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.
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But why are Westerners particularly taken with West Africa? After all, its sounds are far from homogenous – even within one country. One reason: Much of the music feels more organic than the dated sound of keyboards, big brass sections, and glossy production of Southern African pop. Moreover, the DNA of rock music owes much to the African region shaped like an elephant's ear.Skip to next paragraph
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"If you look for the roots of rock 'n' roll, you find them in the blues. And if you look for the roots of the blues, you'll find it in West Africa," says Justin Adams, a guitarist in Robert Plant's band who has just recorded his own album, "Soul Science," with Gambia's Juldeh Camara. "You can draw such a nice line from groups that people really love from their teenage years – The Rolling Stones, or whatever – to Tinariwen, who have electric guitars that really buzz."
The wider familiarity of African sounds can also be attributed to a more unexpected influence: Western rock stars. Artists such as Vampire Weekend, Brett Dennen, and Coldplay have replicated rootsy African guitar lines on their records. Other artists have gone one step further. Björk invited kora master Toumani Diabate to play on 2007's "Volta." Tinariwen has jammed on stage with Carlos Santana. Hip-hop star Akon joined Amadou & Mariam for a remix of their song "Coulibaly."
These gateway artists provide an opportunity for people to discover music they might not otherwise be exposed to, as Koité discovered after he was a guest performer on Bonnie Raitt's 2002 album, "Silver Lining."
"We spent two or three weeks together traveling in Mali. We became really good friends and I call her my grand sister," says Koité, in a call from Europe. "When I played [in the US], she came with her guitar and played one song with me. It had a positive impact for my career in the US because a lot of journalists talk about those events."
Endorsements by such luminaries are important, but less of a factor in determining the success of world music than they once were, says David Hepworth, a British music journalist who helped found magazines such as Q, Mojo, and The Word. Now, he says, there's a vibrant, self-sufficient world-music community that encompasses festival circuits and even specialist magazines – indicators that the interest isn't just a fad.
Mr. Hepworth has his own theory as to why the region's music resonates abroad: Much of it is gentle and trancelike. For instance, when Diabaté plays the kora – a 21-stringed instrument shaped like an inverted lollipop – his 10 fingers somehow create simultaneous bass lines, counterpoint melodies, and rippling filigrees that are a balm to the senses. "It's a sound you couldn't hear in Western popular music," says Hepworth, "and I suppose the ear just craves it after a time."