March 23, 2007
Music, like most if not all hallmarks of civilization, can trace its roots back to Africa. People have been drumming on this continent for millennia beyond our comprehension. But those roots are frayed and thin indeed if they still bear any connection to some of the crap that comes out of Western culture today.
Call me anti-ethnocentric, but when I come to Africa I don’t expect to hear shitass Western music that was popular a decade ago. Yet that’s what they play on Ghana's most popular radio station, where Trish is working, much of the time. And everybody within earshot sings along.
Celine Dion, Shania Twain, Bryan Adams. These are Canadian pop stars whose music, I’m sorry to say, sucks. And I was a big Bryan Adams fan, back when he was Reckless. But they’re all huge in Ghana right now, though none of them looks or sounds African to me.
The day does not go by that each of these wonders of the Western musical tradition gets some airtime for something they wrote five or 10 or even 15 years ago. At least Whitney Houston is black, but still, ‘I Will Always Love You,’ her biggest hit that I used to convert into punk rock in my head back when I was wiping tables at Red Robin, bears little resemblance to anything one could conceivably call African. Yet it gets played every day in Ghana.
And I won’t even go into the primo alternative to Western pop schlock, which is Gospel. I wrote about that already. If I had to choose a plain of hell where the demons played either that theme song from Titanic or the croonings of the Born Agains, I’d take hell with Celine. At least I would spend eternity gagging, rather than suicidal.
Give me djembes, dammit. Drums, bells, flutes. Hell, throw in some guitar, Ali Farka Touré style. There’s an entire chapter in our Lonely Planet guide devoted to “The Music of West Africa” that lists ten must-have albums. It doesn’t include anything by Celine Dion, or Shania Twain or any of the other pop divas who plague the airwaves all the time.
Thank Jah for Bob Marley. At least you can hear and feel the African roots in Reggae, so its popularity here is justified. Plus, I enjoy it. But I know there’s a rich tradition of fantastic music that I’ve never heard before, or very little: Islamic bells, pygmy water rhythms, xylophone tunes of bizarre ranges. And that’s not even the mainstream stuff, like Touré and Youssou N’Dour.
Yet none of it ever gets any airtime. Trumped by Bryan. Barf.
Oh shit… does this mean West Africa will soon be rocking (and I use that term as mockingly as possible) with Hanson? And what about Alanis? Has it been 10 years since Jagged Little Pill? The other day I heard KrissKross, no joke, you remember those punk-ass kids with the backwards clothes who sang “Jump… jump!”
If they’re getting hot now, what can this mean for the future?
I mourn for you, Ghana — loudly, to drown out the mushy wailings of Western pop stars who have usurped your airwaves. Yet everyone around me seems to dig it. I’ll have to chalk it on the growing list of things about Africa that I don’t understand. G.