The mystery and the magic of Africa have enchanted the Western psyche ever since European travelers discovered the wonders of the continent, presumably, before time even began. However, in purely historical terms, one can point to Napoleon’s plunder of Egypt as a good example of Western interest in the continent, which was followed, in rapid succession, by numerous European nations to divide up and colonize Africa’s inhabitants. Heck, even Holland got in on the act!
Then there were the legions of authors who used the exotic locales of various African nations to provide perilous and enigmatic backdrops to their tales of intrigue and suspense. One thinks most readily of Joseph Conrad unravelling the Congo in Heart of Darkness, or The Little Prince crash landing in the Sahara at the behest of Antoine de Saint-Exupery, or Paul Bowles deconstructing Tangier in The Sheltering Sky.
Most notoriously, William S. Burroughs created his own Moroccan Interzone for The Naked Lunch, an intrepid excursion into the true heart of darkness; man’s divided soul. Perhaps Burroughs was right when he commandeered the assassin Hassan-i Sabbah’s dying words to characterize the timelessness and dislocation of his adopted North African home; “Nothing is true; Everything is permitted.”
Musicians throughout the years have made the pilgrimage to Africa in order to absorb the spirit with the hope that it will infuse their own recordings. Paul McCartney recorded, arguably, his best solo work, Band on the Run, in Lagos, Paul Simon, most famously and notoriously, recorded his groundbreaking Graceland in South Africa, and the Rolling Stones’ late Brian Jones legendarily journeyed to the remote mountains of Morocco in 1968 with author Brion Gysin to record the Master Musicians of Joujouka during the weeklong Rites of Pan festival.
Drummer Ginger Baker moved to Nigeria for six years in the 1970’s, and then to South Africa for another decade from 1999. Bob Dylan sang about the wonders of Mozambique in 1976, and whether it was the actual southeastern coastal Mozambique, or the Mozambique of the mind that Bob was singing his praises to, one must marvel at the inexplicable spell the continent of Africa casts over a fertile artistic imagination.
And it’s been doing it for years. And it’s never going to stop. Like, ever. Why is that? What is the spirit that draws artistic explorers to Africa’s varied shores and vistas, and compels them to surrender in ecstatic abandon to its charm and sway?
Strange case, this.
It is apparent, through even the most cursory glance at any map, that the continent of Africa is HUGE! Consider this, if you will; the land mass of Africa is an estimated 11.67 million square miles, whereas the United States encompasses a paltry 3.794 million square miles. What this suggests is that there can be no discussion of “Africa” as a continent sharing a unified identity, just as historical discussions suggesting that “The Orient” was a quantifiable entity proved equally misguided.
Certainly, there are attributes that many African nations hold in common, and it is accurate to reflect that each nation has experienced its share of extreme political turmoil and violent revolution, but also that each region has its own unique history and character, often exemplified in the music that it produces. Despite the singularity of each nation, there is also, as with any colonized people, much cultural overlap and combination of influences.
For example, the country of Sudan, Africa’s largest nation until it split in two in 2011, is bordered bynine other countries. In its nine million year history, Sudan has been governed, alternately, by Turkish, Egyptian, British, Christian, Communist, and Islamic forces. Throughout Sudan’s storied history, cultural and arts considerations have ebbed and flowed, dependent upon which particular government was in charge, and which artists weren’t being imprisoned at the time.
In other words, there were times when it was perfectly legal in Sudan to perform secular songs at wedding parties or in nightclubs, and at other times only songs of religious devotion or praise to the government could be performed without fear of being beaten, or other government reprisals.
Considering the especially chaotic and repressive nature of Sudan’s political landscape, it is a wonder that its musicians could manifest such spiritual and transcendent expression. For example, the smooth, besuited, and much beloved Zaidan Ibrahim, who died at 68 in 2011, was known as “The Brown Nightingale” and performed with, what can only be considered, a Sudanese version of a 1940’s American big band, except in place of a horn section, there is a violin section, but also electric guitar, bongos, and some mean accordion. He is admirable for singing twelve minute songs that allow his musicians to jam a bit for a full two minutes before his turn comes to join in. Sister act, Al Balabil, “The Nightingales,” were incredibly popular for their harmonies, their rhythms, and their fashion sense, but they were also revered for their outspoken stance on women’s rights in a culture and an industry where women were expected to follow, but not lead.
Although there is a noticeable diversity to all of the music that emanates from the continent of Africa, there is also a respect for tradition that resolves itself in the present. And, although, to Western ears, much African music, due, in part to its Middle Eastern influences, sound as if it were moving backwards, it is actually moving us into the future by celebrating its past.
Anthony Galli currently lives in Athens, Georgia. He shares a birthday with his black cat, Magic, and they both claim Wings of Desire as their favorite film. Anthony has published two books of poetry, Amnesia for Insomniacs and Invisible Idiot.