The picture is so selective, actually, that many of my West African acquaintances might not recognize most of the music their country sells on the world stage. To take one example, Ghana's most famous musical export r emains highlife, a calypso- and jazz-influenced concoction birthed in the 50s by big bands like E.T. Mensah and the Tempos. Today, E.T. and his contemporaries are rarely played, performed, or discussed in public in Ghana; highlife tête (old/classic highlife) instead refers to mid-80s drum machine funk stars like Daddy Lumba and Kojo Antwi, artists who crooned like Luther Vandross over ultra-slick productions.Music in West Africa has moved at a rapid pace, fuelled by a baby boom eclipsing that experienced by America and Europe in the 1950s, and the availability of both high-end and low-end music-production technology (apparently Fruity Loops is huge over there). Of course, there's a panoply of scenes there, with different countries having their own scenes, and some scenes owing more to American or Caribbean music than others.
Ivoirian rhythms are so twitchy that crunk would have come like a tranquilizer on this dance-hungry, hyper-rhythmic nation. Some of the planet's best dancehalls and worst roadblocks are here, a testament to two of the country's nighttime priorities: clubbing and government extortion. The capital's CD shops are stocked with charismatic mic-hogs, loudmouths, and humor-mongers belting out tragic stories in the soothing tone of a drill sergeant. Military lockdown no doubt changed the way Ivoirians flow, the way their snare drums patter, the way their dance moves shake like the heebie-jeebies (e.g., the Bird Flu dance of 2006). This is post-traumatic stress rap. The explosive urban strain, the boastful comedy, and the displacement are all familiar. So too is the obsession with wealth and wealthier places that gave the genre its name: "Coupe Decale". In the Ivoirian French, it means to steal and run; to go out and explore the world, swipe a Parisian's pocketbook, then dash back to Abidjan.
And then there's the complex matter of the "Ghana Rap" contingent, the chunk that wants to be accepted as rappers-- members of the Black American experience-- first and Ghanaians second... It's tempting to write these guys off as social misfits-- bright minds in a struggling, post-colonial nation to compete for membership in a contest that doesn't even acknowledge their existence-- when they spend time channeling rap to imagine themselves as part of an American underworld they know little about. But there's plenty in it for their audience, too: There's something invigorating about hearing one's globally devalued local tongue voiced over a hip-hop beat, a real hip-hop beat with unpolished synth squeals, a reverberated handclap.
Perhaps because they don't deal with such a tiny, cash-strapped market, the Nigerian artists tend to be more confident, more refined, and more likely to cross the sea. Although the nation could do without more tired Internet fraud associations, I recommend most heartily Olu Maintain's "Yahooze"-- a single about scamming suckers online and wasting the money on Hennessey. More slick and more serious is Storm Records, whose roster has largely managed the nimble knack of mastering American idioms without being tripped up by the specifics (check out Naeto C, "Kini Big Deal", Ikechukwu, "Shobedobedoo"). These are the sorts of hits that don't demand the same kind of sociological preface that an Asem record calls for, and they could more easily travel.The article includes a lot of embedded audio streams with examples of the songs mentioned.
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