January 24th, 2009

Modern Ancient African Music

Since the conversation continues about trad v modern in African music, and since we read something germane about it for class yesterday, and since I’m still tryna maintain that pdf-blog grind, I thought I’d take the opportunity to share another:

      >> Monson, Ingrid. “Riffs, Repetition, and Theories of Globalization.” Ethnomusicology 43,
      no. 1 (1999): 31-65.

Now, I don’t recommend the whole article; rather, I recommend skipping to p.52 and starting from there. Frankly, I find the part about globalization theory and riffs and Count Basie uncompelling and confusing (as did my students), but I do like the way that Monson zeroes in on some of the contradictions and challenges African musicians have faced working in the “world” industry.

Noting, for example, that Baaba Maal’s Firin in Fouta (1994) was received ambivalently by the “world music” market because of its incorporation of funk, reggae, hip-hop, “techno” (don’t know why Monson and Eyre call it that — sounds much more like house to me) and other Afrodiasporic/”Western” genres, Monson examines some of the reasons behind Maal’s aesthetic choices and why they fell flat for certain audiences:

Taking Baaba Maal’s words at face value, here’s some modern “ancient African music” — i.e., early 90s dancehall reggae. (I’d embed it here, but that’s been disabled by the rotting corpse known as universalmusicgroup — ah, industry so savvy.)

Actually, here it is via imeem —

[update 2/3/10: haha, so much for the imeem link, which disappeared after MySpace acquired and nuked the site; I guess no one wants people to hear Baaba Maal at w&w. sorry folks, you’ll have to hunt it down elsewhere.]


  • 1. curm  |  January 24th, 2009 at 9:54 pm

    Meanwhile all styles of African music largely get ignored in the latest Village Voice sponsored Pazz & Jop poll of critics on 2008 albums and singles. Some European and UK critics I guess just vote in the fRoots poll, while folks who write for Global Rhythms magazine and the Beat magazine just contribute to their own publications.

  • 2. sharon k  |  January 25th, 2009 at 2:18 pm

    Interesting reference that ties-in nicely with the posting on Appadurai and Charice. What came up for me as I read Appadurai’s “Jamesonian flourish” (I suspect I know what you’re referring to, but please elaborate on that, Wayne), and watched Charice invoke Whitney, and just now grooved to Baaba Maal, was a question about what the value and meaning of these performances have for Phillipino/a and African audiences. What are artists going for with their “hypercompetent reproductions” and “accomodation to Western popular musical aesthetics” and what are their local audiences getting out of it? Are we exoticising “the Other” by theorizing and reflecting only on the reactions of global audiences to Charice and Baaba Maal rather than looking more closely at whether/how local audiences appreciate such performances?

  • 3. wayneandwax  |  January 25th, 2009 at 6:02 pm

    Great point, Sharon. The question of local reception in these cases is totally crucial. At the same time, because Charice and Maal are both “choosing” to participate in global markets (which is, still more or less, tantamount to appealing to a US — and to a lesser extent, European — audience), they open themselves up to being heard as copycats (or not) and judged according to “foreign” expectations of sameness/otherness.

    Although I don’t know enough about either case, I think that both performers were — for what it’s worth — pretty big hits at home before they found listeners abroad. (Then again, it’s worth noting that Maal had a lot of transnational experience as a performer — especially with Mansour Seck — prior to his emergence as a “world music” star.) Oprah describes Charice as “an absolute sensation in the Philippines” and notes that it was a YouTube video of her performance on a local talent show that got her invited to perform on a major TV program in Korea (not to mention, as Oprah interestingly neglects to, her first invitation to the US, from Ellen Degeneres).

    As for “Jamesonian Flourish,” I mean the way that Appadurai invokes the aesthetics of pastiche and the collapse of historical consciousness embodied in the way that signs of the past are paraded about in the present — in other words, postmodernism, or the cultural logic of late capitalism.

  • 4. erich  |  January 26th, 2009 at 1:08 am

    Great post. way to bring together all the bostonians on this one wayne. ;)

    anyway, from an industry perspective, i’d argue that the european market is much more tempting and appealing to african artists than the US market, and has been since african artists started focusing on external markets. european markets consistently sell more units (vinyl and plastic, usa rules the digital market), but more importantly – touring in europe is much easier and cheaper than the usa. also the language (french) for many west africans parses much better in europe than here.

    this is also fascinating personally as i’ve just been pushing / pushed 2 african artists to go back to the studio and remove some awful (imho) synth sounds. . . hopefully i’m pushing them only to a higher production value and not pushing them into some “ethnic/authenticity” box.

    i’m enjoying the knowledge drops, keep ’em coming.

  • 5. wayneandwax  |  January 26th, 2009 at 10:01 am

    I appreciate your perspective on this, Erich — esp the note wrt US vs. Euro markets for African artists (esp Francophone). Since the US is far and away the largest (overall) market for music, it can be easy to miss some important nuances in the ways that individual artists navigate the world market.

    As for the synth removal, I hope you were right. For my money, I’ve really come around to loving cheesy synths of all sorts. They may sound dated (or “low” in terms of production quality, or too “foreign” for certain ethnic/authenticity-boxers) but they also tend to embody a musical moment in a special sort of way — and really, all kinds of recording artifacts do the same, regardless of “production quality.” Depends on the market, of course, but I’ll take some FruityLoopy presets over clean kora any day (at least these days).

  • 6. ripley  |  January 26th, 2009 at 10:26 am

    I’m thinking about this a lot here in Jamaica. I see several concepts of traditional-vs-modern in JA, mapping either onto more low-fi/sweeter/old-time music (a la Paragons or Silvertones), or onto roots reggae vs. dancehall. But even within the stuff that everyone agrees is ‘modern’ (i.e. uses a lot of electronic tech in the production of sound?) there’s a heavy Jamaican-vs-non-Jamaican-music thing going on. It seems clear to me that Terry Lynn, for example, is aiming her sound outside Jamaica and I think many Jamaicans would say the same.

    Interestingly I don’t think that inside-vs-outside or Jamaica/Foreign thing maps well onto the roots reggae scene, where there are all these cadres of seasoned world-famous musicians like Earl Chinna Smith who tour all over the world and collaborate with other musicians all over the world (or from all over the world in their own yards). So music people might call “tradtional” is also much more cosmopolitan..

    and re: “techno” you totally know why they use that word. Because people wjo don’t listen to music with drum machines call all of it techno! I’m just trying to figure out what two big commercial DJs in JA mean by “industrial”

  • 7. wayneandwax  |  January 26th, 2009 at 10:38 am

    Yes, Ripley, I know exactly what you mean about using techno as an umbrella term. It’s just baffling to me that such informed critics as Monson or Eyre would fall into that sort of laziness.

    As for modern/synth sounds in JA — it’s a funny, nuanced distinction, innit? Dancehall has been mad synthy for well over 20 years now, but there are still certain sounds that are marked as more acceptable/familiar locally (e.g., Korg Triton presets) while other sounds (say, the synth possibilities offered by Logic, Reason, etc.) come across as more “European”/foreign.

  • 8. erich  |  January 26th, 2009 at 10:48 am

    wayne –
    i’ll send you some of the files from one of the albums and let me know if you love it. i am trapped between the rock of knowing that the gatekeepers in the world industry who might be able to release/distribute/book this artist and help them make some money really won’t listen to something with cheezsynth and the hard place of not being wise enough to know what the crowd really wants. so to surrender to the wisdom of the crowds, one must pass through a gatekeeper if one does not have the tools to access the crowd directly. any perspective from the crowds themselves are welcome. ;)

  • 9. emily  |  January 26th, 2009 at 3:22 pm

    isn’t that a riff from a Marley tune at 2:25?

  • 10. wayneandwax  |  January 26th, 2009 at 3:41 pm

    Good catch, Emily! (& good to see you pipe in here.) Yes, the post-facto worldbeat avatar par excellence — Bob the Third World Superstar — bubbles up here. It’s a pointed allusion, following the lyric — “a something Bob Marley would be proud of” — at which point we hear a reference to the bassline from “Could You Be Loved?”

    An interesting tidbit — the lyric leading up to that reference notes that some Africans ended up in America while “the ones they couldn’t handle” wound up in Jamaica, a nod to the island’s history of large scale slave rebellions (in contrast to the couple of skirmishes that happened in the US). Or as they might say inna JA, “Bellyas, man!”

  • 11. wayneandwax  |  January 26th, 2009 at 3:55 pm

    Coming back to Sharon’s comment and the importance of registering modes of reception beyond “global”/”Western” audiences, I can’t resist inserting this excerpt from Phil Bohlman’s Very Short Intro to World Music (highly recommended!), which I’m re-reading for class tomorrow:

    The problem with much theorizing about worldbeat, however, is that it has treated the changes following upon the heels of the appropriation and dissemination of world music as popular music moving only in one direction. Again, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan provides a case-in-point for multiple rather than single directions, for it is indeed the case that he continued to play qawwali with deeply Muslim meanings, even distinguishing this from other music he played in concert. American Muslims whom I interviewed in the 1990s found deeply spiritual meaning in worldbeat qawwali, while at the same time they were intensely aware of how qawwali was appropriated and marketed. For these Muslims, the attraction of a qawwali as popular music did not eliminate the spiritual power of Islam. Quite the contrary, popular qawwali led them back to that power. (20)

    In a similar vein, we might think of the various ways that orientalist hip-hop has been heard by Indian– and Arab-Americans.

  • 12. erich  |  January 28th, 2009 at 3:59 pm

    here’s one of those tracks with the offending synth.

    let me know what you think.
    The artist here is Benogo Diakite, n’goni player for Oumou Sangare. This track is part of an album he’d like to release internationally. If anyone out there likes this, or knows where I can find a label home for it, please do get in touch. Click thru my name to get to my site with email, etc.

  • 13. Canyon Cody  |  January 28th, 2009 at 6:33 pm


    i usually love it when teachers say we can skip some of the reading, but i actually found the middle of this PDF helpful, specificaly the review of Slobin and Erlman, starting at the end of page 47.

    much of the rest of it (eg bhabhas interstitial stairwells, adornos ungroovyness, taylor on western (mis)conceptions of african artists) seems like old hash rehashed and, umm, repetitive, like ive read this point made before with all those same quotes. But who knows, maybe they were copying Ingrid.

    what i am suggesting is . . .

  • 14. Gabriel  |  January 29th, 2009 at 8:08 am

    Wow, that Baaba Maal track is WICKED

  • 15. wayneandwax  |  January 29th, 2009 at 10:33 am

    Actually, Canyon, I’m afraid you were the unlucky thiteenf commenter. Wishful thinking tho!

    I’m glad that you ignored my recommendation and worked through other parts of the article. The Slobin/Erlmann exchange is a good one to dig into; indeed, you should really read the original exchange, so here ya go —

    Veit Erlmann, “A Reply to Mark Slobin”

    Mark Slobin, “A Reply to Erlmann”

    The question is whether one sees the “modern world system” as totalizing or not, and if so/not, whether there is room for agency. Erlmann advances a pretty pessimistic view of (musical) agency under global capitalism; Monson would like to make an argument for more — thus, room for improvisation between the grooves, within the riffs and repetitions, if one wants to follow her down that poetic road. More on this soon; another reading for class (for tomorrow) also engages this debate.

  • 16. wayneandwax  |  January 29th, 2009 at 11:11 am

    Ah, Erich, I see what you mean. The track you share (pw: mali — for those of you who want to give a listen too) features one of the worst synth sounds in the world: badly emulated trumpets. Sometimes that sort of thing can sound so kitschy that it works, but it’s the rare case that really recuperates such sounds (to my ears). I’m thinking of, maybe, some wonky house music, something that embraces and exploits the artificiality of the sound. In this case, it seems more like they’re going for verisimilitude: the “trumpets” are playing trumpet-like lines. Better to hire a horn player, IMO.

  • 17. erich  |  January 29th, 2009 at 11:39 am

    exactly what i suggested wayne. go back, hire some horn players, and this track (and the others i have) will kill. but as is, it just sounds bad. no redeeming cheese/kitsch or whatever. not even that really awful synthy synth sound so often used in west african recordings.
    but again, we’re just 2 dudes. anyone else? thoughts?

  • 18. droid  |  January 30th, 2009 at 8:47 am

    Wow! Id never heard that tune before. Love the segues in and out of the bogle riddim. I wonder though – did they pay Dave Kelly his royalties? ;)

  • 19. rachel  |  January 30th, 2009 at 11:11 pm

    Baba Maal is crazy popular in Senegal, partic northern senegal as he hails from Podor, where I saw nearby villagers walk miles to stand outside the gates where he played. But then again, he was still occasional listening for most of my friends there.
    Local audience is tricky for me to gauge for a lot of globally successful acts. For instance, Youssou Ndour is just as popular *because* hes a global star as he is for making great music. Same for akon, sometimes its hard to differentiate the true resonance of music from general love of people who REPRESENT, ya know? And yeah, somebody like Baba Maal is BIG in senegal, but its hard to see how they play in the soundscape. Or what sounds of his the west picks upon vs what pop at home. And when it comes to mod vs. trad, i think its interesting to note in this convo that most of the Baba Maal i heard played in senegal is the older “more tradish” Baayo era sound. our ears aint always so different…

  • 20. 'Modern Ancient African M&hellip  |  February 8th, 2009 at 3:21 pm

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  • 23. wayneandwax  |  May 11th, 2010 at 4:00 pm

    and on we go, some 15 years later :/

    Malian singer, Rokia Traore comments on the response to her decision to move from traditional Malian music to a more contemporary mix of African and European music.

    “Some Europeans who love Africa love it for exoticism,” “Anything modern doesn’t interest them. I don’t know why they don’t realise that the traditional and the modern can exist alongside each other. I think they have an image of Africa which they don’t want to change. It’s horrible. It’s the same all over Europe, but France is the worst because here there’s that pretension of knowing Africa.

    If they tried to think about it objectively they would be ashamed of themselves. They have decided how African music is supposed to be. So, when a European musician goes to Africa to make a record because he wants a different sound, then it’s amazing, it’s genius. But when an African does something with a European inspiration, it’s not normal.


  • 24. Portis123  |  June 10th, 2010 at 3:23 am

    Hi all,

    I’ve written a short piece on my favourite African songs here: http://africasoundssa.blogspot.com/


  • 25. wayneandwax.com » Y&hellip  |  August 6th, 2010 at 11:27 am

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  • 26. wayneandwax.com » C&hellip  |  October 14th, 2010 at 9:44 am

    […] the prevalence of the rural/pastoral/traditional, urban sounds and imgs have enjoyed a persistent, if fraught, presence in world music bins. Indestructible Example […]

  • 27. wayneandwax.com » V&hellip  |  January 27th, 2012 at 12:24 am

    […] help but hear echoes of Baaba Maal’s “Yela” (as discussed in this space almost 3 years ago to the day), which Maal himself refers to as “ancient African music” despite also […]

  • 28. Very African and Very Mod&hellip  |  February 1st, 2012 at 10:00 am

    […] Gras), I can’t help but hear echoes of Baaba Maal’s “Yela” (as discussed in this space almost 3 years ago to the day), which Maal himself refers to as “ancient African music” despite also noting that […]


I'm a techno-musicologist, internet annotator, imagined community organizer.

I left my <3 in the digital global, but I reside in Cambridge, MA, where I'm from.

I represent like that.

wayne at wayneandwax dot com

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