Saturday, December 15, 2012

African Music: Heart Beat of World Beat

African music: Heart Beat of world beat

Friday, 14 December 2012 00:00
By Benson Idonije Art - Arts
Nigerian Guardian

THE desire for African music by the Western world has become rather profound in recent years. This new development may be traceable to the renewed awareness engendered by the success on the international scene of African musicians, such as Papa Wemba, Femi Kuti, Lagbaja, Angelique Kidjo, Yussuf N’dour, among others.

But this new crop of musicians owe their inspiration to the likes of Emmanuel Tetteh Mensah, MiriamMakeba, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, Manu Dibango and Franco Luambo Makiadi who are some of the major influences.

The influence of highlife on today’s popular African music continues to demonstrate a transcendent beauty7 that has remained undiminished till today, courtesy of E.T. Mensah’s pioneering efforts. Born 1919 in Accra, Mensah grew up in the formative years of the highlife style. He started playing music in the early 30s, and eventually became the undisputed king of highlife music.

Mensah broke away from the original Tempos Band which included leader, Joe Kelly on piano, Guy Warren (now Kofi Ghanaba) in 1948 in farour of a more flexible outfit for self expression. His own individual version of the Tempos Band offered a blend of highlife and jive that appealed to both Africans and Europeans alike. He later evolved a style which was less dependent on Western dance band techniques and English renditions.

In 1952, Mensah augmented the percussion section and turned his ear more toward the tropical rhythms of South America, the Caribbean and of course, African. He had also taken up trumpet in addition to the alto saxophone because he would not always rely on funding a suitable sideman for the instrument.

Mensah’s relaxed, natural style proved immediately popular in Accra and when he recorded his first 78 revolution per minute discs in 1952 he was quickly acclaimed the king of highlife. The first recordings from the golden era of highlife were sung in the main Ghanaian languages. Twi, Fonti and Ga, as well as English. The records were frequently backed with calypso numbers.

And in 1952, the Tempos Band became the only professional band in the then Gold Coast, a status by frequent and lucrative tours of Nigeria. That year, Mensah made his first solo trip to England where he performed with many jazz regulars and caught the eye of the British press. He gave highlife international recognition and its flavouring can be found today in the various idioms that are attracting international attention from Africa, including the new interpretation of the Rumba beat from Central Africa with Franco as a major source of inspiration.

Franco Luambo Makiadi of OK Jazz fame has been described as the colossus of African music. Franco’s hitting guitar solos and big band, Rumba, dominated Africa for more than 30 years to pave the way for today’s Papa Wemba who has redressed folklore music and turned it into a fashion religion.

Franco died in 1989 at age of 51 to cut short his professional career. But for the over three decades that he performed, he stood out like a colossus over African musical culture.

Franco was a star before independence and he survived most of the practicing artistes of the 1950s with whom he forged the beginning of Congo-Zairean music, and outshone them at their own trade as well. But he gave the people of Africa more than music. He gave them a legendary hero of mythical status.

O.K. Jazz developed the most dynamic of big band sounds. Full of rhythmic tension, interwoven guitar parts, powerful vocal harmonies and brassy fanfares. Through it all shone the urgent metallic sound of Franco’s guitar, which he picked with fingers like talons.

Franco was a professional guitar ace since the age of 11. At 17, he co-founded O.K. Jazz. A year later he was dubbed the “sorcerer of the guitar,” and never lost the aura of wizardry until his untimely death.

Franco’s business was dance. But he was also a poet of the people; a cutting satirist, lavish praise singer and witty sound commentator in the African oral tradition. And to the people of Zaire at the time, he provided running commentary on everyday life which accompanied them through four decades of immense social change, from colonial times through independence to nationhood in President Mobutu’s single party state.

Franco appeared in some 18 African countries and played frequently to African audiences in the Francophone capitals of Europe. Franco Luambo Makiadi remains a source of inspiration, a big influence for music from the entire Rumba Region of Central Africa.

On the other hand, Miriam Makeba remains the inspirer of the female singing that has developed to an amazingly professional level today. Aside from the cultural influence she has on almost every African female singer, by her successful example she has excelled in a profession which the womenfolk would not be encouraged to venture into.

When apartheid was introduced to South Africa, Makeba was just 15, but old enough to appreciate the consequences of the oppressive legislative laws that governed the country. Notwithstanding, her singing career progressed, performing jazz standards and Kwela melodies in township bars, first with the Cuban Brothers and then the Manhattan Brothers with whom she toured Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) and Zaire, (then Congo).

By 1957, she was appearing as soloist in the African Jazz and Variety Review which toured Africa for 18 months, before landing the role in the musical, King Kong. The key to her international success was a small singing part in the film, Come Back Africa. And she eventually won for herself the acronym, “Mama Africa,” releasing a string of memorable recordings, including the Click Song, Patapata and Malaika which have rmained the basis of her repertoire. She became a source of inspiration even to male musicians like Manu Dibango in terms of Africanners.

Dibango’s early musical career began in France at the age of 15. Bit he later attained international recognition in 1973 with Soul Makossa which, on release, shot the American charts.

Prior to that time, Manu had persuaded the Camerounian government to sponsor a record in praise of the national football team who were hosting the African Nations Cup tournament, which is currently going on.

On one side of the record was the football anthem and on the other was the first version of Soul Makossa. He was very impressed when he went back to Cameroun in 1972 to find that the record had become very popular.

According to him: “The people were dancing to the music. I mean, this connection between the music and the dance gave m the idea to compose not exactly Makossa but Soul Makossa, a version of the Makossa which is a traditional dance. So I tried to compose my own Makossa with my own culture because every musician has his own culture, which depends on the environment where you live and the people you know and the contact you have with the people. I had my own chance in 1972 with Soul Makossa but before that I played any type of music from Latin to jazz and even ‘real’ African music, folklore music.”

And with a valuable piece of advice, Manu concludes. “I think if you are going to develop your own thing you must know first what is going on first around you.”

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