African music and the wall of exoticism.

(Baobab Connections) Throughout the 1990’s, music stores and record labels in Europe and America were quite clear on how to market music from Africa. Regardless of the styles that the artist played, their records were given a regional tag, such as ‘African’, and the ‘African music’ section would be in the far end corner of the store known as the World Music section. This genre of ‘World Music’ had been a human invention dating back to the eighties, and despite its artificial character, the term helped to promote artists that would not have received a lot of attention in the pre-defined windows in which radio operated.

British labels such as Real World, initiated by UK pop star Peter Gabriel, played a big part in introducing stars from that era to European audiences, for example Papa Wemba (DR Congo), Thomas Mapfumo (Zimbabwe) and Remmy Ongala (Tanzania). A couple of artists from this generation even made it out of the ‘special interest’ niche through which they were introduced, into pop stars whose music was played on stations that wouldn’t easily play non-western music. Youssou N’dour with his 1994 hit ‘Seven seconds’ (featuring Neneh Cherry) is a good example.

In the 1990’s grew an infrastructure to support these artists’ international careers: venues, festivals, labels and promotion agencies that catered for a very wide range of music, grouped together as ‘world music’. To some people, world music could be anything ranging from Indonesian traditional gamelan music to the electrified rumba music coming out of Congo. From the output of the ‘world music’ labels between the 1980’s and present, the majority of artists distributed internationally seem to play (semi) acoustic music with a very local flavour and a stage presence that made them very different from rock, pop, dance or hip hop. The artists were generally non-western, though European and American folk music were often included, and so one may find a world music festival showcasing artists from Latin America, Africa, Asia and Ireland.

Even more interesting than summing up was considered World Music, is to look at the styles that were not allowed on board, for example by the people running world music labels or by promoters.
African and Latin American popular music have always been a hybrid of many different genres. For example, the music of Congolese artists like Papa Wemba and Pepe Kalle, who were embraced by the world music industry in the 1980’s, contained traces of, among others, Cuban music, church hymns and traditional music from the various regions of Congo. By the 1980’s, Congolese rumba had developed into something essentially different from the genres that it once built on.

Next to those artists that would play these new local breeds of music, there have always been artists who stayed closer to their inspiration. African cities like Lagos, Kinshasa and Nairobi were big on 70’s and 80’s soul, funk and boogie, as well as reggae. Some of the recordings of the era really fit in seamlessly with what was being produced on the other side of the ocean by artists like James Brown or Peter Tosh.

Until recently, musicians with an ‘international’ sound were largely ignored by the western world music industry. African reggae may have been an exception: reggae, to western listeners, was an exotic sound, and somehow reggae artists like Alpha Blondy (Ivory Coast) and Sonny Okosuns (Nigeria) were able to get away with not sounding ‘African’. Not so for a whole generation of soul, r&b and boogie artists, and a decade later for the first generation of hip hop artists. Was it the western audience taste, the stubborn ear of the world music label owners or the media? Not sure, but until very recently an African artist was expected to sound ‘African’. What that means? A South African friend who was a member of one of the first African hip hop groups to tour Europe, once told me that critics were really expecting them to incorporate a certain degree of traditional sounds (samples), dress (on stage and in videos) and dancing. If they failed to do so, they were often dismissed as copycats!

This wouldn’t have been so much of a problem if those artists would have had a chance to market their music internationally outside the ‘world music’ perimeters. And while the likes of Alpha Blondy were able to tour reggae festivals and stages, other performers have had trouble in breaking through the geographical tag: they were ‘African’, and so their music had to be categorized as world music.

Today we still see some traces of the artificial world music divide, and not just in Europe. Sometimes in South African cd stores, local hip hop, soul and r&b can be found in the ‘Ethnic’ section! Also, from experience we can say that some of the key figures in the industry, such as radio programmers, are still very picky about what is and what isn’t world music to them. World music is sometimes grouped together with jazz and other black music played with acoustic instruments. Meanwhile, musicians embracing the developments in digital music production, using keyboards, samplers and effects, are often still excluded. As their output has grown over the past ten years, and new, digital styles of music have started to dominate the airwaves in many African countries, the wall of exotism has started to crumble. Or are these new artists operating in a parallel universe? (source)