"Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one." - Charles Mackay
Sunday, January 01, 2006
Roots Rock Africa
Where Reggae is King

"There are dreadlocks in its teeming streets, sporting red, gold, and green clothing festooned with badges whose patois inscriptions call for peace, love, and I-nity. Its jam-packed nightclubs feature DJs toasting over dub tracks, while couples wine and grind till dawn. Its stores rapidly sell out the latest Reggae hits by artists with names like Ras Kimono, Kole-Man Revolutionaire, and the Mandators. Meanwhile, perplexed authorities lament the eclipse of the country's traditional culture and the hold that reggae has taken of its youth. Jamaica, right? Wrong. You're in Nigeria, where reggae is king." - Roger Steffens.

In fact the above quote could be a description of any urban centre in Africa although now when walking the streets you can hear other popular musics such as the latest hip-hop or hardcore rap available on the market. There is something inherent about these and other foreign popular musics and cultures that cross oceans and language barriers to beat in the hearts of urban youth around the world. One such, which is as much a religion and lifestyle as a music, has broken new ground. This is African reggae.

When I first came to writing this article I had an idea to look at the importance of Jamaican reggae music on Africa, especially looking at the impact of such heroes as Bob Marley. After much consideration and listening however, I became drawn to the differences occurring between Jamaican and African Reggae. After all, it seemed ridiculous to focus on Jamaican reggae when there are so many sensational African reggae stars. I took a u-turn to concentrate more on Africa and the skills musicians have in reinterpreting and recreating reggae sounds.

Just as in other areas around the globe, Africa has swayed to the lulling groove of the reggae beat since the late 1970s. This Jamaican soul music is described as "a sort of tropic rock'n'roll." So why has this style become so popular around the world especially in Africa? Imagine if you will a speciality rum cocktail, with a recipe of "one part rocksteady, one part mento, a hint of ska tempo, mixed well in the heat of West Kingston, and brought to the boil with an increasing social consciousness." This is Jamaican reggae. Each ingredient adds it's own unique quality making it irresistible to the palette. It is not surprising that it caught on so fast. However, there were other factors that contributed to the impression Jamaican reggae made on the youth of Africa.

In the early 1980s Jamaican musicians toured Africa giving people a taste of this new, predominantly black popular music style. Many African reggae musicians cite Bob Marley along with other Jamaican artists Peter Tosh and Jimmy Cliff as their "earliest and most enduring musical as well as ideological influences." It must not be underestimated, however, just how influential Bob Marley, the "apostle of reggae" was and still is on the youth of Africa and the rest of the world. Still talked about to this day is the concert he played in Harare, Zimbabwe on its day of independence. He even composed the song Zimbabwe for the event and when performed found that his audience knew the lyrics word for word, a national anthem for the Zimbabwean people. Worldwide on May 11th 2001, concerts were held in memoriam of the reggae king with Dar es Salaam staging a joint music show consisting of at least 20 local reggae music groups.

The potent appeal of this music however came from the socio-politically charged lyrics that struck a chord with African listeners who understood the plight of their distant cousins. As one Nigerian reggae musician says, "The problem with people in the Diaspora is similar if not identical to the situation here in Africa…. Living in a depressed economic condition where the standard of living is deplorable, there will always be a cry for improvement especially where protest cannot be directly registered." This was underlined even more when the African people were directly addressed in Bob Marley's song Africa Unite. Along with socio-politically charged texts this Jamaican reggae is infused with religiously inspired ideals.

"Exodus movement of Jah people.
Open your eyes and let me tell you this
Men and people will fight ya down (tell me why?)
When you see Jah lightLet me tell you if you're not wrong (then why?)
So we gonna walk, alright, through the roads of creation.
We're the generation (tell me why?)
Trod through great tribulation." (The Wailers, Exodus)
"I hear the words of the Rastaman say
Babylon you throne gone down, gone down
Babylon you throne gone down.
I say fly away home to ZionFly away home.
One bright morning when my work is over
Man will fly away home."
(The Wailers, Rastaman Chant)

These messages of black redemption, self respect and exodus from Babylon, all focus on a roots reggae ideal reiterating Rastafarian beliefs and the 'Back to Africa' movement initiated by the Rastafarian prophet Marcus Garvey. Singer and leader of the Maytals, Ras Michael says that reggae " is the black Rastaman line of message to the world." This message is heard and felt among all people who know of slavery and oppression.

With the alliance between reggae music and Rastafarian beliefs, the music is able to keep in touch with "neo African traditions". Contrary to popular belief however, reggae is not the true Rastafarian music. This consists mainly of drumming with no modern instruments like the electric guitar. In the early days of the religion, with a search for the roots ideal, Rastafarians were becoming more and more unhappy with the influences of Euro-Christian music. Coming into contact around the 1930s with Burra men (a group of ex-plantation workers) in the Kingston slums, the Rastas found a more African musical tradition of drumming. When the two groups started to merge around the 1940s the Rastafarians began to develop a new style out of this tradition. Three Burru drums were kept and renamed. The bass is struck with a padded stick and has a low pitch, the funde has an alto pitch and is longer and narrower than the bass, and the highest pitched drum is the repeater, it is played with the fingertips. All three drums became known as the akete drums. Two different varieties of drumming emerged, "churchical ridims" for religious occasions and "heartrical ridims" for non-religious songs. In the "heartrical ridims" you can hear a faster and lighter drumming technique whereas the "churchical ridims" are weighty and slow. It is the ponderous, slower ridims that have influenced reggae. If you listen to the Wailers' Rastaman Chant (available on Burnin' the Wailers, 1973, original recording remastered by Universal 2001) you can hear this influence. This echo within the reggae rhythm registered a familiarity in the ear of every African listener, drawing parallels with their own musical traditions.

In the late 1970s in the capital of Nigeria, Lagos, cinemas were screening The Harder They Come. It introduced a soundtrack consisting almost entirely of reggae songs and featured the artist Jimmy Cliff. Popularity of this Jamaican style started to escalate in urban centres. With an ever-increasing audience, it was not long until the music markets were swamped with bootleg tapes of Jamaican records. Lucky Dube remembers when he was 17 and the Jamaican reggae scene was thriving even in South Africa where powerful anti State messages were censored under Apartheid. "You wouldn't just go buy it from a shop in South Africa! Jimmy Cliff's music was easily available in the country because he wasn't as militant as Bob's and Peter's so we could get some of this stuff quite easily. Legalise It by Peter Tosh, One Love by Bob Marley, those I think were the first ones we could get freely." In the early 1980s radio stations started to play Jamaican reggae and this music was able to stretch past the confines of urban centres. When asked how widely Jamaican reggae was circulating, Lucky replies, "I can only say it was all over South Africa because wherever you went people would know who Peter Tosh was and his songs. Even bands that were still just starting out to play music, you'd find them trying to play Peter Tosh's music or Bob Marley's music all over South Africa."

All these factors combined, inspired many African musicians to take up this delicious reggae cocktail and add some ingredients of their own. Africa has an acute ability to look out towards the West, absorb musical styles such as jazz, soul, funk, reggae and hip-hop, and Africanise them. Just look at the musics of Fela Kuti and Afrobeat, Youssou N'Dour and mbalax, Franco and his Congolese guitar style, jazz musicians such as Bheke Mheseleke, the list is endless. Some of these musicians combine different styles together creating a contemporary popular African sound that is unique, whereas others to a certain degree imitate a style adding an essential African resonance. Côte d'Ivoire's star Alpha Blondy says, "The whole world is just a very small village now. And all kinds of influences flow from everywhere." "I'm not motivated to just sit down in one spot and then play only traditional rhythms. I want to be my own self. All my influences from all around the world, share in my music. I think it's a good thing that we are cross pollinating."

By early 1980s, at the start of the reggae revolution, many musicians all over the world jumped on this tempting musical bandwagon. They reproduced reggae rhythms and Rasta inspired lyrics. Africa, heard the likes of Thomas Mapfumo (before Chimurenga) and others singing in English and relaying the standard reggae beat. Though if listened to closely the songs were not just mere imitations of Jamaican "prototypes." However subtle, a process of adaptation had occurred along the voyage to Africa. As more musicians were inspired to take up the reggae vibe, the music came into its own and a new recognisably Pan African style was created. Why was this style such a popular one? The attraction came and still does come from the music working on two levels - that of entertainment and a means of expressing Pan African solidarity.

It was Côte d'Ivoire's star, Alpha Blondy who put African reggae on the map. Whilst studying in the States during the late 1970s he was swept into the reggae scene and soon started to recreate this popular sound. Bringing the music back to his homeland, he transcribed Rastafarian ideals for an African audience. In 1983, he made his debut on the TV talent show "Premier Chance." The popularity of this performance turned him instantly into a young star and soon after recorded his first album Jah Glory. It was not only in Côte d'Ivoire that he gained a following. The controversial imagery and taboo subjects that where tackled in his lyrics enabled urban youth across the whole of Africa to identify with his music. After Bob Marley's untimely death in the early 1980s, African listeners turned to Blondy for inspiration and direction. To this day, he and his band serve as a model for reggae groups throughout Africa. His extraordinary vision, ability and skill to embrace controversial issues and unite Africa, came through even more with the release of his album Apartheid is Nazism in 1986. This launched Blondy's career internationally and soon after the whole globe was bobbin to an African reggae grove and hearing his important messages.

One of the main reasons why Blondy and other African reggae greats have achieved such a following in Africa is their continuing experimentation with the music style bringing it into the forefront of African popular music. In Francophone and Lusophone Africa some of the meaning behind the music of the Jamaican artists was lost. This was due to the lyrics being sung in English. Many African artists were aware of this and started singing their texts in local languages. Alpha Blondy sings in his mother tongue Dioula. He also sings in English, French, Hebrew, Arabic and even combines the languages within songs. This serves as a symbol connecting the local with the global. Along with a great many other musicians who have tackled the subject, the Nigerian reggae queen Evi-Edna Ogholi discusses in her song One Kilometer (1988) the extreme linguistic diversity occurring even in her home country. She calls for a common language that would unite her homeland. African reggae was increasingly becoming a Pan African style stretching across language barriers." Africa has a number of territories where reggae speaks as a universal language," points out the South African reggae idol Lucky Dube.

As well as incorporating local languages into the lyrics, African reggae musicians brought something of their own musical culture into their songs. Amid the smoky vocals of Lucky Dube tunes, you can hear a twist of mbaqanga.(Zulu Soul) "People think that reggae is music that you cannot add anything to. It just had to be the clang-clang clangclang every time. I fell it needs some new sounds, some elements put into it. Of course not to take it away from its roots, not taking it away from the rhythm, that Marley-Tosh reggae sound," he says. Other musicians follow suite, you can hear how on Wass-Reggae, the Malian Askia Modibo sets into the reggae mould, pentatonic music of the Wassoulou (a group of hunting people of the forests of Southern Mali). This fusion situates African reggae music, produced over the last twenty years, apart from its distant cousins in the Diaspora.
A national and international star who has superseded Blondy is the South African Lucky Dube. This man is a true revolutionary in the eyes of his African compadres. "The spirit of Lucky Dube's music and dance epitomizes the spirit of Black liberation." Born in Ermelo, 150kms from Johannesburg in South Africa he was brought up by his mother. Singing in church and school choirs, Lucky knew from an early age that he wanted to be a musician. Whilst still at school he played in his first group "The Sky Way Band" and in 1979 set out professionally. But it wasn't reggae music but Mbaqanga - "Zulu Soul" that he experimented with first. Associated with the South African townships, Mbaqanga was one of the dominant popular musics of the time and it was no surprise that Lucky felt drawn to it. He joined the "Love Brothers" where he met his future manager Richard Siluma and recorded an album Kudala Ngikuncenga (it's a long time since I've been begging you). Six mbaqanga albums later, in 1984, he made a heartfelt transition to reggae. "Reggae is the one and only way of sending a message to the masses…. I wanted to sing reggae for a long time because I felt it in me, but outside forces did not want to hear it and they kept it from happening…. I finally just could not keep silent with that message and made the decision that reggae would be my life as a musician." When trying to make this transition Dube had to jump a few hurdles. His record company, Gallo, was all but keen to delve into this unsafe musical realm. "The thing is I always wanted to do reggae music from the time when I started. It was impossible to start off as a reggae singer in South Africa because, first of all, the record companies didn't believe in reggae and the people themselves didn't believe in reggae."

Lucky's first reggae album Rastas Never Die, was banned and his record company tried to persuade him to go back to the mbaqanga style. "What happened was when we got into the studio - because Gallo said we should get back in and record another album but a Zulu album this time - we got into the studio and we recorded a reggae album Think About The Children…. Gallo didn't know about the album…. They only found out about it when it had to go through to production." This perseverance paid off and people started to buy into the South African reggae artist's sound. The music was so popular that Think About The Children was the first South African album to be certified gold. Lucky assumed the position of message singer by the late 1980s and this Rastas music served as a mouthpiece for the frustrations of not just his local community but mirrored all of African society. "Lucky Dube performed his mega hit Slave, ostensibly about alcohol, in the bad old days of apartheid for throngs of black township teenagers. When Lucky asked his fans to raise their hands if they were slaves they did so in a heartbreaking testimony to their predicament." It is undefiably his spirit that shines through in performances.

Moving away slightly from the original Jamaican Rastaman's messagae, African reggae artists tackle issues that are specific to Africa. Dube says, "A Lot of people think that being Rasta means you've got to sing about Jah and maybe sing about ganja, and sing about white men and slavery and oppression. That's not how I take Rastafarianism. I don't want to use, say, Jah in a song just because Peter Tosh used Jah or most of the Rastas are using Jah in their songs. I don't use it, if I don't feel it." Themes such as the increasing awareness of AIDS, and the impending struggles of a nation, post-independence, are frequently readdressed. Lucky's, Is This Freedom on his recent Soul Taker album is a prime example. "You see I find it easy to sing about what I know rather than singing about something from somebody else's perspective," he says.

Ping-ponging back and forth between Africa, Jamaica, America and Europe, it is apparent that reggae music is interlinked with a popular culture that is appealing to African youth in urban centres. This is illustrated with the increasing amount of young people who are growing dreadlocks and sporting the clothes Rastafari all over the world wear. However, I see this as an assimilation of a popular culture rather than an embrace of a religion. With a media explosion, moving into the millennium African urban youth are bombarded with more and more images of musics stemming from the Americas. Reggae, hip-hop, drum 'n' bass, garage, all these popular forms are flying across the airwaves tempting young people to experiment musically and culturally. Their engagement with these global musics seems to be one of the ways they can make sense of their own society and politics. It also becomes a way in which the youth of Africa can be heard. It is not that the youth are just trying to aspire to be like their cousins in Jamaica, the U.S. or Europe but are stretching out with open arms to show that they are just as talented and can stand up and be counted. Through its multitude of talented musicians, and popularity among listeners, I believe African Reggae holds a firm place up there alongside the great African popular musics. Its constant development and reinvention ensures that internationally we will go on to enjoy the likes of Lucky Dube and other upcoming young reggae musicians for many years to come.
posted by R J Noriega at 12:41 AM | Permalink |


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