Check out this website:
Jackpot. This is probably the most comprehensive website of African pop music I’ve come across (thanks to Adam Thometz for finding this). The site itself is pretty self-explanatory: it’s a collection of tapes from various countries in Africa, from Mali to Senegal to South Africa, etc.
When I think of African popular music, I think of such artists as Mahmoud Ahmed and Fela Kuti (both of whom I love), and I immediately think off all the music with Afro- in the title. But there is much, much more. The music on this website is a mix of music that is sometimes very traditional-sounding African music, but more predominantly a result of Western influence on African music, much like the music of Fela Kuti and Mahmoud Ahmed, but in some ways less westernized (westernization is, of course, an unquantifiable thing, but you certainly can hear different strengths of influence from artist to artist). You will hear some crazy things when you begin to listen to the music on here.
Some of my favorite finds so far are the following:
Professor Jay – Machozi Jasho Na Damu:
I was particularly drawn to this album because of the rhythmic complexity in which Professor Jay raps. Although it sounds very spontaneous, if you listen closely you will hear the main rapping voice getting doubled by a second voice (assumingly an overdub by Professor Jay again). There are moments in this piece where the two voices sing phrases in perfect rhythmic unison, while still making the phrase seem spontaneous. After revisiting these passages, I began to hear them as complex rhythmic gestures (i.e. not your basic fruityloops patterns; by the way, what an awful name. fruity loops? “I use fruity loops to make my rap beats…”). I’m almost certain that Professor Jay didn’t write down these rhythms. His way of naturally integrating rhythm into his speech is what makes his rapping and overdubbing so effective. You can hear this pretty well on his track “Jina Langu.”
In case you’re interested, it’s a known fact that African music relies much more on learning by ear than Western music does. In fact, writing down music exists mostly as a Western thing altogether; the universal musical “code” that notation provides seems to favor Western musical idioms over those of other cultures. Try notating an Indian raga, or a Senegalese drum circle. It becomes extremely complex on paper.
Bereket Mengistab – Vol. 13:
Other than this being cool for just existing (Popular music from Eritrea… dig it), there are some points on this tape that are able to remain incredibly simple while outshining any kind of merit popular music from the U.S.A. and other Western countries might have. On Track 2, for example, after the quick drum machine intro, the synthesizer begins with a melody that the saxophone enhances just by doubling a few notes here and there. This does not only give the synthesizer an added timbral element (it’s funny; other than the singing, the sax is the only live instrument on this track), but creates a really intriguing polyphonic pattern; the saxophone is heard playing only on the downbeat, but it seems to continue through the measure. This is actually a phenomenon that is explored in academic classical music; take Philip Glass’ “Another Look at Harmony,” for example. That piece is full of different voices repeating musical fragments consisting of two or three notes that fit with other two- or three- note fragments to create a comprehensive melodic line. What’s slightly ironic is that Philip Glass’ “other” look at harmony is a common staple of much of the African pop music on this website.
Tislatin Onzar – 3 = 2+1:
Hahahaha. The name. So good. But here’s a cool tip: listen to this, then go listen to Archie Shepp’s “The Magic of Ju-Ju.” :)
This is music from Southern Morocco. I was really pleasantly surprised to hear that this was totally not what I was expecting when I clicked on the link under the picture. Judging by the album cover (which now seems awesomely ironic) I thought it was going to be a bunch of mediocre and cheesy love songs, and based on one of the comments I wasn’t the only one. But this turned out to be quite the opposite. The bell pattern is impressively fast and unwavering in tempo, the clapping is incredibly well coordinated; everything about this album is brilliant. It invites you into a very interesting sound world in which (according to Tim Abdellah’s comment) a “gnrbi lute,” an “awwad flute,” and a “rrbab fiddle,” can be heard. I was unable to find any information on the first two instruments mentioned, but there are similar instruments in other parts of Africa, like the Senegalese Akonting lute and the Ethiopian Washint flutes. I was able to find a bowed instrument found mostly in Persian music called the “Rebab”. According to Wikipedia, this instrument was also common among Islamic trading routes, which I am certain had a few stops in Morocco. So it makes sense that this instrument would be found in this music. It accompanies a group of singing and clapping men and women. The patterns are simple, but change slightly over time, and at times become layered and repeat at different rates of reiteration. You can dig very deep in this recording. Notice how the rebab only enters the piece on side B.
Now get this: Awesome Tapes from Africa does tours. I’m not sure how it works, but it seems like there are people around the world who play the music that is on this website in clubs. There are a lot of concerts in New York City. But no matter where you live, check the website often; they seem to post the events with a rather short notice.
For more detailed information, just visit their website; it has a brief caption for each album and every so often there are some very insightful comments (sometimes even translations). And by the way, “piga makofi” means, “clap your hands” in Tanzanian.