The Music in My Head
by Mark Hudson
The Music in My Head: Indispensable Classics and Unknown Gems From the Golden Age of African Pop
By Kevin John
Last week I had a dream in which I was on a bus in Senegal. I didn’t know anyone on the bus and had no idea where my hotel was. More pressing, for some reason, I had forgotten the capital of Senegal, and I was asking the driver, in French, if it was Dar es Salaam. He just laughed and kept driving the bus northeast, presumably into the Sahara, as my panic mounted. When I woke, I realized: I was dreaming I was Litch.
“Litch” is Andrew Litchfield, the middle-aged antihero of The Music in My Head, the first foray into fiction by award-winning British travel writer Mark Hudson. Litch, a music-biz jack-of-all-trades who props up his alcohol and coke habits while his marriage deteriorates, is transformed in the early 80s when, on a visit to West Africa, he hears a piercing tenor on the radio that jolts this “dried-out shell of a wreck” into a mad pursuit of the “music in my head.” The chase eventually leads him to Sajar Jopp, the biggest pop star in the fictional country of Tekrur.
So I had an Afropop-inspired dream–big deal, right? Well, when’s the last time you had one? Most of this music, if it comes to us at all, comes with a minimum of context, rarely sung in English, so that only the tune makes it through intact. It has a hard enough time insinuating itself into our CD changers, much less our subconscious; most of us who listen do so as contented outsiders, dutiful NPR subscribers, worldly cocktail-party hosts. But the adventures of Litch, who’s itching to get inside the music, provide a way in for the reader as well–a way to make those foreign sounds stick.
The book begins in the present, with Litch losing his cool at the airport in N’Galam (the capital of Tekrur) when he thinks no one is coming to meet him. Even though he’s been there dozens of times over the years, he anticipates “that something’s about to happen…to remind you that you’re white, that you don’t belong here.”
Describing the crowd, Litch explains, “Everyone’s black. Everyone’s speaking in the deep elastic vowels and contemptuous consonants of the Wolof language. Exchanging formal courtesies, making what are no doubt fairly mundane enquiries, with exaggerated rhetorical force….You’ve got to be cool here. You’ve got to be cool here at all costs. Not just because there’s an edge to this place that’s getting sharper by the day. Not just because you could be robbed, sold into slavery, have your throat cut before you’ve even noticed what’s going on. But because that’s the prevailing ethos of the place. That’s what it’s all about. And when I say cool, I don’t mean a spaced-out, mellow cool. I mean a sharp, hard-eyed cool. It’s tough. That’s inescapable. But it’s not aggressive. Just cool.”
Gimme danger, in other words. In his gushy, fevered descriptions of the music and the people who make it, Litch brings Afropop alive in the same personal, sometimes politically incorrect way Lester Bangs did punk rock (something Banning Eyre hinted at in the Boston Phoenix recently by calling The Music in My Head “a gonzo Heart of Darkness”). Like Bangs, Litch is an attractively destructive character whose passion for the music and its trappings drives him to the edge of the abyss: substitute Etoile 2000 for the Velvet Underground, Salif Keita’s Mandjou for Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. When Litch realizes, near the book’s end, that “I was burying myself alive under this stuff,” that escaping into the catacombs of his record collection is an act of negation, he’s about as far as you can get from the folkish condescension that normally tarnishes written accounts of African pop.
Still, sometimes Litch’s sermonizing can get heavy-handed. But by deeming some Afropop “fucking boring,” by labeling another album “an African Sergeant Pepper. The Pet Sounds of the savannahs. The Trout Mask Replica of the Mande world,” he manages to draw lines in the sand where before there were only polite recommendations. His opinions extend to people and places as well, and some are so vicious that Hudson was compelled to change the names of rather obvious references. Graduates of World Music 101 should recognize Jopp as Youssou N’Dour, Cherry Jatta Samba as Keita, Michael Heaven as Peter Gabriel, and N’Galam as Dakar–the real capital of Senegal. Litch’s incessant digs at Jopp for abandoning the wild mbalax dance music that originally sucked him in are exacerbated by the narrative, where Jopp continually avoids Litch, sends him on wild-goose chases, and eventually accuses him of owing him $25,000. And the vitriol leveled at Heaven for leading Jopp artistically astray is downright scandalous.
The narrative conceit functions somewhat like Bangs’s old photo captions for Creem–it demystifies the subjects, brings them down to scale, makes their stories seem less like cold ethnographic studies. It generates a series of very real questions: What does N’Dour think of the Jopp character? How does Gabriel feel about his Womadic aspirations being critiqued so vituperatively? What would the Senegalese make of Litch’s “this is Africa, man” pronunciamentos? But The Music in My Head’s greatest achievement is that it gives Afropop fans an information-rich framework in which to listen. Nothing in years has sent me scurrying back to my own small collection of the stuff so frequently.
Once you’ve got the information, of course, the question is where to start listening. Conveniently Hudson has compiled a sound track to The Music in My Head, subtitled Indispensable Classics and Unknown Gems From the Golden Age of African Pop, which contains many of the tracks Litch specifically references. If you read Hudson’s liner notes closely, you’ll notice that half of The Music in My Head’s dozen tracks are pre-1981 and half are post-1993. It’s not about one “golden age,” then, but rather about ignoring an age that was not so golden in Hudson’s eyes: the world-music boom of the late 80s and early 90s. On the front end the comp focuses on the late-70s progeny of the Star Band de Dakar, including N’Dour’s Etoile de Dakar, then moves right on to the mid-90s, when King Sunny Ade and Keita got dropped from Mango and N’Dour from Columbia, Virgin divested itself of its interest in Earthworks, and, as Hudson writes, “African music was once more the province of the diehards and the nutters.” Like Litch.
Despite its hazy organizing principle and the inclusion of a bit of mournful Zairean soukous from Franco circa 1970, The Music in My Head is shot through with what Robert Christgau has labeled the “Dakar Overgroove,” with early tracks from Number One de Dakar and Etoile de Dakar setting the standard. This unfettered idiom is defined primarily by the tumbling sound of a tama (a “talking” drum that’s squeezed under the arm to change the pitch) erupting from the main rhythm into the forefront of the mix at various intervals. (The closest Western counterpart I can think of is the transcendently annoying jug gurgle that intrudes on all those old 13th Floor Elevators records.) At its best, as on Etoile 2000’s “Boubou N’Gary”–an ancient herdsmen’s song rendered as a tsunami of fuzz guitar, runaway rhythms, and the echoey screech of El Hadji Faye’s vocals–the Dakar Overgroove comes deliriously close to chaos, barely but beautifully controlled by the formidably talented musicians.
No African pop music I know, not even the hard-driven, R & B-ish mbaqanga of South Africa, connects with the punk aesthetic better than the Dakar Overgroove. If anyone should read this book or hear this raw, butch sound, it’s all those Amerindie boys who bought the Nuggets box set: they might object to the glossy 1994 production on N’Dour’s “Njaajan Njaay” or Omar Pene’s laid-back “Chomeur,” from ’92, but they should find “Boubou N’Gary” trippy at the least. I’m not trying to suggest that a graft of rock ‘n’ roll disrespectability will save Afropop; for many West Africans, the music doesn’t need saving. But unlike the few “enlightened yuppies who had had their horizons broadened on backpacking holidays” and were inspired by “In Your Eyes” to buy their first and only N’Dour album, the Litch demographic is more likely to take the music personally–to collect it, to obsess about it, to start arguments about it, maybe even to dream about it.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): cover.