The idea that music is a universal language is beyond cliche, but behind every cliche is truth, and the Nigerian film industry known as Nollywood provides a particularly fascinating case in point. Back in the early 60s Lebanese merchants began importing the music-laden films of Bollywood, India’s sublimely prolific film industry, into the country. Although Nigerians couldn’t understand the Hindi lyrics, the elaborate song-and-dance numbers and easy-to-follow plots proved addictive anyway. By the late 70s the hunger for Bollywood cinema had grown to the point that the films and music from them began airing on Nigerian TV and radio. Musicians from the northern region of the country began covering Bollywood songs, inserting Hausa lyrics in the same meter. By the 90s, when VHS technology had become cheap, Nigerians began churning out their own soap-opera-like dramas.
I’ve actually never seen any Nollywood films, although they’ve started screening to more general audiences in recent years. In fact, I’d never heard any of the music from those films either, until I picked up a copy of Harafin So (Sahel Sounds/Little Axe), a selection of hits from Kannywood films (the Kannywood variant is named for the city of Kano, which is center of northern Nigeria’s film industry). As you can hear from today’s 12 O’Clock Track, “Tofi”—a duet between Abubacar Sani and Fati Niger—the music reveals a strong debt to Bollywood traditions, particularly in the female vocal style. All of the instruments are synthetic, and the vocals, heavily Auto-Tuned as they are, sound nearly as plastic. I haven’t decided whether or not I actually like the music, but there’s no doubt that I’m gripped by it. It possesses that ineffable quality that only seems to emerge when one culture appropriates ideas from another, without fully understanding their meaning or nuances. I hope the misunderstandings never stop coming.