The satan went all the way down to Gambia! The stunning historical past of African nation music


In early July, a Twitter account referred to as The Zimbabwean posted a thread highlighting the recognition of nation music throughout Africa. The posts included movies – principally telephone footage from bars and weddings – that persuasively made the case for the declare. A person in a cowboy hat moonwalking to Kenny Rogers’ The Gambler; a gaggle of ladies blissfully line-dancing to Kenyan nation star Sir Elvis protecting Wagon Wheel, a 2013 hit by Darius Rucker.

These snapshots of nation music woven into the material of on a regular basis African life sparked an almost unanimous response: shock and delight. The thread shortly gathered 1000’s of retweets and a stack of amazed replies. However many throughout the diaspora might have felt it stirred one thing deeper. I’ve spent years tracing my love of nation music throughout generations and located it to be an underappreciated thread in world Black music and in Black British heritage.

In case you’ve hung out in rural sub Saharan Africa one factor that may shock you is the recognition of American nation music to the purpose the place you may’t go to a bar, get together, or marriage ceremony with out avoiding it 🧵

— The Zimbabwean (@RisenChow) June 30, 2022

A number of years in the past, the fascination round this thread might have been a fleeting curiosity, however the Twitter poster was savvy to the timing. Nation is cool once more. US and world streaming figures have risen by 50% prior to now two years, and it’s the UK’s quickest rising style on streaming platforms. Nation has additionally turn into a cultural speaking level as we discover the tensions between the style’s rigorously constructed picture of whiteness, and the variety and complexity of its long-hidden historical past.

Nation music has borrowed closely from Black sources because it was created within the Nineteen Twenties – a sample that continued over a long time. However efforts to right this have been gaining floor. From grassroots initiatives such because the Black Opry, SoulCountry and Nation Queer, to the success of country-adjacent acts reminiscent of Allison Russell, there’s an urge for food for reimagining nation and reconnecting it to its true roots.

Bulawayo Blue Yodel – a compilation of country-influenced African music. {Photograph}: Mississippi Information

Why, then, does the concept of African nation nonetheless come as a shock? “However I’d go to Africa to FLEE nation music!” learn one reply to the posts. In a current interview I carried out on NTS Radio, music historian Uchenna Ikonne mentioned reactions to his 2017 compilation of Nigerian nation Like Nashville in Naija. “Having these saccharine, sentimental ballads come out of Nigeria is one thing folks don’t count on,” he mentioned. “When folks consider African music, they often consider sizzling polyrhythms”, not “sappy melodies”. Or the political funk of Fela Kuti, not the conservative croon of Conway Twitty.

This perceived incongruity underpins the joy that many discovered within the movies. When beliefs about tradition, race and music are ingrained, there’s a pleasure in having the hidden ties between them revealed, challenged and remixed. There was frustration too, notably amongst those that have been already effectively conscious of this cultural affiliation: some discussions appeared to scale back the complexity of the movies to stereotypes, reminiscent of marvelling on the dancing.

The historical past of African nation music is basically uncharted. If you piece collectively the fragments, a protracted and wealthy musical relationship begins to emerge. It begins within the Thirties, in accordance with author Jesse Jarnow, and differs massively throughout the continent. However in southern Africa, the seed was planted with the screening of westerns for employees in colonial mining cities. Singing cowboys arrived later, their songs shortly turning into a radio staple alongside Jimmie Rodgers, nation music’s first star.

Within the Nineteen Forties and 50s, as African troopers returned from the second world warfare and native radio and report labels took off, got here the primary recordings of country-influenced African music. Bulawayo Blue Yodel, a current assortment, compiles a number of the most hanging data of the interval, providing proof that nation has been in dialogue with African music kind of from its business outset within the US. The cowboy motifs and imprints of Rodgers and the Carter Household are evident in songs reminiscent of George Sibanda’s Ekhaya or the yodelling of Matthew “the Central African Cowboy” Jeffries.

Alick Nkhata: Nalikwebele Sonka – video

There may be hypothesis that nation was embraced as a result of it overlapped with sure strands of African music – Shona music from Zimbabwe has lengthy contained indigenous-styled yodelling (huro), for instance. What’s clearer is that nation struck a chord in components of Africa at a time of main social change as folks moved from rural areas to cities and cities. There are parallels with the style’s rise within the US, as ethnomusicologist Aaron Fox has mentioned: “Nation music is born when nation turns into a nostalgic concept.” Tales of rural people struggling within the metropolis may be discovered within the 50s music of Zambian singer Alick Nkhata, as typically because the modern ballads of Dusty and Stones, from Eswatini.

However the style additionally made many idiosyncratic and unpredictable twists because it wound its method by the continent. Even within the early years, nation was blended with native influences and developed into what ethnomusicologist Tom Turino has referred to as new “common-practice kinds”. In later years, in accordance with Uchenna Ikonne, the graceful, Christian-country of Jim Reeves, was seen as “cerebral” or “chin-stroking” music. It impressed pleasant, if unlikely, sounds: the country-disco of Emma Ogosi and Oby Onyioha, and electro-funk of Willian Onyeabor. Look intently sufficient and also you’ll discover traces of nation from west African palm-wine to Zimbabwean chimurenga musics. Many could also be stunned to be taught that nation has additionally been a car for political and progressive sentiments all through Africa. From the pre-independence resistance music made in Zambian mining camps, to the country-rock of Ivorian musicians and activists Jess Sah Bi and Peter One – and Ogosi donned a cowboy hat whereas singing Slave Drivers (Get Out).

For many individuals throughout the diaspora, African nation may really feel stunning, but by some means acquainted – hinting, on a better look, at one thing that’s all the time been there however was simply out of view. There could also be many Black Britons of African or Caribbean descent (or, like me, each) for whom it stirs recollections of a grandparent, or casts gentle on the methods they’ve been subtly steeped in nation from a younger age.

Jess Sah Bi & Peter One: Apartheid – video

I’ve discovered that nation music runs deep by generations of my household – that it’s not simply an American story, however a dialog between the Americas, Africa and Europe echoing by time. It’s there in my father’s choice for the delicate country-rock of the Eagles or contemplative people of Paul Simon over the indulgent lasciviousness typically related to 70s rock, and within the palm-wine music of SE Rogie, from his residence nation Sierra Leone, who was impressed by Jimmie Rodgers. I can hear shades of it in my very own penchant for sentimental or wistful music as we speak.

On my Jamaican facet, it has seeped into the tradition by way of a love of westerns, nation radio and what critic Lloyd Bradley has referred to as the “reggaefication” of the nation songbook (with nation borrowing sounds from Jamaica, too). But it surely took on further significance for the Windrush technology. Jim Reeves and Tennessee Ernie Ford have been the Sunday soundtrack for folks reminiscent of my grandparents, who moved to the UK within the 50s. Reeves’s wealthy baritone is etched throughout my uncles’ recollections; my grandmother “performed his songs each Sunday and throughout Christmas”. His music resonated due to its Christian themes, but it surely additionally tapped into a way of cultural alienation many within the West Indian neighborhood felt within the UK. Songs reminiscent of Throughout the Bridge and This World Is Not My Dwelling ache for a house left behind or give promise of a greater one ready. It’s a permanent theme, from Toots and the Maytals’ stirring cowl of Take Me Dwelling, Nation Roads, to Yellowman’s dancehall basic, Jamaica Good: “London chilly, Jamaica good / Nation roads, take me residence.”

SE Rogie at the 100 Club, London, in 1986.
SE Rogie on the 100 Membership, London, in 1986. {Photograph}: David Corio/Redferns

We’re seeing extra scattered however vital examples of nation’s connection to Black British tradition – Steve McQueen’s Small Axe movie sequence gave nation a notable position in third episode, Crimson, White and Blue. However there’s nonetheless a lot historical past price revisiting. I might typically sense my uncles’ slight resistance to the concept nation was a part of their heritage. Wanting again on the music of their 70s youth, nation may really feel too conservative, too white, in contrast with the post-Jamaican independence resistance songs of their 70s youth, reminiscent of Desmond Dekker’s 007 (Shanty City). They could want to recollect the Nat King Cole data my grandad performed than Reeves.

I might counter this by declaring nation’s extra rebellious manifestations in Jamaican tradition. The cult basic movie The More durable They Come is rife with spaghetti western references, and with reggae legend Jimmy Cliff heading up the film and its soundtrack, it’s not a lot of a leap to see his character as a singing cowboy with a Jamaican twist. Or that reggae stars recognized for his or her resistance songs, such Toots Hibbert or Jimmy Cliff, additionally performed with nation influences. However I believe it’s simply as essential to recollect the position that even the graceful nation of Jim Reeves performed in offering a way of hope in a hostile and unwelcoming new world. When Reeves died, my Uncle Junior recalled, it was like “a dying within the household. That’s how a lot my mom beloved him.”

The story of African nation is fascinating and sophisticated. That Twitter thread introduced it into the mainstream, one thing that extra nuanced efforts have struggled to do. Social media has a method of exhibiting the tensions and problems of a narrative like this with an immediacy that cuts by. However it could actually additionally condense them in ways in which strip them of their richness and the experiences of individuals residing with the music. In a social media-mediated world that makes uprooted connections journey shortly, I’m wistful for one that may give area for the fragile actuality of musical expression and its cultural resonances, relatively than decreasing them to stunning photographs.

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