terça-feira, 1 de julho de 2008

Brancos a tocarem música de pretos?

O meu bom amigo Carlos mandou-me este artigo do Alex Minoff, dos Extra Golden (e dos Weird War, dos Golden, dos Make-up e, uff, dos Six Finger Sattelite), colectivo americano-queniano que se encontra actualmente em Portugal, prevendo-se para amanhã noite de arromba na ZDB, alguns dias depois do espectáculo oferecido ao público do Mestiço, na Casa da Música. No artigo, Minoff aborda, não só no caso dos Extra Golden como num contexo mais global, a questão da autenticidade, da mistura da música africana com o rock, dos Toubab Krewe (grupo de música africana composto por americanos, a não perder na edição deste ano do FMM), das inovações dos Konono no.1, enfim, de mestiçagens e de racismos. O texto foi originalmente publicado na revista MungBeing (cujo site se encontra, aparentemente, inacessível). Já agora, parte disto faz-me lembrar a magnífica citação do compositor Gustav Mahler que o camarada António Pires tem no seu Raízes & Antenas: "A tradição é a transmissão do fogo e não a veneração das cinzas".

Extra Golden is a musical group consisting of two Americans (myself and Ian Eagleson) and two Kenyans (Opiyo Bilongo and Onyango Wuod Omari). The story of our formation is well-documented in other places, so I won't go into it here. The issue of how four musicians from such disparate economic and cultural backgrounds are able to create sounds sympathetic to each other's ears doesn't matter now. Instead, what I hope to address are the questions of Authenticity that relate to Extra Golden and our audience, as well as the general presentation of, and critical approach to, African music.

One of the most frequent questions asked of me is: "How do Africans react when they see a couple of white guys up on stage playing African music?" This is really just a coded way of asking, "Do they think you're fake or do they accept you as one of them?"

When I'm asked this question I usually explain that, at first, the Kenyans in the audience express a friendly disbelief, a sort of "I gotta see this!" mentality. But, after a few moments, any skepticism disappears, and they quickly revert to what they are there to do in the first place - have fun. That, of course, is the goal of the band. However, it is also the goal of the audience, which is why you'll never find a patron at a Kenyan bar watching the band from a distance with their arms folded, scratching their chin.

But there is more to this question than meets the ear. To a lot of people, nothing oozes Authenticity more than a couple of poor, African musicians ("These guys are the real deal, man!"). There is a subtle racism at work here, presupposing some sort of initiation into a mystical cult of Africanness, which would explain why I've never been asked, "How do Americans react when they see a couple of Africans playing rock music?"

Questions of Authenticity also arise when it comes to language. On our upcoming record, Hera Ma Nono, all four members of Extra Golden sing in English, Luo and Swahili. This raises all sorts of red flags with studious, world music types, and a recent review of a group called Toubab Krewe illuminates this point.

Toubab Krewe is a quintet from North Carolina who perform songs from the West African repertoire, incorporating the indigenous instruments of the region (kora, kamelengoni, etc.). They honed these difficult skills through various trips to Mali, Guinea and the Ivory Coast. This hard work is not lost on the critic, who compliments the group for the results of their travails. However, an interesting comment is added at the end of the review:

"The decision to include no singing on the album was both brave and wise. When Americans add English lyrics to African music, or sing in African languages, a line is crossed and a whole new set of compromises must be breached."

I am wondering about this. Earlier, the critic notes that Toubab Krewe, "have made this music their own with inventive, natural sounding arrangements that never lag or fall back on clichés." What is it about singing that would make Toubab Krewe's efforts inauthentic? The irony, of course, is that this group is performing using the instruments and songs of cultures far removed from their own.

It would be easy for a cynic to label them inauthentic without ever hearing a note. Yet, to this critic, the line between authenticity and inauthenticity is a lyrical one. What is it about the voice that makes it sonically more expressive than a guitar or kamelengoni? More important than a drum?

In Extra Golden, everybody sings together because we are a team. Sound is the most important thing, and everybody knows a chorus sounds better with four voices rather than two, no matter what language it is - it is called a chorus after all! (A quick sidenote: English happens to be an official language, not only of Kenya, but of such world music titans as Nigeria and Ghana, too.) To me, only allowing vocals to be sung by native speakers would be the real "compromise". Would it be a problem for me to sing in French? Probably not. This point of view is consistent with the one that exoticizes the African musician as possessing some form of inherent purity or Authenticity, ignoring the fact that most would put a bagpipe solo on their record in exchange for a new set of guitar strings!

So, does Extra Golden stand any real chance of being considered "authentic"? Well, if the above sentiments are any indication, then the answer would have to be a resounding "NO". Of course, these assumptions, and what they imply, would mean that nothing really could be. Too often, Authenticity is really just a synonym for cultural ignorance or misunderstanding. Fodeba Keita, who almost single-handedly modernized (inauthenticated?) Guinean music in the 1950s and 1960s, asked:

"How often do we hear the word authentic used here, there, and everywhere to describe folkloric performances? Come to the point! Authentic compared to what? To a more or less false idea which one has conceived about the sensational primitiveness of Africa?"

In coveting what is essentially a colonialist's concept of foreign cultures, Authenticity discourages innovation. In its place is a preference for stasis or genre music. Even though Africa contains thousands of cultures, each with their own unique traditions, it is much easier to understand a continent of aural oddities populated with half-naked men creating rhythmic cacophony. In fact, when I explain to people that I play with African musicians, the typical response is: "So you guys have a bunch of drums?"

Lost in all of these discussions are the musicians themselves. I can confidently say that, for the African half of Extra Golden, music is a true passion - however, it is also a job. This point cannot be emphasized enough, especially as it is ultimately the determining factor behind most decisions. Authenticity can be a diverting topic for scholars to kick about, but for the working African musician economics will usually defeat academics.

No finer example of economics factoring into the lives of African musicians (only to be misunderstood by Western critics) exists than the Congolese group Konono No. 1. Founded almost 30 years ago, Konono play a form of traditional Bazombo music that features several likembes (thumb pianos). In order to compete with the urban noise pollution of Kinshasa, the group devised their own collection of microphones and amplifiers built from spare auto parts and the like. This helped create a unique sound but also, more importantly, kept the group working feverishly. It also allowed the band to gain exposure in Europe, where their inventiveness earned them the dubious classification of "Afro-punk". While it has undoubtedly done wonders for the group's wallets, this odious appellation is condescending and confused, representative of commercial considerations and unrealistic expectations.

If a rock group from Atlanta or Amsterdam built their own amplification system, as Konono did, then they might be acting in the DIY spirit often equated with the "punk" movement. This implies a choice. Could they have opted for a complete backline of vintage Fender tube amplifiers? Yes, but they made a conscious decision about their own identity by going against the perceived mainstream. Many Western groups define themselves through decisions like this, their music a decorative afterthought. Konono, like most African groups, did not have the luxury of this kind of fashionable declaration. For them, the choice was get louder or lose business. Konono did what they had to do, and Western critics have placed them at the forefront of a punk/industrial/trance/experimental/electronica movement for it. Won't they be surprised!?!

Before I conclude, I must mention something that has been playing around in my head ever since I started contemplating the Authenticity issue. Almost a decade before they became the Hollywood cocaine consorts of Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham, Fleetwood Mac were a rocking, British band led by the incomparable Peter Green. They specialized in faithful renditions of the blues, exactly the sort of formulaic genre music that proponents of Authenticity tend to champion. Of course, until the sixties, blues had generally been the exclusive domain of African-American musicians. In this writer's opinion, Fleetwood Mac's first couple of records stand as some of the finest recordings of blues music of the decade - from either side of the Atlantic. While the idea of "British Blues" has always ruffled the feathers of true blues purists, anyone who has spent January in Birmingham (Midlands, not Alabama) can surely sympathize.

Somewhere around 1968, Peter Green seemed to decide that a purely blues template was becoming a bit limiting. He started to incorporate elements of pop, rock and even African music into the group's work, culminating in one of the greatest albums of the decade, 1969's Then Play On. Hints of Green's boredom with the blues could be found on the single "Albatross", an astonishingly beautiful instrumental paean to the ambient resplendence of the guitar, released a mere eight months before what would be his last LP as a member of the group. The song was a huge success in England reaching #1 on the charts in February of that year.

Why do I mention all of this? On Samba Gaye, his 1997 collaboration with wife Djanka, Guinean guitarist Sekou Diabate Bembeya recorded his own version of Peter Green's "Albatross". While most critics reviled it as "tasteless" and "inauthentic", one could imagine Diamond Fingers (one of the many sobriquets Diabate's sparkling guitar work has earned him over the years) revelling in it, perhaps eliciting one of his trademark laughs that pepper the album. You see, Mr. Diabate gets it. The question shouldn't be is it Authentic, but, rather, is it good?