Although film is on the rise in Africa, music still holds its own

For the younger, more urbanized generation in Africa, film may be the dominant artistic medium, but for the continent's older generations, music remains central to identity.

Candace Feit/AP
Burkina Faso troops sit around the entrance to the 19th Panafrican Film and Television festival in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso in 2005. Africa's premier film festival got underway amid tragedy in Burkina Faso's desert capital as two died in a stampeding crowd at an opening ceremony where officials called for increased professionalism and funding for the continent's often-overlooked movie industry.

Is film now Africa’s dominant form of artistic expression? The Economist asserted this proposition in an otherwise reliable article on Nollywood, the Nigerian video industry. “Film is now Africa’s dominant medium, replacing music and dance,” The Economist writes. Can this be so? Perhaps for people under 20 years old, a new generation of more urbanized Africans who comprise as much as 45 percent of the population of many countries south of the Sahara. For these African youth, the village can seem remote, making dance a forgotten art. Music, meanwhile, is adulterated, a melange of hip-hop, rock, reggae and other “imported” styles.

For older Africans, however, music is undeniably the form of expression most attuned to identity. One of my closest friends, from southern Africa, is a mighty technical brain and a power in media in his own country. And yet he pines away to perform his original songs. Another friend, a university professor who works in a most prestigious university in the US, is besotted by Franco. He can recite chapter and verse from Rumba on the River, the classic account of Congolese music. “I think there is story to be told about the record player as Africa’s true information revolution and Franco as its Field Marshal,” he reminded me on Christmas by e-mail.

Nnamdi Moweta, the luminous African music impressario in Los Angeles, would agree, though he would likely claim to soldier under the generalship of Fela perhaps, or of Osadebe, the late Igbo troubedour whom he once managed. My own wife, Chizo, holds dearest the Igbo highlife musicians of her youth in Port Harcourt and Owerri, notably the Oriental Brothers and the rather neglected bandleader Oliver De Coque. While she delights in Nigeria’s cinema, music trumps movies for her any day. And virtually all of the classic cuts from Nigeria of the 1960s and 1970s can be found on authentic CD releases.

And so, reading the assertion about the new dominance of film in African society, I am reminded, not of the arts, but rather of the yawning generation gap that’s emerged in Africa – a gap that may do more to push change in African societies than any other force, demographic or not.

G. Pascal Zachary blogs at Africa Works.

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