Dashikis to Sega: The Budding Sound of Africa in Electronic Music
In the US, Afrocentrism is the movement that was responsible for the aggressive and emotive lyrics of Lauryn Hill and even the creation of America’s musical television program 106 & Park and its parent channel BET. Ultimately, it is the ongoing attempt to preserve and celebrate African artistic influence. The 90’s saw a spectacular appropriation, where African-American artists like X Clan and De la Soul rejected ‘ghetto-appropriate’ clothes and wore the black, green, gold and red of African flags. In the music video for ‘I Left My Wallet In El Segundo’, A Tribe Called Quest road trip to Mexico in 90’s coloured Dashikis. However, despite the wide reception and commercialization of hip-hop, the celebration of African arts has always seemed to be limited to black communities.
However, African melodies and their differentiating song structures are filling the music libraries of existing and budding musicians from genres outside the direct descendants of African spirituals and blues. In his March interview with FACT, Jamie XX spoke enthusiastically about the influence of African vinyl on his upcoming work with unnamed pop artists and how the continent’s influence on the whole is definitely “becoming more visible”. African sounds, musical technique and culture has been extending past hip-hop ciphers of the ‘90s and Def Jam’s spoken word poetry, and into other musical communities.
The assumption of African musical culture into genres outside of jazz, blues, and hip-hop has been mostly subliminal – hidden in the technique or motives. At a first listen, the music of half-Mauritian producer Mo Kolours seems mostly rooted in electronic composition. A deeper listen will reveal a kind of unknown otherworldliness, an exotic drumming easy to attribute to some sort of African or Indian drum rather than the moutia or ravanne of Sega music. In his third track “Bomptious” from ‘Tusk Dance’, released in February, the true fusion of the Sega music of his homeland, an original hybrid of Malagasy and European music, and the electronic styles of Western culture is revealed – ‘Knightly, we do it tightly’ he sings in his ode to Keira Knightley.
More and more, African percussion is becoming a dominant voice in electronic music. Four Tet’s most recent release “Nina” is a collaboration with Neneh Cherry and The Jungle Brothers’ Afrika Baby Bam. Baby Bam’s voice brings the essence of hip-hop and Cherry’s references to ‘Bitches Brew wine’ roots us deep into the sounds of Miles Davis and into the storytelling rhythm of spoken word. Even on its own we can still hear the overbearing influence of African percussion in Four Tet’s production. The instrumental is a blended procession of African drums and ruminative house styles.
Boiler Room’s recent Paris and London collaboration with Diesel and Edun’s Studio Africa set Mosca and Culoe de Song in a back to back set that paired the most complimentary sounds of South African House and UK Funky. From Little Dragon to Baloji, the set list included musicians with eclectic array of African influences. Belgian rapper Baloji, with French rapping and upbeat rhythmic guitar and dance, performed a set deeply rooted in his Congolese roots. His emotive lyrics “I’m going home to see my people” created a sense of community in his music. It seems as if Boiler Room’s collaborations with Studio Africa is a motion to incorporate more biographical or cultural music into an initiative often celebrating more aesthetically or even technically focused music.
No other electronic producer is more preoccupied with this narrative side of electronic music than Romare. Not just in his use of percussion but he also combines the rhythms of West Africa with pre-existing audio of the voices of prisoners, of people from Harlem to explore the connection between African and African-American music. He splices discussions of race and identity with the voices of activists and samples of Lyn Collins and the Urban All Stars in hopes of creating what he believes to be a new synergistic form of music found between differentiating musical cultures. His product is a documentary, almost archeological type of afrocentric footwork, appropriately named ‘Meditations On Afrocentrism’. His original hope was to include each of the samples used on the back of the album sleeve as a kind of bibliography for readers to investigate the relationship between his music and other musical cultures. However, copyright laws prohibited Romare from listing his influences, so the 13-minute track “Footnotes” was created to convey his intentions instead.
Yet the integration of African influence has also been subtler and less intricate. Anonymous designer A Hidden Place is the artist responsible for creating the infamous, indigenous-looking masks of SBTRKT. In an interview with Okayafrica, the visual art director attributes his inspiration to the ‘ethereal quality’ he finds in native societies of which stem not just from Africa but from India to South America. He explains that his modern interpretations of conventional ceremonial masks provide a kind of “escapism from the ordinary”.