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West Africa's music enchants the West

Bluesy, trancelike melodies pull in wider audiences in the US and Europe, as the music's exotic rhythms move mainstream.

By Stephen HumphriesStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 6, 2008

'Soul Science': Justin Adams (rear), Salah Dawson Miller (l.), and Gambian Juldeh Camara (front) collaborated on a new album.


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West Africa may be one of the poorest regions in the world but it boasts a natural resource of astonishing wealth: its music. In recent years, the aural riches of Mali, Niger, Senegal, and Gambia have been gaining currency in America and Europe through several ambassadors.

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Take Niger's Etran Finatawa, for example. When the six-person band came to the United States in April, they weren't sure what sort of reception to expect given their exoticism. Half the band are Tuaregs who resemble Saharan astronauts in bright blue turbans; the others are Wodaabe tribesmen whose traditional dress consists of face paint, patterned tunic, and towering headdress feather. But when audiences heard the syncopated clapping, hand drums, and tribal chants that swirl around the centrifugal force of the guitarist's bluesy melodies, the response was ecstatic. Rave concert and album reviews followed in The New York Times and Rolling Stone magazine.

"I was really very surprised," says Sandra van Edig, the band's manager, in a phone interview from Africa. "The audience in those cities we played was very enthusiastic. More enthusiastic than the European audience, actually."

Though African music has penetrated Western consciousness in the past – most notably when Nigerian singer Fela Kuti broke through in the 1970s and, later, when Paul Simon introduced the world to Ladysmith Black Mambazo on the 1986 "Graceland" album – it is "back in vogue," according to Q magazine. The difference now is that the music is receiving sustained attention. Chalk that up to globalization. In an information age where niche genres can find a sustainable following, West African music in particular – with its accessible sounds ranging from trancey pop to unvarnished blues – is acquiring fans beyond the region's savannah and sand-dune belts.

"Of all the areas in Africa now, it's West Africa which has found the most sucessful fusion between contemporary and traditional styles," says Simon Broughton, editor of Songlines, a magazine about world music. "It does sound very different from Anglo-American pop music because there's a bounce and a swing to it, and fantastic instrumental play. And this warm, sunny side to it. Most people are not intimidated by it because it's not ethnic music – it's popular music which is very popular in West Africa and caters to a large, popular audience."