African Music blogs offer a conduit to the mass of African music that remains unreleased in the West says Jennifer Allan
African Music blogs like Sea Never Dry and Brian Shimkovitz’s Awesome Tapes From Africa offer a conduit to the mass of African music that remains unreleased in the West - and that is despite the recent flourishing of accomplished African music compilations from labels such as Soundways, Honest Jon’s and the Éthiopiques series.
Simplicity and accessibility was music publicist and ethnomusicologist Shimkovitz’s original ambition for his blog. “I wanted to do something with music from Africa that virtually ignored my formal schooling and subsequent fieldwork in ethnomusicology, so that regular old music fans could get something out of my blog without being intimidated,” he says. He operates on a simple premise: “I rip the tapes from a cassette deck to my laptop using Audacity, and hardly touch the EQ. I want people to hear every song on a tape, as I experience them.” As a result, less expert listeners can make inroads into African music, which is presented less as some kind of exotic artefact and more as just another sort of pop music. Places like Awesome Tapes From Africa, Sea Never Dry and Analog Africa present their music simply, free of the judgements and technical jargon of sleevenotes, leaving the listener to to draw his or her own conclusions.
Shimkovitz covers a selection of the material he collected while researching in West Africa. The blog is his leisure-time haunt and the tone is conversational. Each post is accompanied by a brief explanation or sentence expressing enthusiasm and some basic facts, but through the blog it’s possible gradually to build up a picture of a whole continent’s potentially intimidating musical heritage country by country, from Ghanaian high-life through to Zambian rock. African music bloggers constitute a horde of amateur enthusiasts and professional experts with ready knowledge of arcane or highly specialised areas who can disseminate sounds that hardly feature in Western coverage of African music. In the case of ATFA the effects of modern technology and influences can be heard in many of the posts: Snr Eddie Donkor’s gloopy swinging synths and the acid-yellow twang of electric guitars sound distinctly untraditional but form a major part of the aural landscape.
Some of the music is incredibly popular in its home country, though relatively unknown in the West - a blog was the first place I heard Prince Nico Mbarga’s 1976 hit “Sweet Mother”, which sold more than 10million copies. Though he relocated to England in 1982, he remains rarely heard outside of Africa. The blogs with their highly personalised coverage of a specific style, and the space to cover it in as much or as little detail as required, create the opportunity to make extraordinary discoveries. Like the weird cross-cultural phenomenon of the 1960s, the Kinshasa ‘Bills’ – a collection of wayward youths who chose to recreate the wild west in Congo, but were co-opted into forming groups like Minzoto Ya Zaire through the efforts of a Belgian priest.
It's true that the free rein blogs give to untempered opinion often has negative results, generating a whole world of uninformed, indulgent and boring misinformation. But a good blog is a goldmine - Analog Africa, Sea Never Dry and Awesome Tapes From Africa, clear, impassioned, comfortably masters of their material, being a case in point.