Blog 9: African music – Influences, appropriation and exploitation.

When some music industry people got together at a meeting in London one day in the 80’s, they coined the term ‘world music’ [1]to refer to those genres of music that were not part of the commercial mainstream of western popular music culture. It was more of a marketing term than a music genre identifier.

However, the term took hold and came to signify music that was from Africa, Asia, South America, Oceania and anywhere else, which was not in the western pop mainstream.  In major music outlets you will find a section with the label ‘world music’. It can be argued there has always been ‘world music’.

African music is a very big and significant influence in ‘world music’ and in western popular music culture. It is so big and influential that many people do not realise they are listening to some form of African music in their everyday music consumption.

African music has generated billions of dollars, pounds, francs and yen in the popular music industry.  The main plank of this contention is the blues, jazz and rock ‘n roll canon.

Enslaved Africans in the Americas and the Caribbean sought solace, identity, security and expression in music. This happened in Brazil, Central America, Cuba and the US among many other places.

The ‘blues’ took root in the US with some significant variants, which included the sophistication of Jazz and the energy of Rhythm ‘n Blues (R ‘n B). African elements in these music forms were, and still are, very strong.

The racism endemic in America, and practised in the music industry too, termed black music “race music”. However, such a term could not endure for long because young white Americans found the music captivating, excuse the pun.

This is why Elvis became such a phenomenon. He was the ‘white’ face of the blues and rock ‘n roll. African music. The roll call list is long and interesting. These artistes were heavily influenced by the blues; African music, The Beatles, Buddy Holly, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Cream, Free, Small Faces, The Who, Bob Dylan, The Band, Neil Young; the list is almost endless.

Hollywood and the advertising industry also got into the act. More so Disney films if you like animated movies. A great number of American made movies use the blues in their soundtracks. It is homage to African music, but many listeners do not make the connection. Listen to the theme song of the film ‘Back to the future’, called ‘The Power of Love’ by Huey Lewis and The News, and it is the blues played with a commercial urban white voice. The song gave the film a lift and the film gave the song a push. A marketing executives sweet dream.

With such a great impact and influence, why is it that this is not acknowledged and celebrated in an open way? Is it to do with the way the blues crossed the Atlantic to be revamped in America? A reminder of darker days? It is no accident the blues was appropriated by western rock and pop artistes. It had a depth, soul and vivacity that couldn’t be matched. The electric guitar added to this impetus. The multi-million pound industry around guitar sales can be attributed to the blues in the main.

The great rock ‘n roll singer/guitarist/songwriter Chuck Berry died recently at age 90. He played the blues. Frame and Tobler (1980) state without irony that there isn’t a rock musician alive that has not fallen under the spell of Chuck at one time or another. Though Berry made significant amounts of money from his legendary recordings and reputation, he had a reputation for meanness that likely stemmed from being ripped off by shady and unscrupulous promoters.

Where there is blood (money) there are sharks (exploiters). And so it is with the music industry.

Reference

Tobler, J. and Frame, P. (1980). 25 Years of rock. 1st ed. Lincs, United Kingdom: HAMLYN.

Bibliography

Bohlman, P. (2002). World Music. 1st ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Breen, M. (2008). Popular music policy making and the Instrumental Policy Behaviour Process. Popular Music, 27(02).

Nettl, B. (1985). The Western impact on world music. 1st ed. New York: Schirmer Books.

Till, R. (2010). Pop cult. 1st ed. New York: Continuum.

[1] World music can be folk music, art music, or popular music: its practitioners may be amateur or professional. World music may me sacred, secular, or commercial; its performers may emphasize authenticity, while at the same time relying heavily on mediation to disseminate it to a s many markets as possible (Bohlman, 2002)

 

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