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Indie Rock Rediscovers the Motherland

Kinky Afro

In 1951 Folkways Records, on their Ethnic Folkways imprint, released the two-LP set Negro Folk Music of Africa and America, 24 field recordings from exotic and unknown (at least to most Americans) regions of the world, from South Africa, French Equatorial Africa, Zanzibar and Ethiopia, to Brazil, Colombia, Haiti, Puerto Rico, even Alabama and Mississippi. Besides one of the first LP attempts to connect the music of the Motherland and the American South, it's one of the craziest and deepest meditations on rhythm you'll ever hear.

There's some pure voodoo on the collection — yelps of passion deeper than even Scott Stapp could imagine — that bridges African chant with American holler and moan. "Traits of African musical style have become intertwined in a wide variety of ways and in many different places with elements derived from Europe to produce a series of well-integrated, vigorous and peculiarly American hybrids," writes Richard Alan Waterman in the liner notes.

King Sunny Ade shares Yoruban party sounds with the world on Juju Music.
King Sunny Ade shares Yoruban party sounds with the world on Juju Music.
Talking Heads' Remain In Light seamlessly unites post-punk and Afrobeat.
Talking Heads' Remain In Light seamlessly unites post-punk and Afrobeat.

Perhaps the most peculiar American hybrid to result from this cross-pollination is the one spawned by the overeducated Caucasian subspecies known as "The Hipster." From F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1920s to Miles Davis's Birth of the Cool and beyond, upper-crusties have long been drawn to mysterious African and Afro-American musical idioms in an effort to reconcile their cultured effeteness and that burning ember of rhythm nestled deep within their pelvic bones. Regardless of pedigree, whines of privilege must occasionally give way to howls of defiance, after all.

William Burroughs chanted with Morocco's Master Musicians of Joujouka, as did the Rolling Stones' Brian Jones a decade later. John Fahey was digging for old Charley Patton records with the same drive as latter-day backpackers rustling for A Tribe Called Quest 12-inchers. Keith Richards chomped down American R&B one 78 at a time. In two decades, music geeks will no doubt be searching out old crunk and ghetto-tech singles because they wanna hear something deep, something real.

And by some curious quirk of history/fate, the past few years have seen American indie rockers get their juju groove on. On the East Coast, Dirty Projectors and Vampire Weekend harness free-floating West African guitar lines and polyrhythms; the transcontinental marriage of Extra Golden (two Kenyans and two white Americans) and Nigeria-­frenzied Chicago Afrobeat Project both bridge borders in the Midwest; and in Los Angeles, Africa, Southeast Asia and the West collide in Dengue Fever; and the curiously funky Hebrew-African blend of Fool's Gold delivers insurgent energy.

So in the interest of nudging this miniature movement along while feeding it a healthy, balanced diet, here's a primer for budding proponents.

Fela Ransome-Kuti, Fela's London Scene/Shakara (1970/'72): Nigeria's Kuti, one of the pillars of 20th-century music, spent about six months living in Los Angeles in 1969. According to a 1999 article by Jay Babcock in Mean magazine, "Fela: King of the Invisible Art," Kuti and his band — including the amazing Tony Allen, currently of The Good, The Bad & The Queen — gigged six nights a week for five months at 6666 Sunset Boulevard, after which they were given an unceremonious boot by Immigration. Not before hooking up with the Black Panthers and carrying their philosophies back to Nigeria, though; these albums are Kuti and his band's first recordings after their departure. "J'Ehin J'Ehin" ("Chop Teeth Chop Teeth") manages to be as tight and on target as a James Brown jam, with the added bonus of the Latino rhythm infusion Allen and Kuti picked up in Southern California.

Various Artists, Ethiopiques, Vol. 4: Ethio Jazz & Musique Instrumentale 1969-1974 (1998): This brilliant collection, part of a 23-volume series, may well be responsible for the rise of today's Converse-and-Dashiki sound, thanks to Jim Jarmusch using many of its songs in 2005's Broken Flowers. The entire series highlights several different Ethiopian styles, but Vol. 4 is in a whole other realm. Featuring 1970s-era compositions and performances by bandleader Mulatu Astatke, these 14 timeless songs transcend borders like clouds drifting across a satellite weather map. "Tezeta," a smoky romance between a tenor saxophone and piano, sounds like it could have been written by Ellington in 1935 or Coltrane in 1965.

Talking Heads, Remain in Light (1980): Recorded while Fela was dropping his annual Afrobombs, when post-punk was drawing from roots reggae and dub and the coked-up NYC gay disco scene was humping all the Puerto Ricans and Jamaicans, Remain in Light distills all this freaky rhythm and more in "Once in a Lifetime," "Houses in Motion" and quieter, spookier excursions like "Seen and Not Seen."

King Sunny Ade, Juju Music (1982): Pure, weird bliss from the king of juju music, the party sound of Nigeria's Yoruba tribe. Full of odd rhythms, heavy bass and Ade's jangly, melodic guitar lines, Juju was actually recorded in nearby Togo and mixed in London, kinda sorta explaining its untethered nature. Ade's Afropop features jumpy, active bass lines, deep and swinging, that rumble through songs like a muffler-less Caprice, but his 20-odd-member band remain lighter than exhaust, employing a guitar and congo army to amazing effect.

Various Artists, The Guitar and Gun (1983): The Ghanaian popular music known as highlife on this brilliant collection sounds like doo-wop funneled through David Lynch's brain and spit out in a weird, wobbly style. Opener "Momma Mo Akoma Ntutu," by the Genesis Gospel Singers, will make even the droopiest day sparkle with possibility. When the album ends, the world is a lesser place.

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