The debate has been raging for a while now, with legendary African artistes accusing their youthful peers of “blindly copying the West” in their craft. Many others have accused contemporary artistes of not being “African enough” by not sticking with an African sound.
Which leads many to wonder, what exactly is African music? In a continent whose people criticise the West for regarding Africa as a country, why would they turn around and assume that 54 countries can all produce one sound, beat or rhythm?
Is it a specific sound or genre or is anything sang by an African automatically classified as African music?
South African jazz maestro Hugh Masekela, during his latest visit to Nairobi, said: “We are bad copies of the people who colonised us; many of us can’t even speak our mother tongue yet there is no richer continent on the planet. If we don’t do heritage restoration, our great grandchildren will be asked who they are and they will say ‘we were once Africans, a long ago.’
“Technology has killed music; it used to be about the music but the accountants and businessmen took over. Most of our stars today have good technology but bad music.”
During an interview with Julie Gichuru, Zimbambwe legend Oliver Mtukudzi said. “Young artistes need to figure out who they are, not what they are trying to be.
“If you come out trying to impress then you will always be second class — sounding like everybody else and losing your identity. There is no better African than an African. Let’s be who we are, we are unique and we have no competition.”
Africa has about 3,000 tribes, cultures and unique musical identities, with about three centuries of history and human movement making it difficult to narrow down to a clear definition.
Tribal migration routes reveal that most tribes came from common places but the differences are evident. Traditional African music is so potent that wherever the black man went his music took captive of the cultures that he found there.
American hit maker Harry Belafonte in his documentary series, “Roots of Rhythm”, traces the Latin Music that made him a star to Cuba, Rio and Africa.
From Rio (Brazil), Havana (Cuba), Kingstone (Jamaica), New Orleans to New York (USA), the African influence is undeniable along the slave routes.
Reggae, salsa, blues, jazz, rock and all other 19th century music are essentially an Afro-fusion: mixing African traditional rhythms and melodies with those of the slave masters.
The 2008 blockbuster Cadillac Records, staring Beyonce, Jeffrey Wright and Mos Def, highlighted the influence that blues had on modern music. Blues were essentially a mix of African traditional music with American and Western influences by African Americans.
Even rock, which is today considered very white, did not escape the potent African influence. Some of the earlier rock and roll artistes blatantly stole from blues legends like Chuck Barry, Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters.
Major rock bands like Led Zeppelin, The Beatles and Beach Boys were successfully sued for plagiarism in the progressive years. Celebrated rock band Rolling Stones got their name from a blues song by the iconic Muddy Waters, whom they credit as a major influence.
When young artistes sing reggae, riddims, hip-hop, soul, jazz, rock, salsa or Cuban rumba, are they really copying from the West or just expressing another flavour of African music from the other side of the world?
Tabu Osusa, a man with over three decades of experience in music, tries to explain what “African music” is. He gives an example of Oliver Mtukudzi, saying: “Whenever he plays the guitar, he is translating the ‘Mbira’ sound”.
“Some of the early Benga artistes were expressing the ‘Orutu’ on the guitar — that is what made them unique. Any proficient guitarist can play better than Oliver, but it’s his uniqueness that makes him stand out. Franco also drew a lot of inspiration from the traditional ‘Likembe’ in his guitar licks and made music that outlasted him. You can pull your traditional roots like ‘Mwomboko’, ‘Chakacha’ and develop it into jazz, hip hop, reggae and even dance. We won’t get very far copying; we need to be original.”
Osusa is backed by producer Robert “RKay” Kimanzi: “In the early 2000, we had lost direction a little bit, but we now seem to be in an African renaissance period. We have many Nigerian artistes who have studied abroad and can speak fine English but they are singing in pidgin English. Right now, Chakacha beat is ruling Africa. If you listen to what Davido, Tekno, and artistes from Ghana and East African are doing, you’ll hear variations of Chakacha. There is nothing new under the sun, we all copy from each other.
“If you listen to Slim Ali and some of the Kenyan bands of the 70s, they were doing exactly what the Americans were doing at the time. For me, African music is in the rhythm, though language is a part of it, but it’s mainly our traditional percussions and mixing them with other influences.”
So, is Kamanzi saying we are not really copying if we infuse our percussions and use our native tongues? Probably, but one Fred Obachi Machoka has a twist.
“We lost the plot in the 90s when we introduced this hip hop that couldn’t resonate with the Kenyan public. Nigerians, Congolese and South Africans are invading our air space because we have left the space for them.
“Unfortunately, most of our local artistes don’t listen to advice, they want to scrap the old because they consider it old fashioned.”
According to him, with close to 40 years in the business, the 60s to the 80s were the glory days of the “African sound”.
“We started very well just after independence. The late 1960 and 1970 had some very creative artistes,” he narrates. “We had people like Daudi Kabaka, Fadhili Williams, Kamaru and many others. The Congolese came in the late 70s with Les Mangelepas and Super Mazembe, but we still had our local bands like Maroon Commandos and the Kenyan-Tanzanian group Les Wanyika, who were still relevant.”
Osusa says Africans should stop aping the West, and aping each other. “Kenyans are totally lost, we sound like everyone else except ourselves. Being a great player means nothing, if you are not unique.
“I have been listening to AFRIMMA (African Muzik Magazine Awards – 2016) entries and all Africans are beginning to sound the same. African music is enriched by our diversity, not by aping each other and losing all the different flavours we have,” he says.
According to Saint P, a Kenyan producer with a regional footing and a growing global reach, the old stars shouldn’t be too fast in blaming the youth since, to them, African culture is blurred.
“Our current cultural context is devoid of African traditions — from the clothes we wear to the language we speak. So why are we shocked if our music sounds Western? We are only being real to what we know,” he says.
When it comes to music, even he is confused at times. “There’s a ragga track I made for a Jamaican gospel artiste, Omari, on which he featured Kenyan raga artistes J-fam. I was just trying to make an authentic Jamaican song, but when it hit the streets of Kingston, everyone there was calling it an African beat.
At the end of the day we are artistes and we are trying to make a living so we will play whatever pays the bill. It is true we copy, but what do you expect when we were taught Western music in school, and we grow up listening to it on radio. Where would we have heard traditional beats to appreciate them either as an audience or as an artiste.”
Looks like this debate is split on generational viewpoints so, people need to agree to disagree. So what is African music? Who knows and according to the youth, who cares?