Friday, February 22, 2013

The African Cup of Music

The African Cup of Nations finished about 10 days ago, bringing an end to a lackluster three weeks of footy action. I'm a huge proponent of African football, yet the quality of play displayed on those dusty South African pitches was not what the continent deserved, especially from some of the big names in international football like Yaya Toure, Victor Moses, Didier Drogba, etc.

Among the final four teams was a favorite, the Ghanaian Black Stars, and three underdogs, the Mali Eagles, the Stallions from Burkina Faso, and the Nigerian Super Eagles. In the real-life soccer tourney, Nigeria and Burkina Faso both upset their favored opponents to face each other in the final where a wundergoal by Nigerian Sunday Mba was enough to win it. However my question is, what if instead of 11 athletes, the countries had faced off with 11 songs that defined the last 50-so years of their musical legacies? How would that have played out? You've reached the perfect place to find that answer.

NOTE: I tried my best to have as little personal input in the song choices as possible. As much as I could I picked songs highlighted in the fantastic collection Africa: 50 Years of Music. I also went through some of the wonderful  Putumayo series as well as the Rough Guides to Music and other collections. My selections were limited to what Spotify offers (which is a surprisingly large amount of tunes). I also limited each artist to one song. I one day hope to host the ultimate battle of the bands between all of these artists (with holograms for those who have passed) but that day is not today.

Semifinal 1: Ghana vs Burkina Faso

While Burkina pulled out the shock upset in real life, with the Black Stars once again disappointing their fans by chumping the penalty shootout, this musical match-up is a truly lopsided affair. Burkinabe music is very underexposed, and only features once in the 50 Years Anthology. The Rough Guides and Putumayo barely mention the Sahelian country. Two highlights start off the playlist: "Djon Maya" (a former jamandahalf itself) and "Taximen", yet two studs don't make no footy squad. The other nine songs show promise and some flashes of brilliance, yet the lack of depth hurts the Stallions.

On the other hand, Ghana has had a vibrant and constantly evolving music scene for decades. Highlife music, a fusion of local rhythms mixed with Caribbean flavors, was born from the optimism surrounding Ghanaian independence and produced some legendary musicians such as E.T. Mensah. Highlife later evolved to hiplife and now Ghana is once again making waves on the international music scene with Azonto, a style of music which has already spread to Nigeria and the UK and could quickly be heading to further shores. Azonto revolves around a kaleidoscopic dance that brings in movements from every day life, ranging from calling someone on the phone to brushing your teeth (no joke). Ghana, which also has historical ties to the Rasta movement, keeps the irie vibes going with many well-known homegrown reggae singers. Although the Stallions were, in actuality, able to steal the shine of the Black Stars, in this first semifinal match up, Ghana's combination of historical heavy weights and modern moves make it the clear winner.

Semifinal 2: Nigeria vs Mali

The Malian squad was probably the feel good story of the tourney. While the desert country was in the midst of an icy armed standoff between the shaky government forces and Islamist rebels, Mali surprisingly made its way to the semis, led by former Barcelona midfielder Seydou "Cooler than a Polar Bear's Toenail" Keita. The French/African Union invasion of the rebel held north happened while the tourney was going on and many Malian players revealed shirts with messages of peace after scoring goals, showing their clear understanding of the greater significance of their play. Nigeria was expected to play, well, like Nigeria. Although the team featured stars like Victor Moses and John Obi Mikel, the expectations were that in-fighting and traditional Nigerianness would sink the squad. Nigeria ended up putting on one of the best performances of the tourney in this game, trouncing Mali 4-1 with an impress mix of unstoppable speed and power.

However, the musical battle is a much tighter affair. Mali's rich musical history, stemming from the oral tradition of griots who pass down family history from one generation to another, has today created stars on the world music scene such as Ali Farka Toure, Habib Koite, and Amadou & Mariam. The tradition present in the music is something that's hard to define but easy to hear, so much so that Habib Koite's latest forays into American blues sound sacrilegious  Listening to the dusty classics of greats like Toure, you almost can see the musical lineage work its way through centuries from the griots to across the Atlantic, ending its journey in more modern Jazz and Blues. 

Nigerian music on the other hand is fiercely modern. Afrobeat, the style of music pioneered most famously by Fela Kuti is the Malcolm X to highlife's MLK. Afrobeat both mirrored and influenced the American Soul movement of the 60s and 70s and is sublimely proud while wondering what happened to the promise of independence  Very aware of itself and, above all, very African, Nigerian Afrobeat and funk is undergoing a rediscovery in recent years, spearheaded by a Broadway play based on Fela's life. 

On the pitch, the West African musical titans start their finest 11 each and Mali manages to squeak out the victory with a combination of traditional sounds and modern stars. While the impact of Afrobeat is undeniable, modern Nigerian music fails to live up to the strong musical heritage of the 60s and 70s, a lopsidedness that the Malian greats are able to exploit. 

Championship Match: Ghana vs. Mali

After cruising through the Semifinal, Ghana comes up against a weary but proud Malian squad. Ghana's young guns, the artists at the forefront of the Azonto movement, seem to be the new gatekeepers of a bright musical legacy and are once again putting Ghana on the musical map, gaining unexpected listeners along the way (see: Said the Gramophone). However, although the commercial future for this homegrown movement is bright, the music is more known for its dances than its jams. While this could be perfect in an Instagram/YouTube world, the quality of what's being produced can't compare to the desert ballads of Mali. Mali's musical history is incredibly rich while its future also looks bright. Following the tradition of the griots, Malian music continues to be passed along (sometimes within families themselves such as Ali Farka's oldest son Vieux) with the weight of past grandeur seeming to push younger Malians to excel. While Nigerian and Ghanaian music perhaps better contextualize their young histories as independent nations, it's the timeless, transcendent nature of Malian music that makes it the winner of the Cup of African Music.

In the end we all win. West Africa as a region has a musical heritage that rivals any in the world. Check out the combined songs below, a sampler of 44 songs that give a glimpse into this old yet vibrant tradition.

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