America's Slow Embrace of World Music
African and Afro-Caribbean music are edging their way into the American consciousness.
A vast third category of African musicians, Collinet said, has "kept roots intact but incorporated a lot of music from the West." The acts sound distinctive, but for Western listeners, there are twangs of the familiar in their music. They include some of the most popular African artists, such as Youssou N'dour, Angelique Kidjo, Salif Keita, Tinariwen, and Amadou and Mariam.
Some African stars trained in Europe and the United States, either because they are members of the diaspora or received scholarships to study abroad. Ron Reid, associate professor of contemporary writing and production at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, is traveling to Nairobi this week as part of the school's Africa Scholars program. The Berklee staff will conduct workshops, teach classes and hold auditions among 90 to 100 musicians for two full scholarships to the school. Wainaina and Loueke studied at Berklee.
The Cameroonian jazz bassist and singer Richard Bona moved to Germany and then France to further his music studies before eventually settling in New York. Singer and percussionist Dobet Gnahore of Cote d'Ivoire fled her country's civil war for France in 1999 and has incorporated jazz and music from other African countries into her repertoire.
On the flip side, there's a greater, more genuine curiosity about music from other parts of the world among students at Berklee than might have been in the past, Reid said. "They want to learn more about it, and it's more sincere," he said. "Years ago, the students were more into what's attractive, a nice color and nice sound. Now, they want to represent the music more realistically and feature original instruments, traditional arrangements."
The problem is that in the United States, African music remains largely a fascination of professional musicians, college towns and a few big cities. In the United States, success for African performers might mean CD sales of 50,000 to 100,000 copies, Storper said. Still, the bar is higher than it was in 1993, when a hit African CD sold perhaps 15,000 copies, he said, a sign of the rising interest in African music.
Often, African music has to get someone else's seal of approval before American consumers tune in. Every few years, a Western musician, usually white, introduces pop listeners to African music, typically someone or something we've never heard but is a household word back home. Paul Simon and Ladysmith Black Mambazo, for example. Or Peter Gabriel and Youssou N'Dour. Vampire Weekend and soukous. In the U.K., Damon Albarn, the former frontman of Blur, and his fascination with Malian music.
"The sad thing is it takes middle-age white musicians to get these people wider notice," Broughton said of African performers. "What hasn't happened as much as we would like is that they're moving on, on their own, without some endorsement from a Western rock band."
Maybe it's because Americans aren't crazy about music in a different language. Maybe it has to do with the fact that people get excited about African bands when they see their amazing live performances, but the bands are often so big and the distance to the United States so great that it's expensive to set up tours for them here, Collinet said.
Proximity and history play roles, too. The British and French colonial presence in Africa meant those countries had greater access to music from Africa. Music was starting to come out of African immigrant communities in France in the 1970s, when people like Collinet started to work with them to develop a sound that would fly with a broader audience, mainly by improving production values and tuning instruments.
Collinet has seen interest in his show creep up after more than 20 years on air, and he, like Storper, is hopeful about the place African music might be finding in the United States.
"It's not a flavor of the week or the month or the day," Collinet said. "It's part of globalization. It's different. African music puts some pepper in that stew. I just wish we would have more of that."
Neela Bannerjee is a former New York Times reporter based in Washington, D.C.