Scramble for Africa 3.0

Pub date June 11, 2008
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

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Africa is not a monolith. Africa is not even Africa: the outsider bastardization kicked off in earnest when the Roman misnomer of a finite North African region was allowed to stand for the entire continent. However, for the West’s millennial hipsters currently emuutf8g such early adopters of 30 years ago — the oft-cited David Byrne and Brian Eno/Talking Heads, Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel, and the Police — the space formerly known as the Dark Continent has come to resemble the Golden Corral.

Vampire Weekend and other indie participants in the sonic Scramble for Africa 3.0 obviously see midcentury and postcolonial African pop culture as a cheap date, a provider of organic rock mystery where one can queue for heaping sides of hi-life, soukous, mbaqanga, mbalax, juju, rai, township jive, and Ténéré desert blues. La Présence Africaine is renewing rock ‘n’ roll — again. Striving ahead of the pale pack of black Yankee rockers is retired Nuer boy soldier Emmanuel Jal, justly a current press darling for his fine new second release, Warchild (Sonic 360).

Yet the acclaim for Jal has not outstripped the simultaneous giddiness and hand-wringing of a music press delighted by indie’s abrupt romance with African styles — hot on the heels of a new generation’s overlapping yen for English folk and Balkan gypsy sounds — but vaguely concerned about white exploitation of same, wagging fingers concerning musical "miscegenation." Race mixing yielded my family, cultural exchange has been the way of the world since antiquity, and as a critic whose mission involves exposing audiences to new sounds, I would never deny peoples’ enjoyment of genres seemingly beyond their ken. However, as Jal bitingly reminds us on Warchild‘s unabashed "Vagina," the rape of Africa — that blood-soaked project most essential to modernity — has gone down long enough.

Vampire Weekend, “A-Punk”

The problem with indie’s Karen Blixen close-up is that the transference of African mystery is going one-way — as usual. Vampire Weekend (XL) has sold 27,000 and counting and debuted on Billboard at no. 17, whereas, according to writer Robert Christgau in the New York Times, Sterns’ recent anthology encompassing the career of Congolese soukous master Tabu Ley Rochereau, The Voice of Lightness, has sold barely 9,000 copies.

Meanwhile, indie’s gone natives — including Mahjongg, the Dirty Projectors, Rafter, Yeasayer, and, from across the pond, Foals (Oxford), Courteeners (Manchester), and Suburban Kids with Biblical Names (Sweden) — seem to consider themselves smugly above postcolonial guilt (per DP’s Dave Longstreth) and the 1980s-vintage political correctness that plagued Simon and his apartheid-chic Graceland (Warner Bros., 1986). Vampire Weekend is good enough indie entertainment when you find Björk’s favorite Congolese likembé ensemble Konono No. 1 too repetitive and prefer songs about summertime splendor in the grass. But when Vampire Weekend’s unapologetically preppy white/white-ethnic musicians dub their music "Upper West Side Soweto" and seemingly aspire to come on like Brazzaville Beach Boyz — without any consciousness of such late 20th-century African titans or tyrants as Patrice Lumumba and Mobutu Sese Seko, respectively — it rankles this daughter of third world coalition builders raised in the ’70s and ’80s postcolonial era. Further, when Mahjongg’s Hunter Husar can tell Rhapsody’s Play blog that "to steal musically from another culture is to do a service to humanity," and "we don’t care about Africa any more than any other place," my everything-but-the-burden radar rings sharply.

Certainly there is energy around Africa on the independent music scene: black string band revivalists like Ebony Hillbillies have made the crossing back to West Africa in deep study of old-timey and country’s African ancestry. Funky Africa reissues are all the rage among crate-diggers: think Lagos Chop Up (Honest Jon’s, 2005), etc. And that Western-Kenyan summit Extra Golden was purposely omitted from the above indie roll call, for this multiracial quartet and their latest recording Hera Ma Nono (Thrill Jockey) suggest a way out of the cultural cul-de-sac their trendier fellows are already trapped in.

Further, the tug-of-war between disenfranchised folk of African descent who desired preservation of their mysteries and the white folks who possessed inchoate love for same has raged throughout modern times. As my friend Wendy Fonarow, author of Empire of Dirt: The Aesthetics and Rituals of British Indie Music (Wesleyan, 2006), recently told the UK Guardian: "There are interesting theories as to why rock ‘n’ roll happened when it did. There’s evidence to suggest Christianity, which exists as a missionising religion, had run out of ‘exotic others’ to missionise after the fall of colonialism. Therefore it was in their interests to get adolescents to act like heathens, so they had a supply of unconverted people to convert. So what we did was produce a heathen in our own midst to act out all the same things we’d accused other societies of doing."

Extra Golden promo for “Hera Ma Nono”

By Fonarow’s reckoning it would seem what Longstreth and company are up to is a necessary will to neotribalism, their recorded work a reversal of the detrimental European separation of mind and body. I would counter that these groups’ appropriation of African sounds is a means to the end of escaping the internally imposed authenticity rules of indie rock, a refutation of the linear trip between Greg Ginn and Kurt Cobain when their monoculture reduced them to the last of their race. Then again, options are at the heart of white privilege, as is the agency to cherry-pick from the non-Western bounty. It remains utterly disappointing that millennial musicians can quote Africana without making reference to kwassa kwassa‘s source in the Congo, where millions people have died, young boys mercilessly conscripted and countless women raped as tool of war, while their own blessings of Ivy League degrees and the lack of a draft amid a resurgence of American imperialism permit them a guilt-free stance toward postcolonial upheaval and their gentrification of longtime black neighborhoods. Vampire Weekend’s Brooklynites apparently see no irony in their song "Walcott": "Hyannisport is a ghetto / … Lobster’s claw is sharp as knives / Evil feasts on human lives."

Evil definitely feasts on human lives in the Congo, but evildoers are also harvesting bones in New York City, where the 50 bullets martyring Sean Bell’s body are currently being reduced to mere accident. These white African prodigals don’t and will never suffer the psychic angst of being black and oppressed. Vampire Weekend can always go home again, but we’ve got no home.


June 22, 7 p.m., $15

Rickshaw Stop

155 Fell, SF