This article originally appeared in Nashville Scene.
A couple of years ago, a friend and I were chilling out at Grimey’s when Doyle posed the question, “Why is African music so trendy all of a sudden?” My pal and I looked at each other briefly, knowing we were about to purchase a stack of Afrobeat and Afropop compilations, when I blurted, “Because it’s awesome and people like awesome.” Granted, that’s not the most nuanced answer, and there’s probably lots of science-y, smart kid replies to be found out there, but when you boil it down, the current crop of African music that’s sweeping the nation just has more awesome than any other genre out there—more drums, more horns, more guitars. Y’know, all the stuff that makes music great.
Take, for instance, the Chicago Afrobeat Project, who take the core awesomeness of the genre forged in part by Fela Kuti and his small army of musicians and then ratchet up the “holy fuck!” factor by drawing on the twin traditions of their hometown progressive jazz scene and killer, fuzzed-out guitar tone. Sharing as much musical DNA with the mid-century masters that made Chicago a center of psychedelic jazz in the early ’70s (think Cadet Concept records and underground all-stars like Pharaohs and Boscoe) as they do with the folks a continent-and-a-half away, CAP are on the vanguard of the new globalist tradition, where all cultures are fair game for appropriation and re-modification in the name of furthering the funk.
Example: the Backseat Bingo Remix of “Media Man” from CAP’s latest EP, Off the Grid. Remixes are not part of traditional African music, obviously, but they are maybe the closest thing that modern American dance music has to a tradition. (It’s been 40-something years since Terry Riley dropped Poppy Nogood on the world, so that counts as a tradition right?) When you juxtapose the two, you arrive at a point simultaneously contemporary and ageless, something that stands out from the continuum that most Americans use to gauge their listening. But that sublime time-slip doesn’t just occur when electronica is thrown into the mix, it occurs across CAP’s back-catalog—from the hip-hop flows of 2005’s “Zambi” to the sweet, fuzzed-up guitar solos on their latest.
In a world where change is a constant—and constantly accelerating at that—a healthy respect for tradition is necessary to stay grounded, but an open ear and an eye to the future are necessary to stay relevant. Americans have done a great job of stifling creativity within our own indigenous traditions over the last 15 years (cough, pop radio, cough) so it’s only natural that there would be a collective grasp at genres outside of those traditions. It also helps when said tradition has—by its very definition—way, way more awesome.