock sound, at times reminiscent of King Crimson, while the music of the Good Ones, whose “Kigali Y’ Izahabu” has just been released on Dead Oceans, is simplicity itself: voices and unamplified guitars, singing and playing in tuneful harmony.

In terms of geography, the African groups that are beginning to be heard in the United States include a handful from countries like South Africa, Sierra Leone, Kenya and Rwanda. But the focal point of the labels’ interest is clearly Mali, a landlocked nation in sub-Saharan West Africa with a population of only 14.5 million, less than one-10th that of Nigeria.

Both Bassekou Kouyate and Sidi Touré come from Mali, as do Tinariwen, the blind Francophone pop duo known as Amadou & Mariam, Toumani Diabaté, Afel Bocoum and older performers who first became known on the world-music circuit, like Ali Farka Touré, Salif Keita and Oumou Sangaré. The country’s reputation as a musical powerhouse has become so strong that Blk Jks is contemplating crossing the continent from Johannesburg to record its next CD there; Jon Kertzer, an ethnomusicologist who oversees Sub Pop’s Next Ambiance label, even wrote a paper titled “Good Golly, Why Mali?”

One answer to that question might be the country’s long history as a crossroads for nomadic peoples, which has resulted in an unusual blend of cultures and musical styles: Bambara, Songhai, Mandinka, Arab and Tuareg, among others. It also helps that the music of Mali is based on a strong tradition of stringed instruments, like the harplike kora and the ngoni, believed to be an ancestor of the banjo, both of which sound reassuringly familiar to Western ears raised on guitar music.

“It’s totally logical that the entrée point should be an instrument you can recognize,” said Bettina Richards, the founder of Thrill Jockey, whose African acts also include Extra Golden, an electric rock-based quartet that consists of two Americans and two Kenyans. “Sometimes things that seem totally disparate, once you dive in and get past the superficial differences, like the difference in language, you see a common approach.”

Ms. Richards also said that she sees parallels between an artist like Sidi Touré, who is about to make a second CD for her label with a full band, and her indie rock groups, including Tortoise. “Sidi is interested in taking traditional Songhai styles and making them contemporary, a hybrid,” she said. “That’s a common thread with all my bands, taking rock and jazz structures and making them uniquely their own.”

Labels like Nonesuch, through its Explorer series, began issuing compilations of African music as early as the 1960s. But executives at indie labels, bloggers and African music fans often date the start of the current boomlet to 1997, when the French label Buda Musique began reissuing what has become known as the Ethiopiques series, which now consists of more than 20 CDs of music from Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Originally recorded in the 1960s and 1970s, those discs feature the keyboard player and arranger Mulatu Astatke, the singer Mahmoud Ahmed and others who emerged from military and police bands during the reign of the emperor Haile Selassie. The music, a bit of which Jim Jarmusch featured in his 2005 film, “Broken Flowers,” shows the influence of jazz, rhythm and blues and Latin music, but also has harmonies, grooves and orchestrations that seem almost otherworldly.

“Ethiopiques was huge, very influential, transformational even,” said Jonathan Poneman, a founder of Sub Pop. “Not only was it great stuff, but it was put out in a way that was high quality, that looked good and was engaging. It was a combination of the exotic and the familiar, the kind of tasteful, definitive assessment of a place and time in global culture that anybody would love to be able to do.”

Then, early in the last decade, Tinariwen emerged, literally, out of the desert, gathering attention when it began performing at festivals like Peter Gabriel’s Womad in Britain. As Tuaregs from the Sahara, the band’s members had moved around Mali, Algeria and Libya, absorbing not only the influence of Arab and Berber music but also Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, forging a powerful, guitar-driven style marketed as “desert blues.”

Curiosity about African music may also be driven by the recent popularity of American bands like Dirty Projectors and especially Vampire Weekend, both of which began as projects of Ivy League students and have embraced African music and incorporated its rhythms and voicings. In Britain a similar process began even earlier: Damon Albarn released the “Mali Music” CD nearly a decade ago, while his band Blur was on hiatus.

“Vampire Weekend is the Paul Simon of the here and now, and I mean that as a compliment,” said Mel Puljic, a South African who heads Mondo Mundo, a booking agency that specializes in African and other third world performers. “They’ve been very healthy in building a bigger interest in the music.”

Some indie music observers even compare the impact of Vampire Weekend to a similar phenomenon in the late 1960s, when the popularity of blues-inspired bands like Cream, the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin encouraged crate-digging fans of those groups to delve deeper into the vaults and seek out the music of blues forefathers like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson and Skip James.

“I did that myself,” Mr. Kertzer said. “After I heard John Mayall, I went back and listened to Freddie King. It’s actually much easier to do that now, because the Internet has made almost everything so widely available.”

And just as Bob Marley became a symbol of third world authenticity when he first appeared on the pop scene in the 1970s, many in the current wave of African artists seem to be drawing credibility and legitimacy from their hardscrabble experiences. Both Tinariwen and the reggae-inflected Sierra Leone Refugee All-Stars emerged from exile and refugee camps, while the Good Ones are survivors of the Rwandan genocide and Blk Jks come from Johannesburg’s gritty Soweto area.

This is not the first time, of course, that American music makers and consumers have gravitated to African music. In the mid-1980s, two best-selling albums, Paul Simon’s “Graceland” and Peter Gabriel’s “So,” stimulated interest in and jump-started the careers of the South African vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour and the South African instrumentalists Ray Phiri and Bakithi Kumalo; a quarter of a century before that, the folk boom focused attention on the South African singer Miriam Makeba and trumpeter Hugh Masekela and the Nigerian percussionist Babatunde Olatunji and his “drums of passion.”

But those trends came, had their moment of commercial success and influence, and then faded into the background. So what’s to say the same thing won’t happen again with this latest wave of interest?

“These things always have some sort of apex, and I don’t know if we’re there yet,” Mr. Waldorf said. “I don’t think we are. But when you hit that peak, and people start to move on to something else, the best of it never leaves. There’s an ebb and a flow to it, so it may not always be growing.”

In the past, African artists have complained about their music being packaged as “exotic” and having their creative rights usurped by European and American record companies, studios and management companies, concerns that indie labels seem aware of and determined to avoid this time around. In addition, the current generation of artists is more savvy and plugged in than their predecessors.

“Once you start making deals with artists, as opposed to licensing reissues, which to me has always been a very gray area in terms of rights, that’s when they start to be seen as artists with careers and not as a postcard, oddity or curio,” said Chris Swanson, a founder of Secretly Canadian. “It feels less exotic and challenging now. For a label like us to sign a band from Africa is not so different than signing one from Sweden.”

The heads of the indie labels that have placed their modest bets on African music also point to the conditions that make this boomlet different from those in the past. It’s a cliché, but globalization and the Internet really have transformed what was once distant into something as close as a click, and that is true in both directions.

All a new fan of the music has to do, in fact, is visit the site of Awesome Tapes from Africa, which offers free MP3 downloads, or of labels like Analog Africa, Sublime Frequencies, Soundway and Honest Jon’s, which offer reissue collections with titles like “Angola Soundtrack: The Unique Sound of Luanda (1968-1976)” or “The World Ends: Afro Rock & Psychedelia in 1970s Nigeria.” And performers like Bassekou Kouyate now tour the United States, performing at festivals like Bonnaroo and CMJ, or in the case of Janka Nabay from Sierra Leone, even coming here to live.

“There are all kinds of listeners in the world, and many of them have access to all kinds of music,” Mr. Poneman said. “Let’s face it, the way the world worked when ‘Graceland’ came out is a lot different now. I believe in the ‘Field of Dreams’ axiom: If you build it, they will come.”

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One Response to “Indie Rock Embraces an African Invasion”

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