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The Wembley reception for Nelson Mandela provided a platfonn for music from the Frontline states which border South Africa. Hip bop for right-
on rockers, the music of
Hugh Masekela, Thomas Mapfumo, the Bhundu Boys and others has revived an increasingly synthetic music scene. But how popular is it really? Mayfest, featuring bands from six countries, provides an ideal opportunity to sample the best of World Music. Trevor Johnston surveys the rise and rise of African pop, previews the Mayfest giggers and offers a beginner's guide to some of the most exciting sounds around.
Nelson Mandela‘s tribute concert at Wembley crystallised the paradoxes lurking at the core ofthe current so-called world music boom. The response of the thousands at the venue and the millions at home to Mandela and his people's lengthy struggle may have been one of deeply moving respect. yet in musical terms the presence of the day's black South African performers remained marginal.
In 1990 the public and critical awareness of major African artists like Youssou N'Dour and Salif Keita is higher than ever before. but -- judging by the offhand treatment of their peers on Easter Monday -- it could be that we still retain. in our unconscious post-colonial way. patronising attitudes towards performers from the developing world. And if there are spectral prejudices haunting our minds. do they need to be dispelled if this music of black Africa is ever to become more than a diversion for a right-on minority?
This May. Glasgow has a chance to put the question to the test. when a combined Mayfest-WOMAD (World Music. Arts and Dance) programme of Music From The Frontline. which brings together eight groups from Zimbabwe. Zambia. Botswana. Mozambique. Angola and Tanzania. becomes the biggest explosion of Southern African sounds to hit Scotland. It‘s true that in recent years. through radio airplay and music press coverage. acts like Zimbabwe‘s Bhundu Boys and Four Brothers have become sizeable attractions on the college rock circuit. but this is the first time that both electric pop-influenced styles and acoustic traditional players from all the Frontline countries have been brought together in a coherent package. Indeed. the music programme is just one component of Mayfest 1990‘stimelysurvey of Frontline culture across the board.
()n the following page there‘s a short run-down on what you can expect from each ofthe visting bands. They more than disprove the commonly heard platitude that all l/lal African .vIu_/_‘/‘sotmrls the same because there‘s a substantial distance between the mellow acoustic guitars and gentle melodies of Angola's Kafala Brothers and the strikingly alien. almost Arabic sounds of'l'anzanian Taarab music. or even the recognisable electric rock dynamic behind the e/iinmrengu groove of Zimbabwean Thomas Mapfumo and his twelve-piece band The Blacks Unlimited.
Without doubt Mapfumo is the season’s major coup. He has gained recognition as an artist on the world stage since the mid-Seventies when he worked out a way of transferring the complex patterns of
Centuries-old mhiru music (the mbira '
is a small hand piano made from a set of iron keys and a gourd) to amplified guitars. bass and drums.
As for the rest of the lesser-known performers in the Mayfest season. the man who travelled from country to country to make the selection is
Thomas Brooman of the Bristol-based WOMAD organisation. Undoubtedly the planet‘s most experienced purveyors and presenters ofglobal pop. WOMAD. since its 1980 inception. has grown into a major body responsible for assembling festivals of world music not only in Britain. but also right across Europe and North America. ‘I came away humbled at the sheer depth of musicalin in these countries.‘ reports Brooman of his time on the Frontline. ‘Everywhere you go music follows you. everything you do there's a song for it. Music is simply so much more important than in our own culture.’
‘Angola was the biggest surprise of all.’ notes Brooman. ‘l lere you have an economy in tatters. where under the official exchange rate a loafof bread will cost you £20 but the black market price is 20 pence. and yet all the bands have top Japanese and American equipment. I saw eight absurdly good groups in eight days. and in almost all these countries you‘re talking about four. six. eight hour sets. As I say. I was quite simply humbled.‘
Whether Glasgow punters will share his feelings remains to be seen. Without the large black communities to be found in other British cities. Scotland‘s response so far to African music. at least in terms of record sales. has been muted. ‘I hate to say this. but to some extent I think all this world music stuff is a creation of the London-based media.‘ says Gordon Munro of the Virgin Megastore in Glasgow's Argyle Street. ‘1‘“ sell a good few ofthe name artists like Youssou N‘Dour or Mory Kante (the Malian kora player whose dancefloor smash Yeke Yeke reached number two in the singles‘ charts) but just because people buy those records doesn‘t mean that they explore the rest ofthe African section. Sometimes I‘m not actually sure what to stock. so I‘ve recently been decreasing the range we carry.
The head of Mango Records. Mapfumo's current UK label. sighs when I break this nugget ofnews: ‘Yeah. well it's always been pretty tough to sell records in Scotland.‘ Still. Jumbo Vanrenen is a man who’s used to fighting the good fight against conservative music fans. having pioneered Earthworks records (before it became part of the Virgin group) and putting out African releases in Britain back in the early 80s when world music wasn't even a twinkle in a marketing person’s eye. ‘lt's true to say that London and the South remains the major market for black music.‘ he continues. ‘but the problem is that African bands won't tour to a lean area like Scotland and so the environment needed for appreciation of this music to thrive simply doesn't get created. lfpeople actually saw these guys. then they'd rush out and buy the records. We've always found that sales of African records have been performance-related.‘
()n this front. Scotland's leading (only?) promoter of sounds from the