Continental sound dominates charts through melodious partnerships.
Blurb: Musicians have realized that merging sounds is good for business as it exposes them to different audiences.
Ask music pundits what the definitive South African collaboration album with international artists that is showcasing the best of our local talent is, and chances are a few of them will vote for Paul Simon’s Graceland.
Recorded over a few months from 1985 to 1986, the album featuring an eclectic mix of local sounds ranging from mbacanga, isichathamiya, pop, acapella and rock featured a variety of African musical luminaries including Ladysmith Black Mambazo, General M.D Shirinda and the Gaza Sisters, Ray Phiri and Stimela as well as Senegalese music icon Youssou N’Dour. Bass guitarist Bakithi Kumalo’s unique Afro riff which led to him settling in the US after he went on to become Simon’s groove keeper, is also featured. The album was recorded in several cities around the world including New York, London and Johannesburg and is instrumental in blowing up local music to world audiences after its release in 1986.
It was released at the height of apartheid’s last push and brutality that came with the state of emergency suffocating most townships in the mid 80s. Its success presented ordinary South Africans with hope that the same freedom our music achieved, to transcend borders, could also be experienced by the masses. Simon was heavily criticized for breaking the cultural boycott to record parts of the album in Johannesburg.
Explaining its title at the time, he said the musical journey he undertook was like going to Graceland, a reference to Elvis Presley’s home. This is because Simon said he had “embarked on a spiritual journey to collect ideas in Africa,” during the making of the album, but noted how he was also influenced by his rock roots.
Not since the collaboration of Harry Belafonte and Miriam Makeba on several records including An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba (1965) and Harry Belafonte and Miriam Makeba (1975) during her exile years, did one single album achieve so much to tell South Africa’s story through music.
Former record label executive and now independent music business consultant, Vusi Leeuw, said international collaborations like Graceland not only exposed local artists to overseas markets, but have always been an important catalyst on how African music is celebrated and appreciated worldwide.
This he said was a key benefit when African artists were able to gain access to international markets.
Ghetto Ruff/Muthaland record label owner, Lance Stehr said no other album like Graceland broke such important ground to propel local music to global audiences. Simon’s subsequent tours with the album exposed musicians in the project to form important partnerships internationally that resulted in them being booked at various venues around the world.
Leeuw also cited Peter Gabriel’s hit In Your Eyes originally recorded with N’Dour as another notable collaboration with an African artist that broke boundaries and marketed continental music. Gabriel later went on to perform the song many times with both king of rumba and Congolese icon, Papa Wemba as well as Beninese-Ameican songstress Angelique Kidjo.
“Caiphus Semenya and other South African musicians in exile were also instrumental in selling our music through their various projects with American artists. Semenya had many collaborations (during his stay in the US from the 60s to the 90s) with giants including The Crusaders, Ray Brown and super producer Quincy Jones, but his collaboration with Michael Jackson on Liberian Girl was another important showcase of our talent,” noted Leeuw.
The Soweto Gospel choir made great strides popularizing our choral music as they featured on many collaborative albums by giants such as Celine Dion, Natural Born Hippies and Pharrell Williams that led to their rise worldwide. This opened doors for them to be booked by international promoters which to this day sees their touring schedules populated with more overseas dates than local performances.
The music executive said in the past international artists teaming up with local artists was often more about cosmetics. After a popular overseas artist fell in love with a certain sound they wanted to incorporate it into their music but the exercise hardly resulted in significant gains for local musicians.
“We had those arrangements influenced by our exploitative colonial past where for international stars it was all about curiosity. Certain artists came here (to Africa) to collaborate with artists on once off projects that were only meant to benefit international artists. What comes to mind is Lebo Mathosa teaming up with Keith Sweat (on the song I’ll Trade) and when TKZee joined Puff Daddy on Public Enemy Remix. Both projects benefited the American stars who already had a dominant share in our markets. The collabs were not in the best interest of local artists and local music,” said Leeuw.
His main gripe with these singles is that local musicians were unable to make any traction with their music with US audiences.
While it used to be an expensive exercise to do these collaborations, technology has made it much easier to immediately close any divides such as distance and capital with the use of latest music software and applications that make it easy to link up and meet fellow artists from anywhere in the world. One no longer requires huge resources to collaborate as one doesn’t need to fly out to a different location to be in studio with other artists.
‘Even though the quality of music has been compromised by the fact that anyone sitting in their bedroom can become a producer with the use of recording software, I am excited about the future of African music and where it is going as young tech savvy artists have an explorative and collaborative spirit, “ added Stehr.
He said promoting African music in this millennium is more than just artists producing songs as big international brands have latched on to utilizing prominent musicians to market various products continentally and globally which hugely promotes our sound. “By teaming with these young musicians and using their beats in their marketing campaigns, our music gets to be shared widely. The future is with our young musicians who have become great ambassadors to promote our culture and languages through their music,” he said.
Continentally, partnerships between South African and Nigerian musical giants are now too common as artists are capitalizing on the huge markets that both countries command.
“Young local artists are following the money when they chase collabs with Nigerian artists because of the size and reach of the two countries and we are more likely to see more dynamic collabs in future. At the moment the world is attracted to our unique afro beat – check all the great work being done by super Nigerian producer, 26 year old Kiddominant …locally the Beatenberg sound is blowing up big in Europe at the moment.”
Stehr cannot contain his excitement when he talks about what he terms, the next best musical collaboration between Africa and the US.
“The world is waiting for the continent’s biggest collaboration of the year with Kiddominant producing a track for Beyonce in her upcoming project.
The critically acclaimed producer has produced hits for AKA (Fela in Versace) and Davido, Wizzkid and DJ Maphorisa.
Although not much is known yet about the music they are cooking, Stehr said the young producer is our best musical horse of the moment and we can all bet on his African touch to win in the race of Africa’s rich musical talent.