Any followers of my 1 x 43 blog have probably read my blog about funk and its importance as an inescapable part of modern music. Now Africa is undeniably the birthplace of the blue note or the flattened third, fifth or seventh notes. Yet old African vintage records are often ignored by the younger generation of Africans, but revered and venerated in the west. I had to be in the United States to find my valuable $45 copy of Zambian afrorock band The Witch’s’ debut album Introduction. Secondly it took the genius of hip hop producer Madlib to actually use a song by The Witch as sample fodder, for a song in his Beat Konducta series of beat tapes. Yet we the African youth of today ignore the golden era of African funk/rock. So I will give a small history of the movement but also try to explain why in God’s name people are going to such great lengths to dig up old strange sounding music from bygone eras and far-flung places.
African music has been popular on the world stage for a while and was recorded to some degree in the 1930s and 1940s by record labels in England recording church music from expatriate populations in Europe at the time. This is the music heard on the album “Living Is Hard: West African Music in Britain, 1927–1929 compilation.”
This is music that is Pre-Funk and Pre-Fela Kuti. Yet the first star of African music would probably accurately be Nigerian drummer Olatunji Babatunde. Olatunjis’ music inspired a lot of black jazz musicians from the 1950s and 1960s in particular he notably inspired John Coltrane, and even did work with Max Roach; he also inspired Mickey Hart the drummer for Jam band The Grateful Dead. Carlos Santanna covers Olatunji for his smash hit “Jingo lo ba.”
Olatunji inspired songs like Afro-blue out of Coltrane, inspired drummers like Max Roach to take their drumming to new heights by creating poly-rhythms in a different manner. Then post-Olatunji we find a lull as African music is ignored on the already crowded world music scene. Olatunji acted as a pre-cursor to the world music craze that would follow. After Olatunji the third world would produce stars like India’s Ravi-Shankar and many other Indian sitar players who were adored by jazz players and psychedelic rock musicians alike. Apart from say Cameroonian saxophonist Manu Dibango we don’t really see much of African music in the west.
Yet on the continent of Africa every important phase in western music was being emulated to some degree. The 1960s would be important both politically and musically for Africa. It’s at this time that in the Americas the Black Power movement is spreading, and politically radical ideas are taking root everywhere from Cuba to Iran. People in the so-called third world began to identify with the disenfranchised voices of their brethren around the world and in response artists took note. We begin to hear politically charged funk coming out of America courtesy of soul brother number one James Brown. Brown would play a huge part in influencing the many resident night club bands that would form in West Africa. Bands like:
Orchestre Poly Rythmo de Cotonou from Benin
These guys are heavy as hell, using a heavy funk backdrop and the noisy dissonance of the fuzz box to create this dizzying psychedelic music.
In the strictly purist sense of the word these guys weren’t a funk band per-say. But they had funk as a bedrock but were more influenced by Cumbia and Rumba styles coming from south America. These brothers hail from the beautiful lands of Senegal.
Bembeya Jazz National
From out of Sekou Toures guinea these guys were a nationally sanctioned state band. Their music echoed the deep wolof traditions of its lead singer Aboubacar Demba Camara.
The bands mentioned above represent a drop in the bucket when it comes to some of the best African bands of the 60s and 70s. Also outside of their regions I don’t think anyone in Zambia or Kenya had heard of or were listening to this music. The one musician from this era who would break the mold and acquire some western notoriety would be Fela Ransome Kuti.
Fela would be the musician who would open up the flood gates and encourage people to look more closely at the African funk scene which predated him. A discussion on Fela is probably a story left for a much later date. Yet as Africans become more politicized and began to foster new political and social identities they began to fuse what they were hearing on the radio and in vinyl coming from the west to create they own form of psychadelicfunkrock music.
Wrap your ears around the psychedelic madness of Zambian bands like the witch (We Intend to Cause Havoc)
Or Chrissy Zebby Tembo & the Fishermen
You can tell that these Zambians were hip to Jimi Hendrix and fusing it with Sly & the Family Stone to create their own home brewed style of fuzzyfunkrock music. The thing is, I grew up in Africa my whole life and I was never conscious of this rich history in Zambian music. I always grew up thinking Africans never listened to rock music and I was sadly very mistaken once I heard these bands.
The fascination with these old sounds is sort of the same as what happened when people like Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck heard the blues for the first time. Its kind of like what happened when Jack Johnson and Charley Patton were uncovered. It was a realization by the youth that they had been playing it all wrong. It was a recapturing or a discovery of a form of musical expression, which was crude in delivery but honest in emotional complexity. But like the blues its often white kids that gravitated to it while it was ignored by the black populations that had invented it. This is exactly the case when people ignore bands like Monomono and Hugh Masekela criticizing them for being old people’s music. So if you have a good internet connection and want to hear some of this music hear me out live on
Further interest in this and other issues check out Hama’s blogs
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