“You can feel it all over/ You can feel it all over people/ You can feel it all over/ You can feel it all over people “
So goes the chorus of Stevie Wonder’s impossibly groovy “Sir Duke”, which begins by describing the power of music to connect us together through its universally shared language. In addition to being an absolutely groovin’ funkalicious song, it opens with a truth most people, especially musicians can agree too. When a song is good, and people are dancing and there’s energy and love between audience and musicians, that’s magic everybody can feel. In those moments music gets beyond arguments about genre and style and form and taste, it gets beyond location and culture and barriers and divides. Then, music just brings people together. The dancer is the answer to the question. Why must we make music? Because we are all dancers and we all want to be freed by the love created when our bodies surrender to a collective rhythm of other bodies creating one shared reality. Music is so viscerally connective because the sound that comes from our bodies reflects us, in our rhythm is our heartbeat and in our breath is our life force. Sound is first created by the body and mediated by the mind to reach the heart, if it is powerful enough. That is why, music at its purest and at its best, reaches across all divides and lets us surrender to a collective rhythms and a shared reality in which brings us together like nothing else can.
While music is definitely a transcendent force, (and aren’t we looking for transcendence in everyday places?) it can also be used to further less idealistic and beautiful utopian fantasies. Music can also reflect the boundaries and differences between us, it can engender debates about power plays and cultural integrity and social global issues. Such is the case with Paul Simon’s “Graceland” and Konono No 1. In both sounds, the question of authorship and agency is tested. Paul Simon is a famous Grammy-winning musician who heard and fell in love with South African music to make his signature album. Unfortunately, his appropriation of South African music is justifiably fraught with concern. When viewed in a sociopolitical context, Paul Simon’s remediation of South African seems like whitewashing. Much of the local flavor of the music is lost as the music is manipulated to provide the sound he wants. At the time the album was released, the album seemed to have overtures that could cause turmoil.
The issue of the South African musicians implied subjugation as heard on the album, simply as a result of Simon’s domination, is difficult to ignore. There was tension between another one of his collaborator’s “Los Lobos” after they failed to receive writing credit. There are assumptions about African music and culture whose representation goes unconsciously unchallenged in the Lady Smith Black Mombaza track “Homeless” in which Paul Simon mediates and manipulates the musical action (even in his direction to “Sing” near the beginning). The question is then up to the listener. Would they like to hear the beauty and skill in the music created, even if it is outside their realm of experience, using that as a springboard for true understanding or would they like to practice dissociated listening that turns the African music into an abstracted foreign object? Paul Simon’s “Graceland” perhaps lets us do the latter too easily, but the visibility of the music would allow the educated and informed listener to go find the truest representation of the African voice.
If you want to hear African speak, you go to her dancers and her musicians, they will play for you the rhythms of their lives. You want to hear the sounds in their context? You go to where the music is made and you watch people make art and beauty out of wreckage and ruin. If you want to know what the people are playing, the songs that describe their lives, you can find that too. My suggestions? Listen to Konono No 1. Find out about the Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars. Learn the translation for Habib Koite’s “Wassiye” but sing along in the original language. Instead of the debates about where agency and colonialism take away from African music, find out about an Africa that is strong enough to take influences from where it likes, and still play something true to its experience. Africa is not as far away as we’d like to make it seem. In this wired world, if you are a listener who would like to understand a reality different then your own, all you have to do is listen to understand.