“Congo to the Mississippi”: Recent Socially Conscious Music from Africa and the Americas

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Sahari (2019), by Aziza Brahim

It is wonderful that so much music from around the world is now easily available to us, especially through the Internet and radio. My main source is Songlines magazine, a monthly published in print and online in London. Every print issue comes with one or two CDs, which are also available by download online. Almost all of this music is available through Apple Music or other similar sources.

75,000 Strong

In 1980, during the worst days of apartheid in South Africa, renowned activist and exiled musicians Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba flew into the small independent kingdom of Lesotho (entirely surrounded by South Africa) and gave a free concert for 75,000 freedom-loving people, most crossing the nearby border for the event. Due to technical problems, the recording was lost except for one video, but six of Masekela’s songs were recorded at a hotel performance the following night. That recording, Live in Lesotho, was finally rereleased in 2019. The great surviving video is of “Stimela,” the “Coal Train,” that carried migrant workers from across the region to work in the gold mines of Johannesburg.

Moving slightly north, Vusa Mkhaya from Zimbabwe has given us a wonderful album, Umanyanyatha: Songs from the Soul of Zimbabwe. What a beautiful soulful voice! “Abalalanga” tells of crossing borders by night without proper documentation. “Lizobuya” asserts that we will have our land back one day.

Highlife and Afrobeat

Moving to West Africa, the highlife band Santrofi from Ghana channels radical President Kwame Nkrumah (1960-1966), starting their song “Africa” with a recording of his words calling for African unity, “a United States of Africa.” The album is titled Alewa, a kind of candy, or more importantly a metaphor for tolerance and a unified world. Santrofi refers to a rare and precious bird in Akan mythology.

Santrofi’s 2020 album Alewa

For a different kind of Ghanaian music, we have Afrobeat from 72-year-old Gyedu-Blay Ambolley, who is still going strong. His latest album, 11th Street, Sekondi, refers to the street and city where he grew up. His music almost compels you to dance. It is in the mode of Fela Kuti, who he played with in earlier times. In contrast to Fela’s misogyny, Blay respects women but sings about upholding women in traditional roles, as can be heard in “Women Treatment.” “I No Dey Talk I Do Dey Lie” is a put-down of corrupt politicians.

Desert Blues

The West African country of Mali has given us an incredible number of fine musicians from various cultures (for example, my favorites Habib Koité, Oumou Sangaré, Fatoumata Diawara, and Ali Farka Touré). The desert north of the country is home to the Touareg people. As in so many African countries, the former colonial powers cut up the territory without paying attention to which cultural groups were split up or combined. The continuing conflict in the north is one result. Touareg communities, including in refugee camps, have motivated a number of wonderful bands who mostly sing about their lost homeland, named Azawad. We call their music “desert blues.” One can see their desert environment in the film Zerzura, about the mythical rich oasis deep in the desert. The film’s soundtrack by Ahmoudou Madassane is available. One great band is Tamikrest. Their song “Azawad” is mesmerizing. The album title is Tamotait, which translates to “Hope for Positive Change.”

Moving further north, we come to Western Sahara. Some readers may have seen Amy Goodman’s remarkable in-person report on the dire repression there. The desert country used to be a Spanish colony, Spanish Sahara. There was supposed to be a UN-sponsored referendum on the territory’s status after Spain withdrew in 1976, but this never happened. Instead, the countries on the north and south, Morocco and Mauritania, occupied and claimed the land for themselves. A guerilla war defeated the Mauritanians, but Morocco took their place in 1979. About 20 percent of the territory is controlled by the guerillas. No countries recognized Morocco’s claim, until just recently when President Trump did so in exchange for Morocco’s recognition of Israel. Many displaced Sahrawi live in refugee camps in the Algerian desert. Remarkably, the passionate and revolutionary musician Aziza Brahim emerged from one of these camps. Her latest work is titled Sahari. The song “Hada Jil” proclaims that the youth will fight until they get the land back. “Mujayam” declares that “You can cage the bird / But you cannot silence its tune.”

Africa in the Americas

Turning to the African diaspora, the Afro-Brazilian Mateus Aleluia has produced an emotional and wonderful performance on his album Olorum. At 76 he is still an amazing singer. Many of the songs refer back to the Yoruba religion and its gods (originally from Nigeria). Olorum is the supreme diety. In the title track, he sings, “My family was lost in slavery / In every human I meet I see a brother / And on my knees I cry out, Olorum / Leave your kingdom and come visit me / Your people are tired of suffering.” Aleluia is also influenced by having lived in Angola for 20 years.

Going north to the Caribbean and Central America, we find the Garifuna Collective and their new album, Aban, which translates as “One.” The language descends from the original Arawak people of the region. The Garifuna are an Afro-indigenous people from St. Vincent who were exiled to Honduras in the 18th century and then moved on to Belize. Their song “Hamala” translates as “Let Him Fly,” a story about a little boy who wants to go out into the world but needs the community to give him the tools to make that flight.

Playing for Change

Those who don’t know about the organization Playing for Change ought to check it out. This is a thoroughly international undertaking. They do the most amazing videos with musicians playing all over the world, sometimes in a dozen countries or more. I can’t imagine how they can synchronize the various players, but they do. They also have a wonderful touring band made up of musicians from many countries, and they have opened 15 music schools for kids all over the world. They very recently did a fantastic live online concert, titled “Peace Through Music.” One great song from a recent Listen to the Music compilation is titled, “Congo to the Mississippi,” featuring Grandpa Elliott from New Orleans, Vasti Jackson from Mississippi, and Afro Fiesta from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The Power of Women

Now consider three feminist groups: Ladama, Jane Bunnett and Maqueque, and Our Native Daughters. Ladama is a feisty pan-American group of four women from Brazil, Columbia, the US, and Venezuela. They sing about women’s empowerment, climate disaster, immigration and more. Their album is titled Oye Mujer, or Hey Woman. The song “Tierra Tiembla” (Earth Trembles) is a powerful statement, and “Nobreza” (Nobility) concerns the strength of the Brazilian workers. Jane Bunnett and Maqueque are nine women, eight from Cuba and Jane from the US. Their new jazz album is On Firm Ground/Tierra Firme. The title track asks, “Which Side are You on?” Finally, Our Native Daughters includes Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla, and Allison Russell. Readers may know Giddens and McCalla from The Carolina Chocolate Drops. Songs of Our Native Daughters includes songs such as “Black Myself,” “I Knew I Could Fly,” and a great cover of Bob Marley’s “Slave Driver.”

Ladama’s Oye Mujer (2020)

Leyla McCalla’s soulful recent solo album is titled Capitalist Blues. Its title track has a jaunty old-time New Orleans feeling, and “Money is King” has a sly way of exposing class differences.

Finally, Leela Gilday’s North Star Calling is an affirmation of Canada’s First Nations’ determination to assert their rights and place in the world. Gilday is a member of the Dene Nation from Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories. Her song, “We Are Here” rocks out while asserting her people’s will to survive. In “Rolling Thunder,” she sings “ . . it’s the sound of the people rising up.” It gives me the same feeling as Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power.”

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