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Author: Alan Waters
Title: Breakout: profiles in African rhythm
Publication info: Ann Arbor, Michigan: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library

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Source: Breakout: profiles in African rhythm
Alan Waters

Evanston, IL: Program of African Studies, Northwestern University
no. 4, pp. 14, 1992
Author Biography: Alan Waters is a graduate student in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago and a freelance musician living in Chicago. He was a 1991-92 fellow of the Institute.

REVIEW Breakout: Profiles in African Rhythm


Gary Stewart, Breakout: Profiles in African Rhythm, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 1992, 157 pp.

This is the latest in the growing number of books from the University of Chicago Press dealing with African music and with ethnomusicological subjects. Breakout consists of a series of fourteen brief chapters, each one focusing on a specific musician working within the field of popular African music, and the text as a whole is based largely on the author's first-hand interviews with the artists. The title of the book refers to the desire of contemporary musicians from African to gain access to the world's music market and to achieve success through competition with the music of Europe and North America. Some of the musicians profiled by Stewart include Nana Ampadu, Remmy Ongala, Kanda Bongo Man, Sonny Okusuns and O.J. Ekemode. His object of inquiry, so to speak, is the effort, strategy and understanding involved in the attempt of these artists to bring their music outside of Africa. This is a very current book, and it is comprised, in about equal measure, of musicology and journalism.

Interestingly, Stewart has included several chapters on lesser known musicians and bandmen who have not achieved the international reputations of such stars as Fela or Franco. The story of the Sierra Leonean drummer and percussionist Francis Fuster is one such case. As a boy in the Kru Town section of Freetown he would listen to the records his father—who was a seaman—would bring home by Louis Jordan, Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole. There was also the traditional drumming and dancing of his immediate environment. Fuster took up drumming and worked his way through the sixties' music scene in Freetown in a series of bands that combined the influences of Cliff Richard and Elvis Presley, the Congolese rhumba sound, Motown and soul music, and latin dance music from Cuba, Puerto Rico and South America. In 1974, he met and recorded with Hugh Masekela in Lagos, but "incredibly, the music was lost when the master tape was inadvertently left on a train in Nigeria," and so nothing came of that project. A few years later, travelling with a band called Baranta, Fuster got stranded in New York, "where he'd gone in search of better equipment and performance techniques." Stewart goes on: "He finally scraped together enough money to get back to Freetown in 1978. There he taught karate—he had achieved a black belt while in New York—and booked entertainment for the newly opened Birtumani Hotel." Fuster moved to London where he met up with Hugh Masekela again and played percussion in his group. And then, in 1987, through his association with Masekela, Fuster was asked to play percussion with Paul Simon's band on the Graceland tour. This, of course, brought Fuster considerable financial rewards and tremendous exposure, and it moved his career to a whole new level.

Stewart includes Fuster's story because it encapsulates so many of the elements of the larger situation of African music in relation to global cultural and economic systems: the long standing awareness of Western musical styles on the part of African musicians, the difficulty of acquiring modern musical equipment, bands with little or no reputation outside Africa making unsuccessful forays to Western cities where they dissolve in the face of too many obstacles, the remarkable persistence of musicians in coping with the contingencies, setbacks and uncertainties that characterize collaborations and alliances among musicians. Also contained in this story is a pattern that can be perceived time and again, namely, that black music and musicians can "make it" in the West only after certification by whites. Stewart does not harp on this last point, but instead emphasizes the determination, the thoughtfulness and the self-directedness of African musicians as they move beyond local markets. One of the empowering premises of Stewart's book is the assumption that African musicians working toward the globalization of their own music carry with them a clear and strong understanding of the political and cultural forces with which they are entangled.

The story of the Ghanaian group Hedzoleh Soundz is a revealing one also, and Stewart offers it as an example of " ... the power and perversity of an illusion held by many African musicians, that of easy success and wealth in the West." Hedzoleh Soundz was a band that came up in the early seventies, and like the Wulomei Cultural Troupe—also of Ghana—their aim was to reverse the prevailing trend of West African musicians to simply ape the imported styles of disco, soul, rock and funk music. Their instrumentation emphasized indigenous drums and percussion, and their repertoire drew heavily on traditional folk songs and Ghanaian cultural music. They were well organized, carefully rehearsed, and their roots version of "Rekpete" became a very popular hit. In January of 1974 the group came to North America and began their tour in Washington D.C. Their expectations were high. Musically they were ahead of their time in that they were bringing a revitalized traditional sound to a North American audience that was largely unaware of the impact that its own pop music industry was having in places like West Africa. Discipline among the musicians declined. There were managerial problems, financial disputes, personal disagreements. By 1975, the group fell apart in California. Some of the musicians returned to Africa. Others took jobs in an aircraft parts factory. Others dispersed to seek musical work in the San Francisco area. Dispute and disappointment took their toll, says Stewart.

In every major North American and European city there are scores of highly talented African musicians who are driving taxis, working in restaurants and hotels, driving delivery trucks or are marginally employed as laborers in the construction trades. Sometimes they form bands with local musicians who are interested in African music, and these groups will perform sporadically in nightclubs and at parties and social functions within an expatriate African community. These musicians have left Africa to seek a higher standard of living and a modern lifestyle. Stewart recognizes these struggling artists as important bearers of African culture and he appreciates the irony in the fact that while Westerners may now be in a position to purchase recordings and attend concerns by a small number of African bands that have been selected for distribution by major Western record companies, these same consumers who are just now "discovering" African music remain unaware of the considerable number of African musicians living in their very midst. "The world of commercial music is capricious at best ... and while African music is increasingly popular, the big money goes to a new generation of musicians and a few old stars. It remains to be demonstrated that an African band based in the United States can achieve a measure of fame or fortune on the level of Kanda Bongo Man, Fela, or Sonny Okosuns."

Breakout is written very much in the spirit of Robert Thompson's remark: "Africa is here, not in distant times and places." [1] Stewart's approach of direct dialogue with the musicians cuts through much of the glib, hit-and-run talk about "Afro-pop" music that circulates within the Western media. Stewart is close to the music and he's concerned about the musicians who are devoted to making it. While he is critical of the conditions under which the music is made, produced and distributed, he's hopeful and realistic that popular African music will endure and expand. There's a particularly nice chapter on S.E. Rogie, the Sierra Leonean palm wine guitarist and composer. Docteur Nico, the Congolese guitar genius and band leader, is also carefully portrayed. There are interesting descriptions of recording sessions that go back to the fifties, and there are numerous details concerning the impact of political events on the lives of musicians. Breakout does not hype the music or glorify the musicians. It is a work of contemporary cultural histoyr that will inform future generations of listeners as to where this music came form, who its makers were, and why it sounds so good.

1. Robert Thompson, "Body and Voice: Kongo Figurative Musical Instruments", in Marie-Therese Brincard, ed., Sounding Forms: African Musical Instruments, (New York, 1989), p. 40.

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