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Back to Africa: The Spread of Music Across the Atlantic

praiaIt was yet another business week of meetings in the Cape Verdean capital of Praia. It started with a celebration of traditional hip-shaking (to put it mildly), which you can witness in our most recent viral African Dance hit video by Maahlox Le Vibeur. The Orquestra Nacional de Cabo Verde followed by getting all Funana and playing the highest speed folk songs you may ever hear, between a couple of great daytime jam sessions from various local artists like BilanAngolaJack Nkanga — you’ll hear more of these names soon. It ended for me in a Haitian voodoo session from Vox Sambou that had even me dancing…

Life is tough sometimes.

So what brought me to Praia, you ask? I was there to attend the Atlantic Music Expo, or AME, which is now in its fourth edition and of which I’ve attended the past two. AME brings together strands of cultural expression from both sides of the Atlantic, hence the name. (It’s a sort of musical NATO alliance, except peaceful and south-facing). It features sounds from Brazil to Angola via Cuba, Senegal, Mauritania and Mayotte, and some less geographically correct places such as Haiti or Mozambique.

The journey represented here mirrors the effects of the hellish slave trade, but with a silver lining: the spread of African-originated cultures and beats around the world, and their return journey as often altered music with new instruments and nuances. These are called Jazz, R&B, Blues, Reggae, Salsa and… Hip Hop. If I had gotten a dollar every time someone mentioned the word ‘Hip Hop’ during the expo, I would have made a fortune. From conversations to forums, one-on-one discussions and meetings between a wide variety of interesting people, the genre was much buzzed about.

Urban culture is no stranger to African or South American metropoles. Lagos, Bogota and Cairo steam with city excitement and danger, a heady mix of opportunity and poverty that has expressed itself through various street fashions. I’m thinking of the ‘sapeur‘ movement in Kinshasa that was linked to the heyday of Congolese soukouss, or the raw Dominican Reggaeton and Electro Cumbia of Colombia. But it feels like elements of all of these are now systematically intertwining with the Rap oral expression originating from the New York Bronx: street poetry is everywhere.

The new factor I see highlighted in this Hip Hop omnipresence is the now dominant form of musical consumption: streaming. Whether through subscription plans on mobile phones or free or ad-supported video platforms like YouTube, streaming has changed things. Sure, its usage is still geographically disparate, spreading in a tentacular fashion across the world at an irregular rate and with local particularities. Despite that, streaming is extremely compelling to the tech savvy and fairly under-privileged youth of all these developing markets and continents.

Music has always spurred people to share and show off their latest discovery, particularly in Hip Hop. I believe this power to impress and need to stay current helps explain the relative success of partially monetized and quite costly forms of consumption — even data costs money when you don’t have a subscription plan that covers 24/7 watching and social media sharing. Think about it: pirated downloads, torrent sites, hacking apps and ripped memory cards seldom have the best sound quality or the most up-to-date remix. You try telling a teenager he can’t get his hands on last night’s coolest tune yet…

Another element is time. Music comes fast and furious in these lively places, and as I remember from Jamaican Dancehall parties, the tracks are rarely played for three full minutes. More likely, you’ll get the 30-second intro looped twice spun with a ‘wheel and turn’ from the middle. Track time is data and data is money, so the traditionally formatted 3-minute radio edits stemming from vinyl groove capacity are no longer set in stone.

So what is the message here? The key correlation to all these short and often brutal sounding expressions is that they are addressed to a specific audience, one that is personally involved and which relates to laments about local authorities and the loss of girlfriends to the rich older guys up the road. They are also embodied in the form of DJ battles and cliques, taking on a life of their own and engraining themselves in people’s way of life. It may seem trite but the personal is political in these parts of the modern world, where extremely fast technical development is often juxtaposed with hunger and poverty. The dot com surge in these economies brings some riches but not equality, and the expression of ‘neighborhood’ and ethnic roots become protection against what may be perceived as dangerous novelties and ‘otherness.’

Beyond the shared codes of the Hip Hop genre itself are of course differences in the outwardness, generosity and social militancy of each particular artist or crew — particularly bravely exemplified in this project from Medellin. What they have in common is a fundamental activism, a will to change things, that is strengthened and empowered by a mastery of modern technological tools and methods of expression. Take for example this Brazilian guy, who produces his own mixtapes and has built a following of millions on YouTube from scratch.

In essence, the message I received from all these flourishing discussions is this: the back and forth of ‘Black’ or African originated music across the Atlantic is a self-perpetuating movement that cross-fertilizes both shores as well as those nearby in the Mediterranean, English Channel, North Sea, Pacific Ocean, Indian Ocean and more. In fact, it irrigates the whole world.

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