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‘Crate digging’: Why the obsession with old African music has a strain of neo-colonialism – Scroll.in

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Legendary UK Radio DJ, the late John Peel used to play Zimbabwe’s The Bhundu Boys on his shows. A lot. Throughout the mid-’80s, their jit-jive would appear alongside Mancunians The Fall’s post-punk and Einstürzende Neubauten’s German industrial noise.

If Peel liked a band, he really championed them. And he really loved The Bhundu Boys. Peel was in tears the first time he saw them play live. The Bhundu Boys got their name from young guerrillas who supported the liberation army that fought for Zimbabwean independence. Between 1981 and 1984 they had four number ones on the local hit parade.

Touring the UK in 1986, they became stars of a new “World Music” scene. The term had been dreamt up by DJs like Charlie Gillett and the UK’s premier “indie” music magazine NME proclaimed October 1987 “World Music Month”, issuing a free cassette tape The World at One.

The Bhundus didn’t feature on this tape but they became stalwarts of a scene in the UK that included African stars like Nigerian Sunny Adé, Zimbabwean Thomas Mapfumo and Youssou N’Dour from Senegal. This “scene” lies on a continuum of Western consumption of African music from 1960s’ exotica to the contemporary trend for African reissue vinyl and its attendant compilation culture.

This continuum has been lying on the margins of Western music consumption since the early 1960s, when Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass Sounds brought (what was marketed as) the music of Mexico to urban American and the UK. Arguably the first of many Western producers/musicians to export sounds and rework them for a domestic market, exotica was an early example of the culture of listening to music from “somewhere else”.

As producers, musicians and labels have had more access to old vinyl and to new digital technology, the opportunities of reissues and compilations have proliferated. And so the sounds of Ethiopian jazz, of Nigeria in the 1970s and of Mali’s Griot culture have become staples in a reinvigorated “World Music” culture reliant on reissue and compilation.

Addiction, compulsion, obscurity and desire pepper this continuum, which has, at its centre, discomforting tensions around neo-colonialism and control. A fascinating podcast by the radio programme Afropop Worldwide has suggested that the latest urge to buy up African vinyl and to compile generically and geographically determined compilations is yet one more (white) western scramble for Africa. Are reissue labels like Strut, Analog Africa and Luaka Bop guilty of such a scramble? Or does this story have a number of different plot lines, not all of them hitched to neo-colonial narratives?

Space-disco musician

The trend in reissues manifested for me in the face of Nigerian space-disco musician, William Onyeabor, which appeared on my Twitter timeline a couple of years ago. Everyone I followed was raving about him. I clicked, listened and downloaded. Then I saw a documentary about him and wrote an academic piece that riffed off the idea of “raiders”. I linked the craze for Onyeabor to the phenomenon around the film Searching for Sugarman, which focused on the “missing” 70s folk rocker, Sixto Rodriguez.

I ought to make a confession at this point. I was one of those that sought out African music in the 1980s and 1090s. I saw the continent’s greats, Fela Kuti, N’Dour and Salif Keita. But I didn’t really obsess, didn’t really care about whether or not they were “authentic”. I just hated the hugely popular dance-pop duo Wham!

But I knew guys (and it always seems to be guys) who would listen to nothing else, who moved to Africa, who demanded the “real”. They would spent their days in London’s Sterns African record store, crate digging for treasure, and searching for rare vinyl to find something new. That was then, and now the crate diggers are searching for new sounds that are old – reissues, undiscovered stars from the 1970s, of whom Onyeabor was one, a “collector’s piece”.

Culture philosopher Walter Benjamin argued that collecting is about control. It is about creating (or even imposing) some kind of order on the world. And a collection is never finished. There’s always one more record. Crate digging, is part and parcel of a compulsion to collect shaped by addiction and compulsion, believes media studies academic Roy Shuker. And it feeds into a DJ’s sub-cultural capital, whereby unknown African tracks bestow respect within a dance culture that has always fetishised obscurity and the “white label” (rare records with white labels to conceal which records DJ were playing).

Archaeologist of African vinyl

Frank Gossner, the “archaeologist of African vinyl”, is one of the more well-known exponents of (West) African vinyl collectors, a German DJ literally digging through recent African cultural history. Like a determined archivist bent on rescuing vinyl before it decomposes in the West African humidity, he sources sounds that play well to western ears, raised on rare groove and funk.

Gossner, and those who run Strut and Luaka Bop, have “no African ancestry or cultural connection to the continent” beyond enthusiasm. And they furnish European and American ears with sounds that are both obscure and familiar; unknown names playing tunes that sound like 70s’ funk and 80s’ Fela.

This search for old/new sounds is based around a nostalgia culture that is endemic to Anglo-American popular music and which music critic and author Simon Reynolds has called “retromania”. It is not mirrored by contemporary African music culture, where an investment in musical presents is valued over the preservation of musical pasts and old vinyl is simply chucked away only to be “salvaged” by these western record hunters.

In these salvage operations there have been stories of financial rip-offs, musicians not being paid their dues and even rumours about one reissue label, PMG, being affiliated to the extreme Right Wing. But of course, there is not just one thread to this narrative, it is complex and multi-layered. This is echoed by Christopher Kirkley who runs Sahel Sounds, a label dedicated to showcasing contemporary West African music – but Kirkley presents himself on Twitter as “Gentleman explorer, rogue ethnomusicologist”, harking back to colonial narratives.

Cover of ‘Witchdoctor’s Son’ by Okay Temiz and Johnny Dyani. Matsuli Music

There are labels out there that are championing new sounds, and selling good percentages of their output to Africans (South Africa’s Matsuli Music label for example). There are enterprises that showcase the dynamic West African Bluetooth file sharing and mix tape culture – Brian Shimkovitz’s Awesome Tapes from Africa is a good example.

One of these “awesome” tapes is Obaa Sima by Ghanaian musician Ata Kak (real name Yaw Atta-Owusu), whom Shimkovitaz “tracked down”. His music is something that “no one in Ghana listens to any more”.

Mediated like Onyeabor and “Sugarman”, an African/Black musician to be tracked down by (White) Europeans and Americans, Ata Kak becomes a curio. But when asked by Factmag if he was going to record any “new” music, his reply was, “It’s important for me to move forward.”

John Peel liked the freshness of The Bhundu Boys, they were contemporary. He didn’t live long enough to experience this recent race to the past in music, this tracking down of the undocumented curiosity, this search for music that sounds old but is new, this new colonialism. If he were alive now, he’d be playing Ata Kak’s new songs and moving things forward.

Abigail Gardner, Reader in Music and Media, University of Gloucestershire.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

The United States of America has for long been more than a tourist destination for Indians. With Indians making up the second largest immigrant group in the USA, North American cities have a lot to offer to the travel weary Indian tourist. There are umpteen reasons for an Indian to visit vibrant education and cultural hubs like Boston and San Francisco. But if you don’t have a well-adjusted cousin to guide you through the well-kept Indian secrets, this guide to the Indian heart of Boston and San Francisco should suffice for when you crave your fix.

Boston

If you aren’t easily spooked, Boston is the best place to be at in October due to its proximity to Salem. You can visit the Salem Witch Village to learn about present-day wiccans and authentic witchcraft, or attend séances and Halloween parades with ghosts, ghouls and other frightening creatures giving you a true glimpse of America during Halloween. But the macabre spirit soon gives way to a dazzling array of Christmas lighting for the next two months. The famed big Christmas trees are accompanied by festive celebrations and traditions. Don’t miss The Nutcracker, the sugar-laced Christmas adventure.

While it upholds its traditions, Boston is a highly inclusive and experimental university town. It welcomes scores of Indian students every year. Its inclusiveness can be gauged from the fact that Berklee College of Music released a well-received cover of AR Rahman’s Jiya Jale. The group, called the Berklee Indian Ensemble, creates compositions inspired by Indian musical styles like the Carnatic thillana and qawwali.

Boston Comic Con (Source: Unsplash) Quincy Market (Source: Unsplash) Berklee School of Music’s Indian Ensemble (Source: Berklee.edu) Boston Univeristy (Source: Unsplash)

Boston’s Bollywood craze is quite widespread beyond the campuses too. Apple Cinemas in Cambridge and Regal Fenway Cinemas in Fenway can be your weekly fix as they screen all the major upcoming Bollywood movies. Boston tends to be the fighting ground for South Asian Showdowns in which teams from all over the North-Eastern coast gather for Bollywood-themed dance offs. The Bhangra competitions, especially, are held with the same energy and vigour as back home and are open to locals and tourists alike. If nothing else, there are always Bollywood flash mob projects you can take part in to feel proudly desi in a foreign land.

While travellers love to experiment with food, most Indian travellers will agree that they need their spice fix in the middle of any foreign trip. In that respect, Boston has enough to satisfy cravings for Indian food. North Indian cuisine is popular and widely available, but delicious South Indian fare can also be found at Udupi Bhavan. At Punjab Palace, you can dig into a typical North Indian meal while catching a Bollywood flick on one of their TVs. Head to Barbecue International for cross-continental fusion experiments, like fire-roasted Punjabi-style wings with mint and chilli sauce.

Boston is prominent on the radar of Indian parents scouting for universities abroad and the admission season especially sees a lot of prospective students and parents looking for campus tours and visits. To plan your visit, click here.

San Francisco

San Francisco is an art lover’s delight. The admission-free Trolley Dances, performed in October, focus on engaging with the communities via site-specific choreographies that reflect the city’s cultural diversity. Literature lovers can experience a Dickensian Christmas and a Victorian holiday party at The Great Dickens Christmas Fair, a month-long gala affair starting in November.

As an Indian, you’ll be spoilt for choice in San Francisco, especially with regards to food. San Francisco’s sizeable Indian population, for example, has several aces hidden up its sleeve. Take this video by Eater, which claims that the ‘Indian’ pizza at Zante’s Restaurant is the city’s best kept secret that needs outing. Desi citizens of San Francisco are big on culinary innovation, as is evident from the popularity of the food truck Curry Up Now. With a vibrant menu featuring Itsy Bitsy Naan Bits and Bunty Burrito and more, it’s not hard to see why it is a favourite among locals. Sunnyvale, with its large concentration of Indians also has quirky food on offer. If you wish to sample Veer Zaara Pizza, Dabangg Pizza or Agneepath Pizza, head to Tasty Subs & Pizza.

Trams at San Francisco (Source: Unsplash) Curry Up Now food truck (Souce: By sw77 via Flickr) Palace of Fine Arts (Source: Unsplash) San Francisco AT&T Park (Source: Unsplash)

There are several Indian temples in Sunnyvale, Fremont and San Jose that also act as effective community spaces for gatherings. Apart from cultural events, they even hold free-for-all feasts that you can attend. A little-known haven of peace is the Sankat Mochan Hanuman Temple. Their Anjaneya World Cafe serves delicious mango lassi; the beverage is a big hit among the local population.

If you’re looking for an Indian movie fix during your travels, the San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival’s theme this year is Bollywood and Beyond. Indian film enthusiasts are in for a treat with indie projects, art-house classics, documentaries and other notable films from the subcontinent being screened.

San Francisco’s autumn has been described as ‘Indian summer’ by the locals and is another good season to consider while planning a trip. The weather lends more vigour to an already vibrant cultural scene. To plan your trip, click here.

An Indian traveller is indeed spoilt for choice in Boston and San Francisco as an Indian fix is usually available just around the corner. Offering connectivity to both these cities, Lufthansa too provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its India-bound flights and flights departing from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.