NEW YORK — IF you could name one part of the world that has had the strongest influence on contemporary popular music everywhere, it would be Africa. In recent years, music from that vast continent has been gaining worldwide popularity in its own right - a trend that was helped along substantially by Paul Simon's 1986 recorded collaboration with South African musicians, ``Graceland.'' Before then, most African music - with the exception of a few isolated artists like Babatunde Olatunji, King Sunny Ade, Miriam Makeba, and Hugh Masakela - was relegated, at least by Europeans and their descendants, to the cerebral sphere of the musicologist.
Nevertheless, because of slavery around the world, African music has seeped into many cultures. In the United States, it was the root of jazz and blues at the turn of the century. Today virtually every form of popular music in the US owes something to African music. Furthermore, slavery in the Caribbean produced reggae, which has influenced pop music, especially in Britain and the US.
Afro-Caribbean music has traditionally stimulated musical styles in Brazil, right up to the current crazes, lambada and samba-reggae. Samba itself is an outgrowth of the percussive elements of African music, mixed with the melodies of the Portuguese colonizers. Today, in the northern state of Bahia in Brazil, the African influences in the music are particularly strong.
The Afro-Cuban tradition is yet another branch of the African music that has influenced Latin music on every level, from mambos, rhumbas, cha chas, charangas, and boogaloos, right up to the crossover Latin-pop of Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine and the latest trend: Latino rappers.
Before ``Graceland,'' African music was something to be absorbed, with those doing the absorbing putting their own name and mark on the music. In the spirit of true recycling, Africans have absorbed Western stylistic and instrumental elements back into their own music, transforming it into the ``Afropop'' that's been gaining popularity worldwide in recent years.
Today Western ears are becoming accustomed to hearing juju music from Nigeria (the talking-drum music of the Yorubas), mbalax from Senegal (rhythmic, Middle-Eastern flavored music, popularized by Youssou N'Dour), mbube (South African choral music, most often associated with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, who sang on ``Graceland''), Soukous (dance music from Zaire), and the chimurenga music of Zimbabwe (often played in 6/8 time, and popularized by Thomas Mapfumo), among others.
Since the explosion of ``Graceland,'' groups like South Africa's Mahlathini & the Mahotella Queens - who have been around for several decades - are getting the chance to tour (the Japanese love them!), and release recordings globally. A number of African musicians have moved to Paris, which is the world center for Afropop, and here in the US African music can be heard both on the radio, through programs like Afropop Worldwide, and live in clubs and concert halls across the country.
US and European musicians like Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel, Sting, and David Byrne have done much to spread both African music and music with strong African roots (Byrne's compilations of samba and Brazilian tropicalia music, for example, or Peter Gabriel's work with N'Dour).
Over the past two years I have talked with various African artists and people in the music industry about the sudden popularity of cross-cultural music. Randall Grass, who heads up Shanachie Records in New Jersey, an independent company that has many African artists on its roster, said: ``First of all, in the pop music realm for last ten years there hasn't been a lot of exciting music coming out ... there's been a lot of formulated music. Also, the world is getting closer all the time, whether it's sate llites or the ubiquity of cassette players - music is being dispersed all around the world more rapidly all the time.''
He also mentioned the recycling aspect.
``With a lot of Western pop music,'' said Grass, ``It's rhythmic source tends to be derived partly at least, from African music.... So it's easy for people to get into reggae or soukous, because that rhythmic pulse is part of the music.''
Some record executives have worried about the language barrier with Afropop. Although some artists and groups are singing in English, many more stick to their native tongues.
``Music has no language - it has no frontiers,'' said popular Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour on a tour of the US in 1989. He was speaking French, but usually sings in Wolof, the native language of Senegal. ``It's a message that people receive directly. And they get the message of African music through the rhythm, the groove.'' That seems to be the case with N'Dour, who has garnered the largest audience of any Afropop artist.
Babatunde Olatunji, the Nigerian drum master who has had one of the longest and most global careers of any African musician, said in a conversation about a year ago that he believes this generation is much more open to new ideas in general, and African culture in particular.
``Time is helping people to change,'' he said, ``And also people traveling and passing out information. Young people - they're not sitting around with their arms folded like their fathers and mothers. They're becoming adventurous, they're becoming very inquisitive.''