Tuesday, April 15, 2008

tattoo girl or the afrolicious party

She sat in a corner, sipping liquor from a glass, shrouded by the dimness of the club and the shadows that lurked within: friends, acquaintances, or perfect strangers. She was probably preoccupied with the latter, which would have been just perfect in her world, a world into which I would soon be brusquely swept.

There was no reason why I should have taken particular notice of her, and I didn’t, at first. At 10.32pm the audience was sparse on the 2nd level of the Elbo Room, but not dead. The night was young. Two or three couples twirled carefree to exotic beats of the African Diaspora spun from the stage by DJ Pleasuremaker and his brother, Oz.

Across from the stage, at the opposite end of the dance floor, other patrons of the night smothered the bar, drenching their guts in its merry medicine as they worked on lowering inhibitions. Adjacent, a caramel girl with big frizzy hair and a hunky chocolate boy were playing pool. They were the first I noticed of what would turn out to be a meager sprinkling of Blacks amongst the pool of mostly White (and some Latino) partiers that would eventually cramp up the dance floor.

Did it seem ironic that an event called, The Afrolicious Party, would be attended mostly by young, middle class looking Whites, and that the few Blacks present seemed more interested in playing pool than dancing? Was there something unusual about the fact that the party was actually hosted by two White deejays from the Midwest?

I may have been a little more surprised about this apparently lopsided representation had it not followed a familiar pattern. In the several months that I have been attending Afrobeat related shows around the US, the audiences have been similar: White, middle class, young. American Afrobeat bands have also been overwhelmingly White. If I had learnt anything so far, it was that the mythical White obsession with Black music was no myth, it was a phenomenon, and it was very real.

But realizing this fact didn’t automatically make it easier to comprehend. I got up to take pictures of the musicians on stage, then stood on the side to observe the growing company of participants on the dance floor. Their spasmodic jerks did not always match the rhythms of the music but that didn’t seem to matter to them, or to anyone else in the club. I tossed questions about in my head. Was this about the music or about the alcohol? Maybe a little bit of both? If these revelers had an out of body experience which enabled them to stand apart sober and watch themselves like I was, would they be embarrassed? What we’re they really looking for?

I must have worn my thoughts on my forehead because the voice that sliced through them sounded determined to break my apathy.
“Why are you just standing there like that? Not dancing?”
Her pixie haircut was a peroxide blonde that almost matched the tone of her pale skin. The hair and her cat-eyed glasses gave her a skittish look that belied her Amazonian frame, stuffed in a little black dress that showed off voluptuous curves, and revealed large tattoos on her arms and her back.

I was caught off guard by her forwardness. It wasn’t one of those situations which had happened serendipitously, like when you bump into someone on the dance floor and end up dancing with one another, maybe even discovering a connection. We had been on opposite sides of the dance floor, and I was just one of several observers standing aloof on the sidelines, not really looking for company. We probably made the briefest most casual eye contact but it must have meant something to her since it had propelled her out of her seat, right across the dance floor directly to me.
“Oh, I’m just standing here, observing…”
I began to respond to the question she had asked, but she had her own agenda.
“Come on, let’s dance.”
It wasn’t a request, it was a statement, an announcement which really meant “now we shall dance.” I was considering whether she was really that brazen or just being sociable, but before I could conclude, we had floated unto the dance floor; she, and the music, an up tempo salsa, were now in control.

It was her turn to be surprised. Although I love dancing, I don’t do it often enough. When I do, however, I give a modest performance.
“I just knew those feet wanted to dance.” She said in a voice that was a little too giggly, with eyes, a little too wide.
She didn’t. I could tell from the awkward way she tried to sync her movement with my shuffling that she hadn’t picked me to outshine her, black dress, platinum hair, tattoos and all. Really, no diva likes to be outdone. I suspect she probably wasn’t really looking for a dance. People on the dance floor weren’t really supposed to dance after all, they we’re supposed to act crazy. Burning stress, not choreographed movement, was their goal. In this context, the fact that I was actually dancing something that resembled the salsa must have appeared awkward, and was probably just as much a disappointment to her as it was a surprise.
“So why were you taking all those pictures? Are you like a reporter or something?”
By now I was beginning to sense that for her, questions were a sort of defense mechanism. But against what exactly, I could not tell.
“I’m just doing some research. That’s why I was standing alone earlier, observing.”
“Yeah, but are you a reporter?”
“No, researcher.”
“Yeah, but for what? Are you writing for a newspaper?”
“Oh, no. I’m in grad. school. I’m doing research for my doctoral dissertation.”
Her forehead crinkled, her mouth gaped at a slightly tilted angle, “huh? You are writing about clubs?”

I could understand her bewilderment. Most people had the same reaction whenever they learnt that my fieldwork requires that I attend lots of shows in bars and clubs. Still, I never looked forward to explaining the details to them. It always felt like a meaningless apology that did nothing to enlighten those to whom it was directed, a purposeless chore. Most people thought that there was no justification for calling my work research. And they couldn’t convince themselves, even if they tired, about why I sometimes complained of get bored with my “work.” They didn’t consider that listening to the same style of music over and over again could diminish whatever personal enjoyment there was to be had in such repeated outings. It didn’t matter to them that I was not really into the club/bar scene and that most of the time I literarily had to drag myself out to a show when I would much rather be cuddled under my blanket, asleep. Explaining all of this in a club situation could go either of two ways. Since the conversation would have to be conducted in decibels that matched if not surpassed the loud music, the listener either faked hearing what I had said and dropped the subject, which was good, or, he or she would display an incorrigible keenness that meant I would have to repeat myself over and over again till I was heard and invariably, hoarse. I had a feeling that tattoo girl wouldn’t stop pestering me until I gave her answers so I braced myself and yelled out my routine response.
“I’m what they call an ethnomusicologist, I study music cultures around the world. Sort of like what an anthropologist does, but with a focus on music. For my dissertation, I am writing on a style of music called Afrobeat, so I have been researching Afrobeat scenes in different places. You know…that’s why I was taking the pictures.”
“Sounds like fun!” Came the expected reply.
“Well, its not always fun,” I blurted out an honest response before realizing that I should
not have gone there. Now it was too late.
“Not always fun?” she retorted, “Why are you doing it then?”
Smart ass, I thought.
“The pictures,” I gestured. “You never know how the shots will turn out. Lots of motion and low lighting, you know?”
She didn’t look convinced by my explanation. I hadn’t expected her to buy it. I changed the subject:“So, what do you do?”
“I’m a nurse. This…” she twirled “is more fun than my job.”
“No kidding.” It was a poor attempt at payback. Ignoring my sarcasm, she raised her glass and took a sip. By now, she had given up on trying to fall into step with me. The glass came down and forward towards me. “Want some?”
Want some what? She hadn’t really asked if wanted to share her drink. I felt awkward, unsure of how to politely turn down an offer that should never have been made in the first place. I pretended like I hadn’t heard her.
“Want some?” she came again. “I’m going to fill up, want something to drink?”
“Oh no, thanks.” I blurted, relieved.
She shrugged, swiveled around and meandered her way through the crowd, then disappeared. For a few moments I continued dancing as if I still had a partner. The beat had long morphed into a hard driving funk rhythm but I was still locked in the same incompatible salsa rhythm. I felt inept. Tattoo girl’s abrupt departure had only heightened the sense of awkwardness that I felt in that moment, alone on the dance floor. I imagined her at the bar, competing with a brood of thirsty partiers craving the bar tender’s attention, needing his service. The funk rhythm continued to pound hard, a hypnotic violation of the auditory sense. Over it, a vocalist wailed in a language that wasn’t English. I perked my ears to see if I recognized the language. It sounded African, but I couldn’t say I knew what language it was. There were only 4000 African languages in existence after all. Slowly I eased out of dance mode, giving up the struggle with my own discomfiture. I did a slow 360. Frizzy caramel and hunky chocolate were now rocking it on the dance floor. In another corner, next to the speakers, a girl with unmistakably Asian features swayed back and forth in a kind of trance. What looked like her dancing partner, a white guy with long blonde dreadlocks did an animated routine which looked like capoeira, tae kwon do, and hopscotch all at once. By the time I completed the circle, she was there, in the same posture, like she had never left. She raised her glass, now full:
“Miss me? Of course you did, didn’t you.”
Again, she was asking questions but not really asking. She didn’t expect an answer. I tried to keep my wits about me.
“You do love your drinks.” I stated, keeping her gaze.
She threw her head backwards in a hysterical guffaw. “Of course, I do, and you don’t! Obviously. But you know what’s even better?”
“What?” I really didn’t want to know.
“The music here is awesome!”
“Well, that, I have to agree with. Do you come here often?”
“No, not really.”
“You like Afrobeat, African… music…” It was a faltering attempt to somehow transform her into an informant.
“Well, I like this music, but I’m not here because it’s a particular style, you know, I just like to have a good time. I follow the music, whatever I can dance to, you know, and the booze.” Then, pouting coyly, she asked, “What’s a girl to do?”
“Fair enough.”
She’s a nurse who works a gridlocked schedule, a perfect alibi to start the weekend early, burn the stress. Everyone needs an outlet, after all.
“So I’m guessing you’re not from here, Mr. Researcher.” Again, she interrupted my thoughts.
“No, no, not really. I just moved here about two weeks ago. I’m from the East Coast”.
“Really? Wow! That’s amazing. Do you like it here?”
“Absolutely, I love it here, its an amazing city.”
“So, cool. I’m from Mexico.”
“Mexico, really? Mexico city, or Mexico, Mexico?”
The surprise was genuine. She had so far given no signs of being a foreigner. I wondered if she wondered where I was really from.
“Mexico, Mexico!”
She proceeded to tell me when she moved, and gave a run down of her activities and migrations since she moved to the US, all of which I lost to the din. All the same I responded as if I had actually heard her: “that’s awesome!”
“It is cool.” She sounded like she really felt cool. “So whereabouts in the East Coast?” She turned the discussion back on me.
“From New York City.”
“No way! I love New York City!!”
“Everybody does.” I lied with a plastered smile.

“My dog’s name is Brooklyn.” It took me a minute to find culprit to whom belonged the voice that had invited itself into what apparently was not a private conversation. It was blond dreadlocks. I had to make sure that I had heard right. “You come from Brooklyn?”
“No. My dog’s. Name. Is. Brooklyn.” He reiterated slowly, loudly. Tattoo girl rolled her eyes, apparently, unamused. I was.
“Why would you call your dog Brooklyn?” I questioned, half laughing.
“Because he is the cutest dog in the whole universe!” He said it with so much conviction. I had to smile in order not to offend.
“Here,” he pulled out his wallet, “let me show you his picture.”
I didn’t really see anything particularly extra cute about the dog, I couldn’t even tell what breed it was, but I said what I imagined he wanted to hear: “Awwww, how gorgeous. Sooo cuh-yute!”
He gave an I-told-you-so nod, sending his locks into a slight frenzy. Satisfied, he resumed his manic routine. I thought to myself: the people in this city are crazy.

Tattoo girl maneuvered our dancing—and my thoughts, away from hippiedom.
“So, you’re not originally from New York City, are you?”
She had been curious about my background, after all.
“No, I’m not. I’m from Nigeria. I moved here five years ago.” I tried to make it sound as casual as possible, but she was animated anyway.”
“I think that’s super cool!”
“Its ok. I mean, I came here for grad school, nothing as exciting as…”
“There’s everything exciting about coming from Africa!” She interjected, her already vivacious manner turned up a notch. I wasn’t getting it.
“There is?”
“There’s this beautiful African guy here in the club. Tall, dark. I was talking to him earlier. He’s really hot! Sooo want him.” Her words were dripping drool.
“Go get him.” I said, half out of amusement, half glad to hear that there was someone else in the bar to whom she could turn her attention.
“He is talking to another girl.” Her tone betrayed her jealousy.
“So what?”
“So, you’re just gonna let her have him?”
“Well, I…”
“Well, you shouldn’t just stand there and let someone else take your man.” I said, coyly.
For the first time, tattoo girl was listening not just with her ears, but also with her eyes. There was something ticklish about her new demeanor, something vulnerable that I wanted to exploit to the fullest.
“You cannot just let another girl monopolize him. You need to look for him, and cut into their conversation, lure him away with a dance.”
I was now blatantly instigating, and it felt really good. Mischief travelled from slight curves at the corner of my eyes and lips into her being, lighting her up anew. This really was my game, but she was more than a willing to conspirator.
“Cut in huh?” She was thinking aloud. “That sounds like a good plan.”
Her words rolled out with a hallucinatory rhythm that showed that she was seriously weighing the options and leaning heavily towards the pros rather than the cons.
“Just cut in like that?” She asked again, wide eyed, like a kid who had just been given secret access to the back door of a candy store.
“Well, not quite.” I said smiling wickedly. “You should first drink up, get your pizzaz on!”

After she had drunk up, after she had excused herself, I once again felt strangely lonely on the dance floor, surrounded by what was now a teaming throng of revelers, but nevertheless alone. DJ Pleasure maker and Oz had now been joined on stage by a conga player, a drummer and a trumpeter. They were jamming heavily to the tracks that the deejays spun out non stop, intermittently taking extended solos. Frizzy hair and chocolate boy had discovered new partners and migrated to separate corners of the floor. There were a few new black faces in the crowd. One guy in particular was ubiquitous. He pranced from corner to corner, dancing with a different girl each time, sometimes several girls at once. He reminded me of the music, the way if kept changing, the seamless flow from song to song, genre to genre—Afrobeat, funk, salsa, etc, sometimes several genres all at once. Tattoo girl made several brief reappearances on the dance floor. During one of these, she spat disdainfully: “whore.” I assumed she was referring to her mandingo, but she was glaring furtively at Mr. Ubiquitous.
“His girlfriend is so mad. He’s danced with every girl in the club, he doesn’t even care that she is here. Such a player.”
Her eyes guided mine to the girlfriend, a heavier girl in a tight tank top and jeans that profiled corpulent folds. The girlfriend sat in a corner talking with a few other girls, she didn’t look like she was interested in what was going on, or that she cared at all.
Whore seemed a suitable metaphor for the scenario. The way that the different musical styles went in and out of one another, the way that the clubbers from different backgrounds mingled freely with one another without fuss or care was at its very best a type of sociocultural whoredom. No wonder some people could never get over the idea of white musicians playing black music, or white middle class kids rocking to beats symbolic of the black ghetto experience. It wasn’t just about the exploitation of the less privileged by the privileged, although this is the argument that is usually advanced, rather, scenarios such as this “afrolicious” party conjured in some minds the idea of illicit mixing, of whoredom, and a particularly onerous variation of it: the mandingo party. But herein lies a hypothesis worth musing over: if cultural whoredom made us more open minded (just if), maybe what we need in the world today is more whores?

Or, maybe these are just the filthy ramblings of a bored researcher. I didn’t come up with any answers that night, but I eventually got bored with the party (as I always do). Blond dredlocks offered me a pipe. This was a first. In all my traveling during the last several months, the only place I had experienced open marijuana use was at the New Africa Shrine in Lagos, Nigeria. Weed is an essential element of Afrobeat culture (like it is in many other musical cultures from jazz to reggae) but so far, all I had been able to learn of its use in the American Afrobeat scene had been limited to inferences made by Afrobeat musicians during interviews of their private indulgence. Here, in San Francisco, I was experiencing something close to the complete scenario in an American setting. In retrospect, I am inclined to interpret blond dredlock’s offer as a kind of fraternal gesture, I should have been flattered, perhaps, but in that moment I was caught off guard. Before I could collect myself, I heard myself utter “what is it?”
He noticed my astonishment. He realized that he had assumed that I used weed, but he didn’t retract the offer. He simply asked, “Do you smoke marijuana?”
“None for me tonight, thanks.” It was a vague answer designed to effectively decline his offer while not being offensive. It worked.
“Anytime” he responded coolly. “They are plucked fresh from the hills of Northern San Francisco.”
While I am not against marijuana use, I am neither an activist for its use. This is perhaps because I don’t use it. But even if I did, I doubt that I would have shared a pipe with blond dreds. He really seemed like a good guy, and I am sure he his. I admire his candor, the sense of comfort in his own skin that he exuded, but all these qualities only made his unkempt appearance all the more tragic. Maybe he was a man of radical politics, a left leaning passivist, even a peace activist, but his dirty looking blond locks, hippie fashion and yellow teeth were a distraction. I still think about a reason why I should have shared a pipe with him, and I cannot come up with one. Who are all these people anyway? What are they looking for? And should I care?

Tattoo girl made one last appearance on the dance floor before I left that night. This time, she chose another dance partner. It felt relieved, but also strangely spurned. I smiled at her and she waved back before she cavorted towards another direction. I followed her movement with my eyes and realized that she had been waving to someone else. Behind me, a tall black guy.
“How are you doing?”
TBG responded to tattoo girls greeting in a voice that sounded French West African, revealing a dazzling smile. Then, he turned to the current object of his attention: another white girl with wisps of long brunette which sat on her svelte frame. Whore. I thought. I felt sad for tattoo girl, and angry at mandingo on her behalf.
Tattoo girl turned to me, “Lets go to another bar, there a really cool bar down the road, not very far. It’s a gay bar but I like to go there because the music is soooo good.”
“I would really love to go, but I am getting tired. I’ll soon be on my way home.” I wished I could have gone with her, but by then I was really beginning to crave my bed and blanket.
It was perhaps 1am when I eventually left the party. On my way out, I ran into tattoo girl, I smiled at her, but she didn’t acknowledge it. Her eyes were glazed and she wasn’t smiling. She just walked on as if she didn’t see me. She probably didn’t. I imagined she was either drunk or stoned. She hadn’t been crying, had she? Before I stepped outside, I took one last look at the scene. My eyes followed tattoo girl as she receded into the crowd, her back bore the image of a veiled woman with a strange look. It didn’t look like any of the popular icons: the Virgin Mother, Aphrodite, etc. Who was the pixie haired girl with cat eyed glasses in the little black dress? Who was this woman on her back?

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

rice with beef stew

After spending half of the day at a coffee shop updating my blog, I went to the grocery store to buy supplies for my naked pantry. As I meandered through the aisles I debated in my head whether I should buy fresh vegetables which I would then blend and cook into a stew to be had with rice, or whether I should just get prego and stick to pasta. In the end I decided to make my own stew. My decision was based on the premise that we have a food processor at home, but alas, I got home to realize that the food processor does not work. I ended up having to grate the peppers manually, bruising my fingers and developing a renewed appreciation for technology. It eventually took about 2 hours to make dinner, and after all that stress I was sure that dinner wouldn't turn out good. But to my surprise it did!

Monday, March 24, 2008

eureka! moments

March 24, 2007. It feels like I have been in San Francisco for only a few days, but I have actually been here for two weeks. That is a long time considering that two weeks is actually half of a month. When I stop to think about what I have achieved in those two weeks, I have to say probably a lot, but then I realize that I am here for only about two months, and I feel like I should have made more progress.

If there is one thing that I am learning from this fieldwork experience, it is that you can never really measure your progress in terms of how much activity you pack into each day, but how significant those activities are to your research goals. Every experience in the field is valuable no matter how far removed they seem to be from your purpose, but not all those experiences can answer definitively the questions you set out to find answers to when you entered the field. Because the field is like San Francisco weather—unpredictable, you never know when those sunny moments of revelation will occur. When they do occur, however, they are so gratifying, so golden, so eureka!

Sometimes you will get your eureka moments right at the beginning of your adventure, and afterwards they might be replicated over and over (which ironically could lead to stress ultimately diminishing productivity). At other times, being in the field can be like an expedition to a parched dessert, monotonous and riddled with mirages which really lead to nowhere. You find yourself waiting endlessly for a breakthrough, but the waiting time, while excruciating could actually heighten the taste of success when it finally comes your way, making it feel like the drawn out “aaaaaahaaaaa!” that emanates from deep inside your being after drinking a long needed glass of cold water.

I have been at both ends of the emotional spectrum that the field experience induces. Fieldwork in New York City was a blast. The musicians were generally very enthusiastic to welcome me into their worlds. Each week I found myself conducting several interviews and attending several shows, and those eureka moments just kept coming, over and over and over again. After a while I found that I was so drained that I started to avoid going to gigs and even meeting musicians.

My experience in Lagos was quite similar, largely productive.

Los Angeles, on the other hand, was generally a drag. Most of the musicians in L.A just seemed cold and unwelcoming. Besides one or two exceptions, the musicians I set out to meet in Los Angeles came across as very aloof. Repeatedly, my emails were ignored and efforts to schedule interviews were spurned. One informant that I eventually interviewed stood me up two times before finally showing up the third time for an interview, even though each time he had picked the date and time for the interviews. I should add that this informant, when he eventually came around, was quite helpful.

I did have a few eureka moments while I was in Los Angeles; for example, having the opportunity to watch Femi Kuti perform live at the House of Blues. Irrespective of the multiple let downs I had encountered in L.A., that one event made me feel that my being in L.A could not have been better timed. And the next day, when my wonderful roommate gave me an article about Femi that had been published in a local newspaper that I may otherwise have been unaware of, it seemed certain that the stars were aligning in my favor after all.

One thing that I did learn when I was in L.A was that San Francisco is the place to be for anyone who is interested in exploring the West Coast Afrobeat scene. That eureka moment happened when I had the opportunity to interview D.J. Said, a San Francisco based “Afrohouse” disk jockey who had come to perform in L.A. Ever since he briefed me on how vibrant the Afrobeat scene in San Francisco was, I knew I would eventually have to come out here. In the end, I have to say that my L.A. experience was valuable in the sense that if I didn’t go out to L.A., I would probably not have realized that San Francisco is where I needed to be.

And so I am now finally in San Francisco, and so far, it’s been good. There are many things that I love about this city, but the one thing I am still trying to find is the “vibrant” Afrobeat scene which was promised. One of the bands that I came out to see was on tour around the bay area when I arrived but at the time I was still too unsettled to try to trail them. What I am curious about though is why the email I sent to their myspace page was read but never replied. This is not an unusual experience, and I have learnt that you cannot always take the seeming nonchalance of the musians you are trying to write about (and by extension, promote) personally. The band, after all, was on tour. Maybe my email was somehow forgotten in the midst of all the busyness of the tour, at least this is what I tell myself to avoid the feeling of being blown off. It’s harder for me to justify why another musician, from another band, has not returned my calls after leaving her detailed voicemail messages on several occasions about my work and desire to meet her. I did get through to another member of the same band, however, who showed enthusiasm about my work and even emailed me the phone numbers of a few other contacts. I have called them, and await their responses.

Tracking down musicians at gigs can be like trying to catch clouds and pin them down, just ask the nuns from the Sound of Music. But sometimes, surprisingly, musicians come after you, and that’s always eureka! This was the case last Thursday when I attended the weekly Afrolicious party hosted by D.J. Pleasuremaker and his brother OZ at the Elbo room in the Mission district. As I sat in the dimly lit club, observing, taking notes and waiting for the party to break out full swing, D.J. Pleasuremaker, who had taken a break from the stage walked up to me and said “hi, thanks for coming out tonight.” I seized the opportunity to introduce myself and explain about my research to him, he was very enthusiastic in sharing about what he does and we ended up talking for a while, eventually exchanging contact information. Now, that’s the way fieldwork should always go.

I really do not have any doubts that there is a vibrant Afrobeat scene in San Francisco, it just seems to be unraveling rather slowly. Or maybe I had my expectations raised too high and I am expecting a little too much a little too early. When emails and phone calls fail to yield results, meeting musicians up front at their shows sometimes (not always) works. This is what I intend to do this weekend as shows by D.J. Said, Sila and the Afrofunk experience, Albino, Aphrodesia and Kotoja are will be happening.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Nigerian Muse-ic: Crisis of Creativity or Creativity in Crises?

When I was first approached to write an article on Nigerian music for Muse Magazine, I accepted the invitation without hesitation. Truthfully, I was quite excited. Being an ethnomusicologist who had recently returned to Nigeria from the U.S. to do fieldwork in the area of popular music, the prospect of contributing—giving back, as it were, to the society which not only had spawned me, but which had now become the bedrock of my academic research was indeed delightful. Almost immediately, I started to think about a topic to write about. It did not take very long, however, for me to realize something that I had known for a long time; something I should have first considered before my initial gleeful acceptance of the invitation to write. My muse was long estranged.

Benumbed by the fear of that daunting realization: that I was going to fail to deliver, I relapsed into a state of crisis. My muse, you see, is highly unreliable. She disappears for stretches at once, and then, when least expected, reappears. Sometimes her reappearances are fleeting; a hint of an idea, a spark of creativity, followed by long periods of darkness. But at other times the visits are protracted and rapturous. I wished I was experiencing one of those longer reunions. Maybe I was. Slowly, but very clearly, revelation came. It occurred to me that my current creative crisis, the relationship between my capricious muse and I could be a metaphor for the state of affairs of Nigerian music.

Historically, Nigeria has produced some of the most exciting music to have emerged from the African continent and its far flung Diaspora. Most of these musical genres formed over time within the cauldron of crises, socio-cultural and political. Pre-independence, highlife emerged in Ghana, Nigeria, and other countries along the West African coast as the transethnic soundtrack to nationalism. Highlife’s brave brassy chorus line and sinuous guitar rhythms embodied the struggles of diverse ethnic groups to forge urban identities which registered, yet transcended the colonial affiliations of newly emerging polities. Its potpourri of local rhythms, melodies and polyglot palette consolidated emergent national identities.

The crises of the Nigerian Civil War contributed to the decline of highlife music in the West, simultaneously opening up space for the rise of juju music in this region. Championed by exponents such as I.K. Dairo, Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey and King Sunny Ade, juju music would achieve international success as a “world” music genre proffered to be in league with reggae. In Eastern Nigeria, the devastation of the War stripped most people of all means of livelihood. Musicians were not exempt. Shorn of all but the most portable, cheapest and easily accessible instrument of the highlife band, the guitar, highlife musicians in the East developed a guitar band variant of the genre. It is from this Eastern school that the memorable Sweet Mother, still the most well known popular song across Africa, emerged.

By far the most explosive musical genre to have come out of Africa so far is Afrobeat. Created by Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, Afrobeat’s staggered rhythms, boisterous horns, stark poetry and antiestablishment ideology gave voice to the teeming Nigerian grassroots, articulating their disenfranchisement with the postcolonial state. It is a testimony to Afrobeat’s universality that today, the genre can be heard live in the bars, café’s, clubs and concert venues of New York, San Francisco, London, Paris, etc.

The global flowering which Afrobeat has encountered since the death of Fela in 1997 seems to have eluded the genre’s country of origin. While bands like Antibalas, Akoya, Chicago Afrobeat Project, Aphrodesia, Fanga, Afrobeat Academy and Albino continue to spring up all across the U.S and Europe, only a few stalwarts—the Kuti siblings: Femi and Seun; Dede, for example, have been able to successfully carry on the tradition in Nigeria. To be sure, there are other Nigerian Afrobeat ambassadors, but most of these musicians have had to relocate to Europe and America where their roles in the perpetuation of Afrobeat music continues to be significant. What could be responsible for the stagnation of the Afrobeat tradition in Nigeria? Where has the Nigerian muse gone, and should we be concerned?

Many reasons have been proffered for the crisis of creativity that we are currently experiencing, most of which center around the dearth of live music which the country experienced in the 90s. The economic decline that gripped the country during the military era resulted in a situation where only a very few could afford musical instruments. It also meant that for most people, budgetary decisions were reduced to the choice between a loaf of bread and live music patronage. Most people naturally chose the former. With poverty, the attendant problem of poor security kept most people indoors at night even when they could afford to spend some money at live music venues. The decreasing bar and club crowd was matched conversely by the church and mosque going demographic as Nigerians became increasingly religious, seeking spiritual succor from the economic hardships they were facing.

There are other factors unique to the retarded growth of Afrobeat in Nigeria. The fact of Fela’s larger than life imprint on the genre is of course an issue that cannot be overlooked. Most Nigerian musicians shy away from being identified as Afrobeat musicians because those whom have thus ventured have been shortchanged financially due to criticisms of either trying to copy the Chief Priest verbatim without displaying much of their own creativity, or, taking the genre too far away from its essential elements, distorting a musical style which many hold as somewhat sacred.

Although many would argue that Nigeria is not yet experiencing a true economic rebound—and perhaps this may be so—the live music scene is definitely experiencing a revival not unconnected to increased private investments and urban development. Several clubs, bars and restaurants have sprung up in Lagos, some of which are owned by foreigners whom as a result of the government’s economic reforms have been emboldened to make monetary investments in the country. However, with this influx of private investment, the country has also been opened up to a fresh bombardment of foreign musical culture. This influence is most significantly felt in the growing ascendency of hip hop music and the competition it is posing against the time tested Nigerian musical forms: highlife, juju, Afrobeat.

Of course, Nigeria is not new to the impact of foreign cultural influences. In the 60s and 70s, the nation, along with other West African countries was deeply influenced by the worldwide explosion of African American soul. During this time, several “copy cat” bands emerged whose sole repertoire consisted of covers of soul hits or local compositions which aped such hits. There is, however, a fundamental difference between the “copy cat” bands of the 60s and 70s and the current Nigerian hip-hopers, namely: medium of performance. While the “copy cat” bands were bands, playing live musical instruments, the deejay culture with its heavy reliance on electronic gadgetry appears antithetical to live music making. Ultimately, there are fewer “true” musicians, and musical development is stymied—(I once attended a hip-hop concert in which all the musicians lipsynced to their prerecorded tracks). On a more positive note, its is commendable that some Nigerian hip-hop musicians have been incorporating elements of Nigerian rhythm, melodies and languages into their music, carving a distinctly Nigerian hip-hop niche for themselves in the popular media. It may be argued, then, that the economical conservativeness of hip-hop music has provided an alternative outlet for a younger generation of Nigerian musicians whom have not been privileged to learn musical instruments. However, it is yet to see whether as it happened during the soul/funk era, a Nigerian musical form that is as unique and explosive as Afrobeat will emerge from our current musical experience.

It is yet too early to tell what the Nigerian muse of musical creativity is up to, whether what we are experiencing is really a crisis of creativity, or if there is some latent creativity in the cultural crisis we are currently experiencing. Has the Nigerian muse absconded, leaving Nigerian musicians to their floundering antics? How long will she be gone, or, did she ever leave to start with? After all, some musical genres: fuji, apala, juju etc. continue to thrive in uncanny byways all across the country regardless of the superficial vagaries of the corporate music industry and the polity as a whole. Everyone knows that sometimes, the best places to eat aren’t posh restaurants but those lowly and obscure sheds far away from opulence. Perhaps similarly, the best places to hear the most contemporary African music are those byways where accomplished bards historicize through song and rhythm the current moods and experiences of the ordinary Nigerian. And because through all the political and economic turmoil that have befallen our nation these musicians were never silenced, it can be debated whether live music ever really died in Nigeria; whether our muse ever really left.

flash back: Lagos

The sociohistorical study of any musical genre would be incomplete without reference to the origins of the music. Realizing this I traveled to Lagos, Nigeria, the home of Afrobeat, during the months of October to December, 2007. Like my previous sojourning in Los Angeles and New York City, and my current San Francisco experience, the purpose of my Lagos trip was to explore the Afrobeat scene(s) in the city.

Lagos, the urban commercial and financial nerve center of Nigeria, and the larger West African region, is a sprawling metropolis of 11 to 15 billion inhabitants. Having a metropolitan area of only 300 square kilometers, the city of Lagos (capital of the greater Lagos State area) is nevertheless one of the largest and fastest growing cities in the world. Geographically, it is made up of a concentration of islands connected to a main land area through a network of rivers, creeks and lagoons all of which ultimately drain into the Atlantic Ocean at the southern border of the state.

The first (and second and third and fourth etc) time visitor to Lagos should brace him/herself for multisensory hyper-neurological experience like they have never or will ever experience any where else. The blaring horns and squelching grind of rush hour (which is sometimes every hour) traffic is complemented by highway hawkers, popularly called “on the run” aggressively advertising their wares—ranging snack items and sunglasses to irons and computer hardware—by thrusting them in your face (if you are in a car with air conditioning, keep your windows up, unless of course you are trying to buy something).

On a less major road, you might enjoy the singsong calls that the more domesticated hawkers make in an effort to attract the potential buyer’s attention. On most streets you will find a church from which highly charged Holy Ghost drenched music regularly streams through invasive loud speakers, forming a counterpoint with the five-daily megaphone channeled Muslim azan (call to prayer), always within an ears reach.

The open air markets dazzle with color, smells, brawls and the cacophony of musical (and sometimes not so musical) sounds pouring from a million distorted loudspeakers. Lagos might very well be the modernist composer’s dream of a cataclysmic aleatory project in real time. If you listen above the din, you might hear the voice of a lone warrior, hoarse from decades of shouting indictments, leading an army of chanters and musicians in sometimes humorous, often scalding critiques of the system:

I sing about one street for Lagos/I sing about a street in Lagos
Dem call am Ojuelegba/They call it Ojuelegba
I think I compare how Nigeria be/I compare it to Nigeria
One cross road in center of town
Larudu repeke
For Ojuelegba/At Ojuelegba
Moto dey come from east/Cars approach from the east
Moto dey come from west/Cars approach from the west
Moto dey come from north/Cars approach from the north
Moto dey come from south/Cars approach from the south
And policeman no dey for center/And there’s no traffic warden in the center of it all
Na confusion be that ooo!/That is confusion

This is the Lagos of which Fela Anikulapo Kuti sings, the Lagos of Afrobeat’s birth, and which continues to bear strong imprints on the genre whether it is played in New York, Paris, Japan or London.

The language of Afrobeat, pidgin English, is also the language of the market place. Pidgin English, formed from a mixture of words in Portuguese, English and a variety of indigenous languages, registers not only the city’s turbulent history of foreign and colonial interactions, but also its long established status as an immigrant city. In many regards, the confusion of which Fela sings in “Confusion Break Bones” directly mirrors this history of unbalanced interactions. The story of Lagos is that of a city that experienced astronomical population growth in a very short time due to its position as a regional commercial and industrial hub, but sadly failed to measure up in the area of infrastructure due to unsavory political distractions that have plagued the nation throughout its existence.

But chaotic as Lagos may be, it has its unusual charms, hard though they may be to discover. And for a born and bred Lagosian such as I, there is no place like Eko ile (Eko is the indigenous name of the city and the only name by which it was known before Portuguese sailors named it Lagos—literarily lakes, after a port city in Portugal). Sometimes unbalanced socio-cultural interactions yield interesting, even compelling bi-products. Examples abound; from the Brazilian architecture of Yaba and Lagos Island, the British colonial houses of Ikoyi and Ikeja GRA., to the city’s multi-derived urban fashion and cuisine.

Arguably, the most compelling product of multicultural Lagos is its music. The urban musics of Lagos, including highlife, juju, fuji, hiphop, and yes, Afrobeat, tell many stories. They tell the stories of Portuguese and West African sailors drinking and making merry on the Lagos Marina; of an emerging African elite aping, at the turn of the 20th century, the high profile ball room dances of British colonial officers which excluded the “natives;” of Christianity’s mellifluous entry into the hearts and minds of otherwise apathetic black Africans; of Islam’s collision with indigenous Yoruba traditions and the results of that connection; of the arduous sojourn of West Africans in Latin America for a while and the return home with neo-African cultural products. Lagos music tells of the attempts by Africans, Black Americans and Caribbean Blacks to forge a Diasporic black identity at an auspicious time in history; a time when globally, black people were either struggling for independence from colonial rule or the attainment of civil rights in the face of systemic racial hostility. The musics of urban Lagos tell of the people’s attempts at apprehending the disillusionment of postcolonial polities which betrayed the glorious and hard fought promise of self rule. Not merely in their lyrics, but in the overall aural and visual experience that they present, these musical styles tell of a people’s encounters with history, of resistance and negotiation, of acceptance and self determination.

Afrobeat, the musical genre that I was in Lagos to research, is widely known to have chronicled some of the darkest and most tenuous moments of the Nigeria’s (and Africa’s) history, and to have done so with a particularly Lagosian inflection. Ironically today, this very Lagosian music thrives more in metropolitan cities oceans away than it does in the city of its origin.

Prior to my arrival in Lagos, I had spent several months exploring the Afrobeat scenes in Los Angeles and New York City and to my amazement there was a lot going on. In New York City where at least 5 or 6 major Afrobeat bands are resident, there was hardly a week when I didn’t find two or three Afrobeat shows slated to be held in the clubs of Brooklyn and Manhattan. In Lagos, the main venue to hear Afrobeat is the New Afrika Shrine in Ikeja, where Femi Kuti carries on his father’s legacy on a weekly basis. Seun Kuti, Femi’s younger sibling also carries the torch through his leadership of Egypt 80, Fela’s last band before he died, and can also be seen performing at the Shrine occasionally. Besides Femi and Seun whom I intervied, there are only an obscure handful of other musicians: Dede Mabioku, Daddy Fresh, Duro Ikujenyo etc., struggling to carry on the Afrobeat legacy. It is indeed a curious thing how the Afrobeat scene in Lagos is no where near as vibrant as that of New York City and other major American and European cities. This is a question that I continue to ponder even at the present stage of my research.

Some of the most eye opening encounters I had in Lagos were not with Afrobeat musicians per se, but with veterans of the Nigerian music and culture industry, including Chief Rasheed Gbadamosi, Steve Rhodes, Benson Idonijie, Femi Esho, Tunde Kuboye and Kunle Tejuoso. Most of them mourned the decline of live music whilst reminiscing about a golden era, now bygone, when highlife musicians like Bobby Benson, Victor Olaiya, Roy Chicago and Fela packed popular venues like the Bobby Benson Hotel (formerly Caban Bamboo), Kakadoo etc. When I asked about the muted state of Afrobeat in the country, I was informed of a more endemic problem, the dearth of live music in general, resulting from a range of factors: political, economic, educational and social. It became clear to me that if Afrobeat was on the decline in Lagos, it is because Afrobeat is a musical form which essentially thrives in live settings, and live music has generally witnessed a rash decline.

Additionally, some blame the decline of live music in Lagos to the rise of hip-hop music. To such critics, hip-hop merely requires the scrunching together of machine programmed beats, the ability to talk rhythmically and the looping of simple refrains. They argue that not much expertise or creativity goes into the production of hip-hop and certainly the ability to play musical instruments live is not required.

In the face of formidable obstacles, efforts are nevertheless being made to reintroduce the quintessential popular music styles of Lagos, even if it is through the reissuing of old records on CD, or the revival of all but forgotten musical legends.

Femi Esho, one of the music industry veterans that I met, runs Evergreen Music, a company that seeks to preserve the Nigerian popular music legacy through the reissuing of vintage material otherwise forgotten. Esho’s most ambitious project yet has been the 40 CD compilation containing 157 songs by Fela, a chronological document of the musicians 3½ decade career.

Kunle Tejuoso, like Esho, also owns a record label: Jazzhole records. Through Jazzhole, Tejuoso is doing much to rediscover and repackage Nigeria’s musical old wine whilst giving much needed exposure to the new. One of his most recent efforts was the staging of a successful come back for the still virile 80 plus year old highlife guitarist and singer, Fatai Rolling Dollar with a new hit CD “Won Kere si Number.” “Won kere…” was produced by Duro Ikujenyo, one time keyboardist of Fela’s, whom I also had the pleasure of interacting with on numerous occasions.

Duro leads his own Afrobeat ensemble: Age of Aquarius and can be heard on Friday nights at Bogobiri, a hotel, art gallery and cultural hub in Ikoyi.

One event that must not go unmentioned is the Great Highlife Party organized by Benson Idonijie and Jahman Anikulapo (editor of Guardian Newspaper) held monthly at the Asian run O’Jez Nightclub located in the National Stadium complex, Surulere, Lagos. The aim of the party is to preserve highlife music, and every month, luminaries in the music and culture industry are celebrated through live highlife music by great performers such as J.O. Araba and Fatai Rolling Dollar and Maliki Showboy. The resident band for the Great Highlife Party is Femi Esho’s Evergreen Musical Band.

Towards the end of my stay in Lagos, I met the editor/publisher of MUSE magazine and she asked me to write an article for the magazine. I ended up writing a piece which somewhat summarizes the state of popular music in Nigeria, and muses on what direction Nigerian popular music will go in the future. Unfortunately I could not supply enough pictures to supplement the article since my digital camera had developed problems earlier on and I had ended up with only a few good shots of live performances. It only seems appropriate, given the issues I have discussed so far, to follow this entry with that article, and so I will be posting the article right after this entry for your musing.



Monday, March 17, 2008

the Sugar Café

March 14, 2008. I am sitting in the Sugar Café located near the intersection of Stutter and Taylor streets in a San Francisco neighborhood, the name of which I am yet to discern. According to the handy city map that I have with me, I should be in Nob Hill, but I am not so sure. If I come across as geographically inept, don’t blame me, it is because this is only the third day of my first ever trip to San Francisco, a city so small (only 7 miles across) that it is sometimes difficult to determine the boundaries that separate neighborhoods.

(Case in point: within the space of a few blocks I circumnavigated, on foot, Nob Hill, China Town, the Financial District and North Beach all within an hour—ok, maybe a little more. Yes, San Francisco gives a whole new expediency to the term "walking city"! ) I wasn’t doing all that foot pedaling just to validate some taken for granted aspect of the city’s character. What I’ve been doing is hostel hopping and feeling a little bit like Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem hearing repeatedly from aloof hoteliers that there is no room in the inn.

That’s right. I chose, eyes wide open (and a little wide eyed too), to travel 7 hours from the New York City to San Francisco without prearranging room and board. Not that I didn’t try. I did, in fact, call everyone that I know in the Bay Area which, in any case, isn’t a lot of people, but none really had much to offer, although they probably would have if they could. I also spent considerable time browsing through craigslist where I actually found a few offers that seemed promising. But after corresponding with several potential landlords I realized that there was really no way that I could be sure what I was being offered 2582 miles away. Pictures aren’t always worth a thousand words. Most importantly, there was really no way to tell if I was being lured into a seedy neighborhood for the price of the Ritz. It is very unlikely that any landlord would tell you that their property is located in the underbelly of the city.

Apparently, landlords are also concerned about whom they rent to; there’s really no way to know you from a distance. This was a lesson I would learn when one seemingly promising landlord that I had spoken with over the phone sent me an email stating that he had rented out his room to someone else within the city area, someone that he was able to meet in person. So when I learnt that San Francisco has a lot of student hostels which rent out dorm space and private rooms at cheap prices, I decided that the best thing to do was to stay in one of those dorms for a few days while I explore the city and carry on a proper apartment search.

Admittedly, there was something adventurous, even apropos about traveling to a city known for its Bohemian flair on half a whim, but in retrospect, there probably weren’t many other options available to me. What I hadn’t counted on, however, was that San Francisco is a highly sought after tourist destination, particularly popular amongst students especially during Spring Break, and it was Spring Break. In the end, most of the hostels I contacted were either completely booked or had room for only one night, and this is how I ended up walking the walk in San Francisco and staying in two different hostels over three nights.

Somehow, in the middle of all my wandering, I have managed to find some respite at the Sugar Café. Every walker needs to stop from time to time, to recuperate and breathe the air around them and observe. This is even more pertinent in my situation considering the fact that during the course of my research over the last 10 or so months, I have traversed four major cities in two continents. Figuratively, if you like, I have been a walker. Because the three days I have spent so far in San Francisco have moved so fast, I have barely had time to ponder my observations. Today, as I sit in the Sugar Café enjoying a pulled ham sandwich, I notice things I have probably noticed before but this time through more critical lenses.

I notice that the clientele in here is really diverse: young, old, Black, White, Asian, etc. There are professionals in smug suits—lunch seekers from the nearby financial district perhaps, and, laptop armed students in hooded sweaters from the Academy of the Arts across from the café and plausibly other academic institutions. In between is a motley array that I have no way to place. To me, the diversity represented in this small space mirrors the much larger cosmopolitanism of the city. I am reminded of my first night in the city when I went to get dinner from a pizza store across from the Amsterdam Hostel where I was staying. The two attendants were a demure Mongolian girl who had been in the U.S. for only two years and a bubbly Russian girl, both of whom spoke perfect English. A couple sitting at a nearby table spoke in a European language (I don’t recall what language exactly), and I, of course, was taking it all in with my African eyes and ears. Such diversity is normal, you might say, for any major city like San Francisco, but I feel that there is something innately different about San Francisco’s diversity that makes it unique amongst cities like New York and Los Angeles.

I am still trying to place a finger on what makes San Francisco’s diversity unique. I am not yet quite certain but it is different. As diverse as New York City is, there is something insidious that rubs off on everyone regardless of where they are originally from; everyone ends up becoming a New Yorker! Los Angeles is the opposite of New York City, in this regard. So flat and spread out, and with prohibitive traffic, every group appears to simmer in their own enclaves, bubbling over only at transitional boundaries (i.e. Venice) where they sometimes create cultural expressions, often too marginal to outshine the suffocating glitz and glam of Hollywood. I think San Francisco’s (multi)cultural uniqueness has something to do with the distinct charm that each group: White, Latino, Asian, Black, bohemian, gay, straight, professional, collegiate etc. represented in the area bring to the mix. Each subculture contributes a brilliant sparkle to what might be considered an overarching San Franciscan culture without loosing their individual distinctiveness in the mix.

San Francisco’s charm becomes all the more compelling, cast against its breathtaking geography and architecture. Massive rolling hills and beaches characterize the landscape. The hills are sometimes so steep that your knees almost graze your chest as you ascend an incline (I am told this is good for the heart—sigh!). These lushly green hills form the backdrop for San Francisco’s unique Victorian houses which come in a flourish of brilliant colors and amazing baroque-like detail. Being at the summit of a hill is like being at an enormous picture gallery; every direction you turn promises a spectacular scene.

But right now, I am still inside the Sugar Café, typing on my laptop, and occasionally sipping hot apple cider from a mug. I look up and it is raining. Earlier this morning, it was windy and a little chilly, but showed no sign of rain. I take another sip from my mug and when I look up again, the rain has stopped. I am surprised. But such erratic changes in weather, I am told, are characteristic around here. In the three days that I have been in San Francisco, the weather has fluctuated, going from chilly to sunny to rainy. (The one thing I might regret coming here is being unable to bring more sweaters in order to keep my luggage from tipping the scale).

Like most of my experiences, even the erratic weather speaks to me in its own unique way. Field research can be like the weather. I suppose anything that involves human beings can be that way. You never know what you will find, who will respond to your calls for interviews, which events will come to fruition and which ones won’t. You don’t know when traffic will hold you back, or when you will loose your way in a strange new city. You can’t predict when an informant will become suddenly indisposed (when you might become indisposed), what new precious informants you will unexpectedly find, and which highly rated ones will turn out being obnoxious nuisances. Like San Francisco weather, you just never know!

For now, I can breathe easy—at least for a while, because I have found a lovely apartment in the Castro/Upper Market area. Buena Vista, I am told the neighborhood is called. I am finally moving into my own abode after three nights of hostel hopping, and I am looking forward to settling down. …and to the vagaries of research, and to experiencing fully, the charm of the city.

The full intro.

I am an ethnomusicologist. There’s a lot of debate out there about what the term really means and what it is that ethnomusicologists do. After five years of graduate studies in ethnomusicology, I have to concede that I am not very sure myself how to answer those questions, but for the sake of simplicity, let us define ethnomusicology as the study of musical cultures around the world.

I am a currently at the fieldwork stage of my PhD degree in ethnomusicology at the University of Pittsburgh. My chosen research topic is post-Fela Afrobeat. By fieldwork, I mean traveling to areas of relevance to my chosen research topic—in this case, New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Lagos Nigeria, where I conduct interviews with Afrobeat musicians, attend their shows and events, and collect miscellaneous data. The broad geographical and cultural scope of my research dictates that there will be a strong comparative emphasis in my work.

This blog is dedicated to my fieldwork experiences. Here you will read about my encounters in the field, my musings—musical and extramusical, and get an insight into how the ideas I will be discussing in my dissertation are being generated and developed. You will also read about how I came to choose Afrobeat as my research topic, and of course, if you have never heard about Afrobeat, you will learn a lot about the genre.

I started my fieldwork almost 10 months ago, and throughout this time I have kept journals (at least for the most part). Although I am only beginning this blog at this time, I still have a few months of research to do, and there will be a lot to write about. Additionally, my blog will contain excerpts from my past journals and interviews where they are deemed relevant. I will also do my best to post pictures on the blog to make your reading experience more interesting!

Thanks for stopping by. I hope you will stay on board throughout this exciting experience and I look forward to your comments.

Always remember Fela Anikulapo-Kuti’s words: “Egbekegbe na bad society!” (From Beast of No Nation, 1989).

Entry point: San Francisco, CA.