7.5.16

New African Music

Earlier this year I was thinking about Modern African Music. Guess what? Now I'm thinking about Modern African Music... again.


In 1993, as I never tire of telling people, I spoke to a bunch of people before I set off on my pseudo-evangelical trip to travel round West Africa playing Techno and Acid. Such was the climate around dance music intellectualism that mostly people embraced the idea. I remember, however, Sue Steward, even then a veteran voice in World music, expressing horror at the thought of African music being further contaminated by electronic music. At the time I scoffed...I scoffed a bit anyway. Flash forward to 2016 and we're completely blasé about the idea of electronic music from Africa.

In 2014 I dragged two friends to see "legendary" SA DJ Black Coffee play Fabric. There are a few good tracks on his LPs but generally their tone is too muted and cosmopolitan. Somewhere swirling in this there's an effective pun about Black Coffee and coffee table music. The night we saw him started promisingly but became increasingly bland. This could have been a set by any House DJ in the world. There was little of the distinctive SA flavour which I heard in 2002-3 in the excellent kwaito music of Revolution on "The Journey" and "The Journey Continues".

I thought Gqom might finally be the music I'd been waiting for. What I've heard online and on Gqom Oh! has been essentially interesting but at the same time disappointing. Rhythmically uninventive, colourless, unfeeling and empty. It has looked to Dubstep but not improved on it. It's not impossible that something is out there; that some producer will find the way to speak through Gqom's matrix. Indeed I look forward with great anticipation to that happening. In the meantime I'm haunted by the idea that Sue Steward was right all along.


Broadly dismissed in the reviews I've read this, Konono Nº1's latest release, is in contrast very good. People clearly think that on their fourth release an artist is on his last legs. No longer carrying the outsider music seal of approval which framed the reception of their 2004 release "Congotronics" (thank god) this latest collaboration with the Lisbon-based Angola-born DJ Batida is a gypsy-like take on African music, which paradoxically given the flux of post-internet life, seems more authentic in its forsaken roots.

The band's likembés, or mbira, are still heavily amplified and clangorous, but they ride what sounds like a software bassline. Batida has flecked the sound too with exquisite clicks and other nicely deployed computer percussion. Actually you'd expect far less subtle musical interventions from a "DJ". Frequently it's a mesmerising proposition.