When President Abdoulaye Wade, the embattled leader of Senegal, was in New York City in September for the United Nations Forum on Millennium Development Goals, he took a break from politicking to hold a press conference announcing the third World Festival of Black Arts and Cultures, a sprawling multidisciplinary confab that returned to the seaside city of Dakar in December, some four decades after Senegal’s first president, Négritude poet and scholar Léopold Sédar Senghor, conceived and presided over the first one. Wade described an event "shaped by the full African diaspora," a vision hinted at by the presence of the three artists on the podium with him: the festival’s artistic director, British-born actor-playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah; Akon, the R&B star of Senegalese descent; and Angelique Kidjo, the Benin-bred superstar who was a teenager when the second Black Arts Festival was held in 1977 in Lagos, Nigeria, home of the bandleader and funky politico Fela Kuti. Wade promised a mix of visual artists, intellectuals, musicians, dancers and fashion designers even larger and more geographically wide-ranging than the group Senghor had convened in Dakar in 1966, which included Langston Hughes, Duke Ellington, future Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka and choreographers Alvin Ailey and Katherine Dunham.
As momentous as the event’s press rollout ended up, the air in the room began to crackle when Wade, who is 84, revealed that during his student days he was an aspiring guitarist. When pressed on the subject, the head of state doubled the astonishment. Few in attendance could have expected the former law professor, whose victorious presidential campaign in 2000 was bolstered by a chorus of newly politicized Senegalese hip-hoppers, to start expounding on Beethoven and Tchaikovsky rather than, say, griot music or the homegrown Senegalese rock-style mbalax. (Mbalax was invented around the time Wade first ran for the presidency in the late 1970s, by Youssou N’Dour, the international pop star rumored to be contemplating a 2012 challenge to Wade.) Whatever his musical pleasure, Wade spoke as if his eclectic past made him some kind of everyman, even if the 160-foot-high monument to his leadership he recently had erected in Dakar, at an estimated cost of $27 million, suggests otherwise. The president smiled and wondered aloud why his onetime guitar obsession provoked such surprise. "In Senegal, we are all in some way musicians," he said in accented English, answering his own rhetorical question while alluding to the old saw about music’s central role in cultures throughout Africa.
The excitement generated by Wade’s reminiscence underscored something else: music often seems like one of Africa’s few points of light. The spirited sounds and rhythms that accompany ceremonies and parties as well as social struggles often provide relief from repressive politics. On a fairly regular basis, the news reaches the West via guitar chords, vocal chants or the beat of a talking drum. It’s the thread that connects FELA!, the Tony Award–winning Broadway musical devoted to the bandleader’s tortured life at the hands of Nigeria’s military government, to the plight of Zimbabwean freedom singer Thomas Mapfumo, who has been exiled in Eugene, Oregon, for the past decade, unable to set foot in former ally Robert Mugabe’s country since 2004. It’s apparent in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where years of war have dislodged from Kinshasa what was once Africa’s most popular and prolific music infrastructure, and it’s why there was exasperation but little surprise when fundamentalist factions in Somalia imposed a ban on music broadcasting in the spring. The political turmoil in Mogadishu also helps explain the checkered past of Somali MC K’naan, whose healing song "Wavin’ Flag" was the hit of the World Cup this past summer. Before rapping saved him from a career of crime, he had escaped the war in his country only to find himself a gangsta refugee kid in Toronto.
The tension between revel-ready sounds and lapsed political vision is inescapable while listening to the weighty, rarely less than buoyant Africa: 50 Years of Music, 1960–2010, an eighteen-CD box set recently released by the London-based record label/store Sterns Music (£65), still one of the world’s premier distributors of Afropop. Tracing the impressions of politics on art is difficult, but the collection’s compilers, a brain trust led by Paris-based producer-impresario Ibrahima Sylla, have made it near impossible to hear any of the music, from praise songs and rustic chants to groove workouts and urbanized dancefloor smashes, without wondering about its context. The collection’s title, as well as a handy nationhood chart in the accompanying booklet, reminds us that 1960 was a watershed year in Africa, with some seventeen countries, Senegal among them, officially declared independent (50 Ans d’Indépendances is the set’s French subtitle). Just two years later, anticipating Uganda’s coming-out party, the noted Polish journalist (and sometime fabulist) Ryszard Kapuscinski rhapsodized about the era’s optimism. "It’s all improbable, incredible," he wrote in Shadow of the Sun. "As if one were witnessing the birth of the world, that precise moment when the earth and sky already exist, as do water, plants, and wild animals, but not yet Adam and Eve." Of the 185 tracks spanning thirty-eight countries, only a handful predate 1960; the most notable are the romantic songs by Egyptian icons Oum Kalsoum and Mohammed Abdel Wahab (Egypt had been independent since 1922), and "Ghana Freedom," trumpeter and high-life pioneer E.T. Mensah’s 1956 salute to new president Kwame Nkrumah.
It’s hard to quibble with the collection’s logic. Countering the misconception that Africa is a monolith of blacks and browns, it neatly breaks the continent into six three-disc sections, five of which are regional ("North Africa," "Southern," "West," "East," "Central"), while the sixth is linguistic ("Lusophone," for Portuguese-speaking countries like Cape Verde, Angola and Guinea-Bissau). Beyond the inevitable omission of this or that icon (what, no King Sunny Adé?), there are countless pleasures, like how seamlessly the music of the four Arab-centric nations included in the splendid "North Africa" discs flows together, in contrast to the beautifully varied "West" and "Central Africa" discs, which blend more countries, languages (both colonial and native) and stylistic permutations. I’ve yet to read a compelling ethnographic explanation for why musicians in several Francophone African nations seized on the percolating midcentury Latin music of Cuba (check Le Grand Kalle’s "Indépendance Cha Cha" or Salif Keita’s sublime praise song for Guinean autocrat Sékou Touré, "Mandjou"), but the box suggests that one measure of recent modernization is how rumba Africaine slowly made way for rock and funk-based syntheses like mbalax, Congolese soukous and the electro band Konono No. 1’s Bazombo trance music as the millennium approached. The scintillating mix on the "East Africa" discs also proves cohesive; the heated urban grooves of 1970s Ethiopia are bolstered by percussive, often guitar-charged pastorals from Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda and Mauritius (Menwar’s recent "Sizann" is a highlight). The section with the fewest surprises is "Southern Africa," despite its inclusion of little-known pop from Malawi and Madagascar. Township jive and mbira-transposed Zimbabwean chimurenga are dynamic and often irresistible, but they haven’t been unfamiliar in the United States since Paul Simon released Graceland in 1986, and the slickness of latter-day South African fare in particular clashes with the collection’s prevailing unpretentiousness.
Ironically, the spirit of one dictator’s ideas can be said to inform much of the box set’s creative uplift. When Sekou Toure encouraged national orchestras like Bembeya Jazz to practice what he called "Authenticité" (represented here by the single "Armée Guinéenne"), he had hoped that a new national identity would arise from the fashioning of precolonial cultural forms with contemporary materials and methods. But even in countries where the cultural thrust wasn’t necessarily a matter of public policy, artists like Fela, Mapfumo, Cameroonian saxophonist Manu "Soul Makossa" Dibango and Congolese guitar hero Franco understood instinctively that originality is forged in the endless play between cultural burrowing and cultural borrowing. The collection’s omission of current desert-blues sensation Tinariwen, whose members hail from the Sahel region of Mali in West Africa but wouldn’t sound out of place amid the swirl of music from Morocco or Tunisia, is evidence that authenticité can have limits in countries where more than one tribal ancestry is present. As former refugees whose people, the Tuaregs, were once at war with the Malian government, Tinariwen have a view of national identity that is markedly different from that of Malians Oumou Sangaré (Mali’s answer to Aretha Franklin) and guitar icon Ali Farka Touré, both of whom are included in the collection. If Africa: 50 Years of Music says anything at all, it’s that defying adversities imposed by borders has been one of Afropop’s key modes of transcendence.