Afro-pop bands hop continents

In U.S., African musicians find more opportunity and audiences.

By , Staff writer

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    Afro-pop bandleader Helder Tsinine (above) and Kina Zoré record their first album in Boston. They regularly perform at local venues around the city such as the Milky Way Lounge in Jamaica Plain, Mass.
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It's a sweaty, early autumn afternoon on Boston's fashionable Newbury Street, and a small crowd has gathered around a group of musicians who are performing a kind of flash-mob concert.

The band is Kina Zoré; the music is a fusion of Mozambican traditional music, Afro-pop, and American jazz; and the crowd is grooving. Bandleader Helder Tsinine runs through a series of arpeggios up and down the neck of his guitar and sings lyrics in his native Ronga tongue, while Noah Teshu and Galen Willett keep rhythm on drums and bass. A Sudanese synthesizer player named Mohamad Araki lays in a hard-rock-sounding solo on top, with a decidedly retro-looking "keytar," while Sean Peters and Conor Jones play horns.

Close your eyes, and you just may find yourself transported to the beaches of Maputo, Mozambique, under swaying palm trees, in front of a vast aqua-colored sea. Open your eyes, and you see ... well, concrete and graffiti, and a great new up-and-coming Afro-pop band.

Recommended: Kina Zoré

Mr. Tsinine is not the first African musician to try his luck on American shores, and he won't be the last.

But in a world of new media and changing tastes, where Africans are increasingly intrigued by the American sounds of hip-hop, and where Americans are attracted to the exotic sounds of Mother Africa, Tsinine may be in just the right place at the right time.

"I came here because my wife is from Massachusetts," says Tsinine, after a recent recording session for Kina Zoré's first album. After getting his immigration status sorted out, he enrolled at Boston's Berklee College of Music, and started jamming with fellow students. And in 2010, Kina Zoré was born.

"I identify myself as an African, and so the music I play is African music," Tsinine says. But what is it that gives African traditional music its distinct sound? "The rhythm is very important, the guitars, the drums, and especially the sound of the hand drums."

"Sometimes you just groove," he says. "The way I grew up, you had three or four guitars, each playing their own pattern, but all in rhythm with each other. And then, rather than add new sounds, sometimes you subtract them for a while, and when you add it back in, that becomes all the more sweet."

A changing market

Back home in Mozambique, and indeed across much of Africa, the music that is playing on radio stations is all too often either American hip-hop or a local approximation of the hip-hop and American rhythm-and-blues sound.

One of Nigeria's top artists, 2face Idibia, sings reggae-tinged dance tunes and love songs that would not sound out of place on top British or American charts.

On a July 2011 tour of the United States, South Africa's top singer, Lira – voted South Africa's top female artist in 2010 – sang in local African languages but marketed her sound as soul and R&B, rather than "world music."

Even the Tuareg blues band, Tinariwen, from Mali, tends to make its biggest money by touring in the US and Europe, playing more in rock clubs than at world-music festivals.

"I think Tinariwen has played it so smart. They have created this mystique. They have placed themselves in a really interesting place, playing traditional music but getting out of the world-music label and appealing to young rock-loving hipsters," says Michael Orlove, a music promoter and former arts administrator for the City of Chicago.

Each market is different and every market is changing rapidly, Mr. Orlove says, but he adds, "I don't think this is rocket science. With new media, everything is at your fingertips. Gone are the days when you would be reading The New York Times to find out what's happening with local bands. Now bands are going out and attracting attention themselves through new media; there are blogs covering music."

But today's listeners don't particularly pay attention to labels like "blues" or "Afro-jazz" or "hip-hop," Orlove says.

"There are always going to be labels, but it doesn't mean that a band labeled Afro-pop can't be popular with people who don't follow world music. You just don't want to limit yourself to only one kind of music and one kind of fan," he says.

Mark Gorney, an independent music publicist and promotions person, puts it this way. "The problem isn't world music, because if you look at Cesária Évora [the late singer from Cape Verde], she was singing morna (the local traditional music) for years, which younger musicians had abandoned in favor of more electronic idioms, but when Cesaría became successful internationally, new musicians went back to their roots. Music evolves, and the question is does it evolve in a way that retains something traditional or does it evolve into something else? And if it evolves, what forces are driving it? Artistic choice or commercial demands?"

How to evolve

African musicians have been bringing their music to American shores for centuries, of course, and attracting listeners with their own sounds while adapting to local preferences. American musical forms from country to jazz to blues, and even rock 'n' roll, all have African parentage.

But in a world of marketing, it isn't always easy for African musicians to make sure their potential listeners can find their music in the stalls. Popular South African band Freshlyground complained to me back in 2008 that record stores could never figure out where to put their CDs: under Afro-pop, perhaps, or jazz, or pop?

Zimbabwean guitarist Louis Mhlanga has made a decent career as a session guitarist, in between producing his own jazzy albums, and last year he joined a massive world tour of a world-music supergroup called "Playing for Change." But when I was living in South Africa, working as the Monitor's Africa bureau chief, I struggled to find Mr. Mhlanga's CDs in the record stores. I ended up buying one online from Amazon.com.

Hugh Masekela, South Africa's grand old man of jazz, says the only way for young musicians to survive is to adapt and hustle. "I think that my advice would be for the arts community to become creative and not expect handouts, because they are not coming."

Using new media

In Boston, Kina Zoré is not short of hustle. (The name Kina Zoré refers to a traditional harvest dance in Mozambique, in the Ronga language.) Mr. Willett, the band's bass player, manages the band's Facebook page and its presence on Twitter. Band members have recently recorded an album, acting as their own producers, and they have released individual tracks free of charge on the band's website, kinazore.com.

Tsinine writes many of the band's songs, except for those penned by his father, musician Baptiste Tsinine. One of their songs, "Va Gumulelana" ("They Are Fighting"), recently won a Peace-Driven song award.

Band members manage their own club bookings, market themselves to folk music and world-music festivals, and maintain regular gigs at local Boston clubs such as Johnny D's, Club Bohemia, and Ryles Jazz Club. It's exhausting work, all the more so since half of the band members are still in college, working toward their final degrees.

"It can be very difficult saying you're an Afro-pop band," says Mr. Teshu, the band's drummer. "If you haven't heard the sound, it's hard to come up with the words to describe it. People say, 'What the heck is an Afro-pop band?' But when they hear us, they like it."

Holding onto that audience and building on it is the next challenge, says Willett. "There should be a local scene for this kind of music."

For the time being, though, Kina Zoré is the local scene for Afro-pop. And with new media and the ability to self-publish, their future is in their hands.

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