A trans-Atlantic non-sequitir

Wilfredo Lam, ‘The Murmur’ (1943). Image: tate.org.uk

Compare the number of times you have read phrases like “the album has something of an African influence” to the number of times you have read about actual African music in the mainstream music press, and it’s clear there’s a dissymetry within the halls of pop. Though certain bands from Africa have been on the rise recently – one thinks here of Amadou & Mariam, Konono no. 1, Tinariwen – these artists remain resolutely within the ‘specialist’ sections of record stores and music magazines. Franz Ferdinand and Vampire Weekend, meanwhile, are praised for their ‘new directions’, for their tame approximations of the continent’s musical styles – a little djembe here, a little soukous rhythm there (this is not to suggest that Western musicians should not attempt to make use of African forms, a view which Daniel Arizona effectively argues against in this article).

The dissymetry of influence that exists between the ‘first world’ and the ‘third world’ is excavated and challenged by Tate Liverpool’s current show ‘Afro Modern: Journeys through the Black Atlantic’, which closes this Sunday. Counter to the prevailing view that the art forms of Africa and the Caribbean exist as a spring-board from which Western artists can launch innovative disruptions (see Picasso, Modigliani, Stravinsky et al.), the exhibition posits a more complex history of borrowings, communications and appropriations taking place down the centuries across the Atlantic: the sort of West-African sound recently committed to record by Ali Farka Touré migrate to the United States, where they become Blues, then Rock & Roll; then electric guitars move back across the ocean to enable Soukous to flourish. Or, in the visual arts, Wilfredo Lam brings his Afro-Cuban heritage to Paris, where he meets and influences Picasso, then returns to the Caribbean with the Andalucian’s adaptations of  African art under his belt after the war. Above all, the exhibition tells a story of agency, both personal and political (see the Sengalese government’s support of the Parisian Négritude movement) which flies in the face of abstract notions of the history of trans-continental influence.

by Luke Healey

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3 responses to “A trans-Atlantic non-sequitir

  1. I intended to write about Toumani Diabate’s Symmetric Orchestra too. Their 2006 album ‘Boulevard de l’Independence’ combines Western and West African form to great effect. The track ‘Toumani’, for instance, which is the first piece played in this video:

    uses string and brass arrangements to cast a spotlight on the remarkable beauty of Diabate’s kora playing – effectively the reverse of a Vampire weekend song, where African rhythms might be used to embellish your typical indie guitar thing. That’s not a disparaging remark – it’s just a reminder that cultural exchange works both ways.

  2. I think that Paul Simon has been a good example to musicians who really want to let another musical culture influence his work. When writing the critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful musical The Capeman, he incorporated musical styles from Latin America, he worked with many South American musicians for his Rhythm of the Saints album, and most notably, with Graceland, an album often placed among the very best ever, he drew influence from the musical traditions of South Africa.

    I just thought i’d put that forward as a good example of how intercontinental influences can merge well with the Western in music when in the hands of someone willing to pay more than lip service to the idea.

  3. Pingback: Two Dispatches from South Africa 2010 « The Oyster's Earrings·

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