One of the most enjoyable and user-friendly indie albums last year belonged to Vampire Weekend's eponymous debut. Like most breakthrough bands who garner widespread adoration, Vampire Weekend was subject to the slings and arrows of bloggers, who fumed at their cosmopolitan tastes or sputtered at the way their music appropriates Afrobeat sounds while emitting the "putrescent stench of old money, of old politics, of old-guard high society".
The problem, it seems, is the way Vampire Weekend made African music more commercial for white audiences. That they are a bunch of white kids who went to Columbia University and have a predilection for looking like they just stepped out of "The Catcher in the Rye" hasn't helped.
But it is odd to criticise a band for assimilating a sound that has already staked a substantial claim for itself within the American underground. The influence of African music is demonstrably growing (just go to any record fair and check out its vinyl real-estate). But really, rock 'n' roll owes much of its sound to the music of blacks brought over from Africa (back when they were known as slaves).
That's what musicians are supposed do: they borrow, steal, appropriate, devour. On Vampire Weekend's album, a township jive and soukous element appears in songs such as "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa", often melded subtly with contemporary forms. There's nothing underhanded about this. It's intentional homage. The band knowingly describes their music as "Upper West Side Soweto". The fusion is an accomplishment, particularly as this Manhattan neighbourhood (my own, in fact) is about as multicultural as Scranton, Pennsylvania, with the exception of the slumdog nannies that push around the future angry sons of Westchester.
It seems the band's privileged socio-economic background, naked admission of influences, humour and obvious skill were too much to bear. Unless you pledge your undying devotion to the altar of Fela Kuti, Miriam Makeba, King Sunny Ade or the Mahotella Queens, you may not play reverb-drenched, staccatoed chords on your guitar, smack a conga drum, or look to African music for multi-voiced chant harmonies. It's absurd, and it stinks of colonial anxiety. I mean, has anybody ever accused a Cuban of ripping off African music for personal gain?
These same cultural protectionists tried to make out that Paul Simon--the rich man's Billy Joel--and his corporate zouaves were exploiting the fertile musical riches of South African mbaqanga, like a “Heart of Darkness” morality tale. Such indictments are backhandedly dismissive, as if all Africa is good for are blood diamonds, award-winning wire photos, hominid fossils, drum circles and Nelson Mandela. And if a Westerner so much as references Africa, the rotting tweed-tattered corpse of Edward Said will punch through his grave and eat them.
On that note, I'd like to make a few music recommendations for the weary Western ear.
As I've said before, 2008 wasn't a banner year for new music. But it certainly was for imports. Three labels--Soundway, Strut and Phantom Sound & Vision--issued an embarrassment of riches in Nigerian and Congolese compilations from the early-1970s golden age: "Congo 70 Rumba Rock", "Highlife Time", "Nigeria Special", "Nigeria 70: Lagos Jump" and "Victor Uwaifo: Guitar-Boy Superstar". There is too much goodness contained therein to describe adequately here, but suffice it to say, the guitars shimmer, the horns wail, the drums groove and the singers invigorate. While indie-rock struggles to become relevant again (mostly through boring folk, see Fleet Foxes), the smart money is on begging, borrowing and stealing from these remarkable sounds.
Picture credit: angela n. (via Flickr)