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- Posted on Oct 9th 2007 1:00PM by Steve Hochman
Well, I ought to track Paul down and send him 'Hera Ma Nono,' the new CD by Extra Golden. Or drag him out the next time Toubab Krewe or Nomo comes to town. African music may not be at the center of the pop world, but it's making an impressive, undeniable stand in several realms, notably the jam-band and college-club scenes. Extra Golden and Toubab in particular, with their shimmering, interlocking guitar sounds (referencing the East Africa of Kenya and the West Africa of Mali, respectively), seem perfect for the Bonnaroo generation. Toubab have, in fact, proved wildly popular in its Bonnaroo appearances.
And even Extra Golden guitarist Alex Minoff is amused by the proliferation of bands, most prominently Brooklyn's Antibalas and Detroit's Nomo, that use the horn-driven Afrobeat of Nigerian pioneer Fela Kuti as a template. "Seems weird, like every city has one," he says. "There's one that plays in D.C. every couple of months."
That mirrors the situation in the early '90s when it seemed every college town had its own band influenced by the Grateful Dead -- from Phish on down. But just as in that case, there are some bands that merely affect the sound and aesthetic of the most prominent icons.
"I constantly read reviews or stories about bands that say, 'Oh, they mix '80s-whatever with Afropop,' " Minoff says. "All right -- are they really listening to Afropop, or do they have the Talking Heads records and it's filtered in? That's not meant as a criticism of those bands, but the idea of having an African element ..."
If he did mean it as criticism, though, he'd be able to make a good case. What distinguishes these groups is the depth of knowledge and hard work gaining it. Asheville, North Carolina-based Toubab have done extensive woodshedding in Mali, while Extra Golden grew directly from ethnomusicology studies and production work being done by guitarist Ian Eagleson in Kenya. In fact, the Extra Golden lineup is half Kenyan, with Eagleson and Minoff (who had played together in various D.C.-area bands starting in the early '90s and shared an interest in African guitar styles) currently joined by singer-guitarist Opiyo Bilongo (for whom Eagleson produced sessions released recently on his Kanyo Records label under the title 'What Do People Want?') and singer-drummer Onyango Wuod Omari.
"A band like Toubab has spent a lot of time there, learned the repertoire on the instruments, the griot instruments, which is no easy task," Minoff says. "And Ian has obviously spent a lot of time in Kenya. It's not a fad. We're not co-opting it in a dilettantish way."
There wasn't even an intention of forming an African-rooted band when Minoff went to visit Eagleson in Nairobi in 2004. "Ian was working within Kenya, doing research for his doctoral dissertation," Minoff explains. "He started off studying more traditional stuff, when he was first there for a year. Then I went to visit; he had started to study more the electric guitar music, benga. The music he generally studies was from the Luo ethnic tribe, which I believe is the third largest group in Kenya, and they pretty much started benga in the late '60s."
The idea was simply to make some time to work on some music they'd left hanging from earlier collaborations.
"We didn't have the idea that we would work on these songs and add the other music," Minoff says. "The plan was just to hang out, see some music and continue working on music we were composing."
But singer Otieno Jagwasi always seemed to be around when they were working, and the drum tracks by Omari that Eagleson had been recording worked perfectly as temp settings for the songs-in-progress and, well...
"It just happened, which is cool," says Minoff. "I didn't go there thinking we'd make this East-meets-West thing. It wasn't like that. It just came about."
The result was a recording made in performance at an outdoor Nairobi club, released as the debut Extra Golden album, 'Ok-Oyot System,' by Chicago-based Thrill Jockey Records. But making a follow-up presented some serious challenges. First and most profoundly came the death of Jagwasi, who had long suffered from liver problems. And then there was the matter of geography. Where Toubab have the advantage of a regular band lifestyle in which to evolve their sound, Extra Golden's membership is split by an ocean and a continent. But with some persistence and a lot of help from the office of none other than Sen. Barack Obama, visas were arranged for Bilongo and Omari after the band was invited to play the 2006 Chicago World Music Festival, and following a short, intense U.S. tour a second album was recorded in a quick set of sessions in the Pocono Mountains.
And it's with this that they've really hit on the full combination of cultures and styles -- not just the music but the lyrics. There's 'Obama,' a thank you to the now-presidential candidate, his staff and even his family, as well as 'Street Parade,' a tribute to the people of New Orleans. And there's 'Night Runners,' about a Nigerian folk-tale character, Jajouk. But the process of writing these songs is revealing about the underlying nature of this partnership.
'Obama' reflects a Nigerian tradition as a way of honoring someone who did a favor. "It's not an endorsement, not saying he should be president, but saying Obama helped us and also names other people who helped -- his aides, his wife and mother, people at the label. People here can't understand the words, but it's not 'Vote for Obama.' It's 'thank you for the things you did, and thank your mother, too.' "
'Night Runners,'" though telling about the Jajouk, does it in a very roundabout way, with both English and Luo lyrics. "Ian and I didn't know about Jajouk, and when they told us about it we thought, 'This is great, we should write a song about that.' But those guys in Kenya would never do that. Most of their songs are about love issues or about certain people, 'So-and-so is a great bus driver,' 'This is a good regional governor.' The idea of Jajouk is not something that would jump out as a great song idea. But to us that's great. So lyrically, Bilongo composed the vocals and lyrics about looking at something from an outside point of view, almost singing as if it's Ian and me. And then Ian and I are singing about the actual Jajouk."
The question now is how can Extra Golden grow as a band if they can't really operate as a band. An Oct. 26 show in Linz, Austria, is the only planned gig at this point. There are hopes for a U.S. trek in the spring or summer, but chances to work together as a regular thing are pretty much nonexistent. But the new album is certain to increase demand, and who knows? Maybe, depending on how the political winds blow, an invitation to perform at the presidential inauguration in Jan. 2009.
If so, wonder if they could do a song about someone who scoffed at the notion of African music infiltrating American music and then having to admit he was wrong.