Africa to Appalachia

I compiled this instrumental either while traveling through Africa or shortly afterwards, using “Wanjiru Wanjiru” by the Kenyan guitarist Francis Macharia as the unifying theme. I was struck by how much the guitar on that track felt like the kind of fingerpicking played in the Appalachians, so I combined  it with two favorite southern mountain showpieces: “Buckdancer’s Choice” by Sam McGee and “Doc’s Guitar” from Doc Watson. (To be strictly accurate, McGee was from central Tennessee, not the mountains, but I didn’t know that when I named the piece.)

I’d heard Macharia’s song on a wonderful album, The Nairobi Sound,  released by a wonderful record label, Original Music. It was the brainchild of John Storm Roberts, a freelance musicologist and all-around-charming fellow whom I had the pleasure of meeting when I interviewed him for the Boston Globe in 1989 — I was preparing for the Africa trip, and that seemed like a good way to get a bunch of free records and meet someone who could put me in touch with useful people all over the continent.

I had also read Roberts’s Black Music of Two Worlds, a wide-ranging and insightful history of the ongoing cross-fertilization between musicians and musical styles in Africa and the Americas. It explained, for example, how Cuban recordings by groups like the Trio Matamoros had influenced Congolese music, and touched on the role of US country music throughout sub-Saharan Africa — which prepared me for conversations about cowboy singers everywhere from Zimbabwe to Kenya. In fact, it was an offhand comment by Roberts that named my band and CD (both of which I’ll get to in future posts): he was telling me about the influence of Jimmie Rodgers, saying he’d collected Rodgers imitations in 24 African languages, and mentioned an early reference in print to “the streetcorner cowboys of  Zanzibar,” which instantly struck me as a great name for a band. (When I got to Nairobi, after hitching through the forests of Zaire and up through Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda, there was still a program on the radio every Sunday of “old Kikuyu music,” which consisted largely of Kikuyu yodeling cowboy songs by folks like Sammy Ngako.)

I think of this piece as kind of a tribute to John, since he was the person who made me aware that any discussion of overlaps and similarities between African and American music has to consider not only the huge influence of African traditions on the music of the Americas, but also the huge influence of Cuban, Argentine, French Caribbean, and US styles on African musicians all over the continent. Even before records became common, minstrel shows and Negro spirituals were imported and adapted into African traditions. (The banjo, for example, is originally a West African instrument, but was introduced to new regions of Africa — and reintroduced in West Africa — with minstrelsy.)

To finish this musicological tribute, I recommend listening to a couple of key examples: “El que siembra su maiz” by the Cuban Trio Matamoros, which is a classic example of Afro-Spanish-Caribbean string band music, and  the same song performed by Joseph Kabasele “El Gran Kalle” and his orchestra L’African Jazz. (As an added fillip, let’s note the generic use of “jazz” in the names of dance bands all over Africa in the mid-20th century, whether or not they played anything resembling jazz.)