Like reggae music a decade ago, African music is now hailed as "the next big thing" for western popular music to embrace or exploit. It was easy to dismiss the much-publicized trips of Paul McCartney and Ginger Baker to music-rich Nigeria in the early '70s as vacations in search of a fad. But by the mid-'70s, at least one African pop star, Fela Kuti, had gained international fame with his intensely soulful Afrobeat music. David Byrne and Eno got hip to Afrobeat and, with their commercially and artistically triumphant collaboration on the Talking Heads' "Remain in Light," new wave musicians started to look past Jamaica to Africa for exotic dance beats.
Not surprisingly, Island Records, the company that spread the Bob Marley sound, is trying to introduce America to African popular music. "Synchro System" (Island MLPS 9737) is the second stateside album by King Sunny Ade', the undisputed master of Juju music, who has recorded more than 40 albums in Nigeria.
"Juju Music," last year's album reflecting the folk dances and music of the Yoruba, Nigeria's largest tribe, was critically acclaimed. Ade''s magic continues with "Synchro System," a seductive musical experience that gently captures the listener and suspends him in a gossamer web of interlocking rhythms, voices and electronics. In a sense, it is an act of enchantment that popular music of such lilting persuasion, such delicate texture and soothing effect, can result from the intense interplay of a 20-piece band.
The album's opening cut, "Synchro Feelings," sets the trance- and dance-inducing moods that coexist in a day's juju. Ade' calls out in his light tenor, the village answers his call and then the percussion--talking drums, congos, maracas and rattles--begin to bubble and percolate gently underneath, rising to the top of the music and dissipating. A twangy guitar restates a verse, Ade' softly answers and an eerie synthesizer cuts across the back of the music like a tropical bird shrieking in the jungle. This seemingly effortless and captivating interaction between vocals, layers of percussion and electronic instruments, each replicating the melodies and intonation of the other, is unique in western pop.
Some of the most attractive touches reflect Ade''s openness to nontraditional instruments and his ability to make them natural forces in his musical village. Wisps of electric guitar and synthesizer haunt the background of his songs, while ghostly dub effects create a foreboding instant in the midst of musical calm. In both "E Saiye Re" and "Tolongo," Demolo Adepojus' steel guitar recreates the melody in such dreamy tropical tones that you can feel the ocean breeze. "Maajo" is perhaps the most exciting song here, a celebratory chant driven home by an intense polyrhythmic attack, reminiscent of the wild syncopation of New Orleans' carnival Indian tribes.
Ade', who sings in Yoruban, may not possess the charismatic character of a Bob Marley, and juju hardly carries the intensity or simplicity of reggae. Nonetheless, Ade''s juju is accessible because of its rhythmic and melodic allures, and interesting in its complexity and progressiveness. Equally important, his band represents an inspirational vision of a musical universe, and perhaps a social one, that is cooperative, harmonious and utterly comforting in ways that western pop has not yet envisioned.
While it may be hard to believe, Malcolm McLaren, the pop svengali who gave us the Sex Pistols, is now on a mission to deliver tribal rhythms to the western world. Two of McLaren's recent pop creations, Adam and the Ants and Bow Wow Wow, made heavy use of tribal drumming inspired by the Burundi tribe.
On "Duck Rock" (Island 7 90068-1), McLaren has ambitiously and provocatively fused some exotic musical discoveries from places like the Isle of Espanola, Kwazululand and (yes) Virginia and Tennessee with contemporary dance music. However profound or silly McLaren's own hype for this project may be, "Duck Rock" is a wildly successful album that rushes past its mistake with unabashed confidence in the vitality of its discoveries.
Imagine the old square-dance warhorses, "Buffalo Gals," "Fiddle and All," played out as an urban rap and scratch number with McLaren serving as caller. Better yet, take the skip-rope dance called "Double Dutch" and record it in Kwazululand with Zulus chanting out the names of the high school teams that performed the dance. McLaren has also recorded some unearthly Cuban music from the Lucumi cult, and some irresistible Caribbean and African dance styles. To each of these discoveries, McLaren and producer Trevor Horn have added lyrics, percussion, keyboards and a whimsical, but musically precise, sense of humor that grant them contemporary dance club appeal.
In essence, "Duck Rock" poses a challenge: Exactly how musically parochial does rock wish to remain in the '80s?