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Arts and society

The music of independence

by Marianne Lange

In depth

After 50 years of independence, the patience of Burkinabe rapper Smockey is exhausted

After 50 years of independence, the patience of Burkinabe rapper Smockey is exhausted

2010 is Africa’s jubilee year. In 1960, 50 years ago, 17 nations gained their independence, including most Francophone countries as well as Nigeria. Today, as in the past, music is an expression of African society, but the mood has certainly deteriorated. [ By Marianne Lange ]

Ghana was the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to gain independence in 1957. The year after, Guinea was the next country to declare independence. In the “African Year” of 1960, 17 former colonies became sovereign nations. Fourteen of them broke away from France: Cameroon, Togo, Madagascar, Benin, Niger, Burkina Faso, the Ivory Coast, Chad, the Central African Republic, the Republic of Congo, Gabon, Senegal, Mali and Mauritania. In the same year, Belgium withdrew from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Britain let go of Nigeria and Somalia. Later in the decade, more nations became independent.

The more countries gained sovereignty, the more Africa celebrated. In this continent, music and dance are closely linked to storytelling. And the music of the 1960s – for instance, High Life or Cha Cha – euphorically emphasised the advent of freedom. 50 years later, however, contemporary African artists are using the genres of Rap and Reggae to express misgivings about “50 years of dependence” in spite of independence.

Music of a new dawn

Emmanuel Tettey Mensah (1919 – 1996) was the Ghanaian king of High Life, a musical style with characteristic elements of jazz and guitar music. In 1948, Mensah founded the Tempos and made High Life popular in Nigeria, the Congo and Kenya too. His musicians translated the excitement of the dawn into rhythm. Whether on shiny ballroom parquets or dusty pub floors, men and women danced to hits like “Day by day” or “Ghana, Guinea, Mali Union”. E.T. Mensah, the hero of pan-African pop music, played the piccolo flute, saxophone, organ and the trumpet. He was one of the most popular musicians of the independence era.

In the Congo, proud verses resounded along with the Indépendance Cha Cha, a hit by Joseph Kabasele (1930–1983) who was nicknamed Le Grand Kalle. The refrain went: “We have negotiated our independence at round tables”. People sang the words along as they moved their hips to the sound of a new era, with the steps of the Congolese Rumba.

In many of the newly independent countries, youth clubs and culture centres provided concert venues as well as instruments. Tradition and modernity complemented each other. European or Caribbean (Calypso, for instance) influences met West African genres. Electric guitars, amplifiers, drums, wind instruments and voices of all kind were used. The lyrics expressed self-confidence, and musicians and club owners could make a living. For artists, the newly independent nations were inspiring travel destinations; many musicians returned from exile.

With the goal of promoting nation building, the new African governments invited orchestras of services and state companies like Mali’s railroad workers’ Rail Band de Bamako to play dance music. Les Amazones de Guinée were a Samba group of female Guinean police officers. Musicians like these became ambassadors of their country. The Amazones even went on tour in Europe in 1983. Sona Diabaté, one of the singers, had studied with Miriam Makeba, the renowned “Mama Africa”. Guinea had granted Makeba a diplomatic passport.

“50 ans 2 dépendances”

The 50th anniversary of independence has a totally different musical feel. In November 2010, Reggae star Tiken Jah Fakoly, born in the Ivory Coast in 1968, will present his new album “African Revolution” on tour in France. There is nothing to celebrate, he states: “I’m not in the mood for dancing. We only possess a photocopy of independence, not even the original document.”

In a similar vein, Serge Bambara, better known as the rapper Smockey, asserts that Africa is far from independent. In April 2010, this artist from Burkina Faso won the Kora award as the best African hip-hop artist. He calls himself Smockey, which comes from the French “se moquer” – to mock or make fun of.

Smockey’s topics are intellectual dependence, the double dependence. He wears jeans and T-shirts and sports a small goatee. Guitar in hand he may look harmless, but his lyrics are biting. Audiences celebrate Smockey, whether at concerts or panel discussions. His political activism is widely appreciated.

In a small supermarket on Ouagadougou’s Boulevard Circulaire, his CD “Cravate, Costard et Pourriture” (tie, suit and rottenness) costs 2000 CFA Francs (roughly € 3,30). Smockey’s tapes and CD’s are produced nearby, in the Abazon studio, where the working conditions are tough. Smockey has to put up with power cuts, heat and mosquitoes. Often there are loud background noises that make recording impossible. The setting is exasperating, but nothing unusual for an West African artist, and certainly not for one who tackles the issue of independence.

Burkina Faso is one of the 14 countries that won independence from France in 1960. “What have we actually achieved? We consent to being measured in the lowest categories of absurd statistics,” Smockey argues. In his mind, historical leaders like Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba and Thomas Sankara truly inspired independence – but their era is long over.

And today, in Ouagadougou of 2010? “We are given billions of CFA Francs in foreign aid, even though we have natural resources in the earth, on the ground, in the air. Oil, gold, cotton, solar energy. Nonetheless, we have to face power failures again and again. As a consequence, often we cannot produce music in our studio. Only a few hundred kilometres from here, in Niger, uranium is extracted. Mind you, it is exported from Africa without further ado. Why aren’t we using it in our region?”

Smockey’s latest piece “50 ans 2 dépendances” is about the colonial dependency that continues after 50 years of independence. “We dance and make music. The European gives us a birthday cake, gets massaged and then delivers arms to our generals,” is his short account of his latest video clip.

“What should we be celebrating? 50 bridges? 50 roads? 50 ports?” Smockey is keenly aware of disparities after 50 years of independence from France: “Why do we have to go through psycho tests and submit all sorts of certificates if we want to visit Europe, whereas French citizens are free to settle here as they please?”

The name of the studio, Abazon, means “il faut faire vite” (we must hurry up) in the Bissa language. After 50 years of independence, Smockey the musician has no more patience. He doesn’t consider himself a Griot, a traditional singer and storyteller who praises his sovereign’s heroic deeds. He rather sees himself as someone who expresses wrath and anger in a direct and dirty way: “If at all, I am one of the former-day Griots who told true stories in order to inform.”

So what exactly is his urgent message that cannot wait? “Obviously, my criticism concerning 50 years of independence is directed towards ourselves as well as our oppressors,” says Smockey. “We haven’t really progressed. Everything gets delayed. If you want to become rich, you have to get into politics in order to gain control of public institutions.”

His song “Votez pour moi” (vote for me) is about election candidates who do not have any ideas whatsoever and treat the people like idiots. In the video clip, he plays a presidential candidate “clearly telling the voters that I am abusing them because I don’t have anything else to offer.” While the candidate is handing out promotional presents, security forces jump on anyone who dares protest. In the end, the people elect the candidate. “Funnily enough, the clip was shown on public TV for quite a while because they thought I was promoting the elections,” Smockey says. “But then they noticed that I wasn’t really celebrating civil duties, so the clip isn’t shown anymore. Nonetheless, I won the prize for the best song!”