Africa Is a Country, a wry but passionate blog devoted to “Africa” — the idea, not (simply) the song — in contemporary media (but “not about famine, Bono, or Barack Obama”) has been threatening to make a weekly series out of the genuinely remarkable resonance of Toto’s 1982 soft-rock anthem. It’s a begrudging tribute of sorts to the song’s “resilience as a piece of media about Africa.” Did you know that in addition to dozens of covers, which they promise to feature, the song is also popular sampling fodder for hip-hop producers (among them, Madlib)?
It promises to be entertaining, whether or not you can withstand the earworm. This week they pointed to a new appearance of what they’re calling “the Toto ‘Africa’ meme” courtesy of r&b crooner Jason Derulo, which, I have to admit is both “inane” as they note over there and a pallid by-the-numbers attempt to reproduce the feel and form of “Watcha Say,” his debut single and highest charting song (it hit #1).
I can’t help but be reminded of a strange and oddly apropos discovery about Toto’s “Africa” I made a few years ago, which may be of passing interest to some of you, especially fellow followers of Africasacountry.
Here’s how it happened: my dear friend and colleague, Sharon, is a doctoral student in anthropology who studies the transmission of traditional Malian dance, especially in transnational contexts. A longtime trad-African dancer herself, she has studied and danced in Mali, the US, and France. Anyway, long story semi-short, when Sharon was getting hitched a few years back she asked me whether I might help her arrange some music for her reception (an awesome & lively affair, full of drums and dance, in which a young & chubby Nico got to prance about with the august & strikingly spry Dr. J. Lorand Matory).
Her idea was to take one of the common rhythms from the Malian repertory and mash it up with some pop or hip-hop tracks that employ the same patterns. The idea was suggested to her by the fact that her local teacher, Joh Camara, himself would reference Will Smith’s “Gettin Jiggy Wit It” as a sort of mnemonic device when introducing students to the didadi rhythm. You know, the na-na-na-na-nana-nah bit. You can hear it pretty clearly in this performance I turned up on the ‘Tube (esp between 0:40 and 1:00):
This seemed like a fun task, especially given how much I love tracing patterns across different repertories. But after a few days of intense humming along to myself and attempting to trigger things in the recesses of musical memory, I had come up with relatively little. However, while I had only located a couple tracks that make reference to the rhythm, I had seemingly stumbled across an almost incredible possibility: that Toto’s “Africa,” which seemed like one of the least African songs I could imagine, might actually be based around an actual African rhythm. (And I use actual there twice because it’s a magic word, like Africa.)
Here’s what I shared with Sharon:
I have to confess that I’ve found it rather challenging to think up other songs that employ the same rhythm(s) as Didadi (aside from the tight fit that is “Gettin Jiggy Wit It”). Been racking my musical memory, which has led to some false leads and close fits, but nothing else — until this afternoon — save for a funny refrain from a Cypress Hill song (“la la la la la la la la” in “Hand on the Pump”).
Funny enough — actually I think you may find this discovery fascinating — as I was trying once more this afternoon to think of other songs that might match (and I’m being fairly exacting in wanting a good match — a direct rhythmic overlay), I started humming the rhythm to myself: buh-duh-duh-duhduh-duh-duh. Eventually a vaguely familiar bassline / chord progression emerged from my murky brain. I couldn’t place it, though, and couldn’t remember any words, so I just sang along with the melody until I reached the chorus, where, I hoped, I might remember a single Googlable word. When I got there, I was stunned: the word was “Africa” and the song, natch, “Africa” by Toto! What a hilarious coincidence! I have no idea whether the group was intentionally figuring Africa with that rhythm — it’s never sounded very African to me, but it sure does now!
Anyhow, I’m afraid that means I have only turned up 3 songs that use the same rhythm(s) as Didadi. And two of them are quite cheesy. But this is all in good fun, right? Anyhow, see attached and tell me what you think. For now, I’ve chosen to leave Joh’s performance unedited, so you hear the entire ~2:00 rendition that he gave us, the full arc, including all his variations and the general accretionary/crescendoing dynamic. If that works for you, that’s cool. If not, we can do some editing. Just let me know what you think. It’s easy enough to loop any of the measures he plays or to cut something here or add something there. I could extend any of the songs mashed with the drums, or shorten them, or change their order. I could also change the tempo so that it is faster or slower or gets faster over time (Jo does gradually get faster, and that’s one change I’ve made: now he stays at the same tempo, which helped me to mash/match things up).
Now, judging by this Wikipedia entry and it’s detailed accounts by members of Toto of the way the song came together, it sounds like the guys in Toto might have more or less entirely stumbled upon this felicitous rhythmic concordance. Meter minutiae aside (however fascinating), I find this quotation from drummer Jeff Porcaro most pregnant:
… a white boy is trying to write a song on Africa, but since he’s never been there, he can only tell what he’s seen on TV or remembers in the past.
At any rate, you can imagine the bizarro eureka moment as I pulled that schmaltzy tune out of some dark corner of my mind. As for the main keyboard riff’s Africanness, you’ll have to decide for yourself. Here’s the “mashup” I sent to Sharon (which, suffice to say, was a little too goofy to work for the wedding):
I hear the drums echoing. Do you?