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Afropop Arrives

Motherland music hit a fever pitch with U.S. bands this year

Who knew back in January, when Vampire Weekend tinkered with soukous's guitar-driven dance rhythms on its self-titled debut, the band would set the tone for the next 12 months?

In many ways, 2008 was the year Afropop fully cracked the American music landscape. Sure, this sort of appropriation was anything but novel. Western artists have long been partial to popular music from the motherland, among them David Byrne, Brian Eno and Paul Simon, who introduced Americans to native South African sounds on 1986's Graceland.

Only now, artists are taking a different approach to capturing Africa's sonic exuberance and grit. Rather than simply weave African styles into their music, they're fully refashioning particular genres with varying levels of attitude and aptitude. For all Vampire Weekend's success this year, many others weren't content with utilizing that Afropop-cum-Western-pop template. Instead, their tactics were wholly African: turn every sound into a rhythmic element.

Those carrying African pop's torch in 2008 share common threads: They're multicultural (Akoya Afrobeat's members hail from Panama, Ghana, Benin, South Africa, Japan and the U.S.); eager to flash catholic tastes (Antibalas explores Cuban rhythms and dub); and savvy about bridging left-of-center and mainstream pop (Occidental Brothers Dance Band Int'l are known for their rumba rendition of New Order's "Bizarre LoveTriangle").

Such illustrations of shared aesthetics and ambitions may compel some to dub this blending of Afropop and Western influences a genuine movement.

"Curious listeners are starting to explore the African continent more," says Nathaniel Braddock, who heads up Chicago's Occidental Brothers Dance Band Int'l, which played this year's Pitchfork Music Festival. "The reissue of Fela Kuti's music in the late '90s opened a lot of ears, and interest in the Ethiopiques series took people further."

Acts from San Francisco to New York experimented with African styles. The Bay Area's Sila and the Afrofunk Experience moved the feet of many a gig-goer with tracks like the perspiration-inducing "Funkiest Man in Africa." Sonoma County's Firenze Records continued to showcase songwriters like Markus James and his captivating Malian-roots/Delta-blues synthesis.

Beyond the Bay Area, New York's Akoya Afrobeat and Antibalas emerged as this movement's heavyweights. Hear the former's cooking "Fela Dey" (off this year's P.D.P.), helmed by the call-and-response style of its magnetic vocalist Kaleta, or the unleashed horn-driven, dancefloor beats in Antibalas's "Indictment."

Several overseas labels also rode the wave: Germany's Strut Records released Nigeria 70: Lagos Jump, which highlighted a glut of artists indebted to everything from Afrobeat to juju; and England's Soundway Records issued a series of compilations concentrating on Nigerian funk and disco from the 1970s.

Elsewhere, the output was varied. The percussion on North Carolina's Toubab Krewe (from the recently released Live at the Orange Peel) is casually indebted to the talking-drum sound of juju pioneer I.K. Dairo. Meanwhile, fellow North Carolinians the Afromotive, who took the stage at Bonnaroo in June, produced Afrobeat that's short on profundity and largely derivative. And there was the benga tune "Obama" (popular this year for obvious reasons) from Kenyan-American ensemble Extra Golden, which felt rather clunky and tepid.

Nonetheless, it was refreshing to hear such groups fully embrace the many colorful genres of African pop. Doing so not only brought infectious rhythm, melody and poetry to modern American music, but also introduced countless new listeners to sounds they were unfamiliar with previously.

How this movement evolves remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: It all kicked off in a big way in 2008, the year Africa got America to sway its hips.

 
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