Feminism, the Environment and Stolen Land: Socially Conscious Music from Africa and the South Pacific

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Album cover for Dobet Gnahoré’s Couleur

Readers may remember my two previous world music reviews, in the February 2021 and Summer 2021 issues of the Public i. All of the music described here was reviewed in the great magazine Songlines. The music is available on Apple Music and similar sources. If you are reading this article online, please note the YouTube links for each song.

West Africa

As usual, I will start with music from Africa, specifically West Africa this time. First the most famous artist in this review, Angelique Kidjo from Benin. Since the death of Miriam Makeba in 2008, Angelique Kidjo is probably the most popular and well-known African female musician (and actor). She has collaborated with dozens of popular musicians and played around the world, including in dozens of special concerts for various causes. She has played at Nobel Peace Prize, United Nations, and Unesco events, including a UN concert to “Raise Your Voice to End Female Mutilation” in New York, and a concert to honor the sixtieth birthday of Bob Marley in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Her latest CD, Mother Nature, highlights many up-and-coming African musicians. The title track calls for unity to address climate catastrophe.

Dobet Gnahoré performing

Popular singer-songwriter (and dancer) Dobet Gnahoré, from Côte d’Ivoire, has a great new AfroPop CD titled Couleur. Have a listen to the feminist messages in “Woman” in English and “Yakané” (meaning “Today”) in Dida and French. She sings, “The independence of Women is today.” And in “Mon Epoque” (in French), she sings “If I call don’t be afraid of me, I’m a rebellious woman.”

Sekou Bah, another one of the many incredible musicians from Mali, has issued a CD on his own. He has played bass and guitar in the bands of some of Mali’s finest musicians, including Salif Keita, Oumou Sangaré, and currently with Fatouma Diawara. He sings in various Malian languages, but this melodic CD is dedicated to his often-marginalized Dogon people. His CD, Soukabbe Mali, includes a band with African (ngoni, kora, and balafon) as well as Western instruments. The title song is a plea to the young not to emigrate but rather to stay and build the country. “Kalan Ko” with Master Soumy on vocals laments the bad state of formal education in the country.

Africans in Europe

The Invisible Session is well worth a listen. Lyricist, poet, and rapper Bentality grew up in Helsinki with African American parents. The band is based in Milan, and includes musicians from Ethiopia, Gambia, and Europe. They project Black pride through their “soul-jazz” and funk music with Ethiopian flavors. The CD is titled Echoes of Africa. My two favorite tracks are “Hearing the Call” and “People All Around the World Can Make It.”

Try the very danceable multinational Ogun Afrobeat, based in Madrid but with lead singer Akin Onasanya from Nigeria. The other nine musicians hail from places including Cuba, Columbia, Italy, and Spain, and there are seven guests, including ones from Ethiopia and Iran. The CD is titled Unite. The wonderful songs “In Justice” and “Benefit for All” will get your feet moving.

East and Southern Africa

Check out Papillon from Kenya. He designs and makes his own instruments, upgrading traditional instruments. He is concerned about the loss of traditional cultures. The CD is titled Moyo (“Heart” in Swahili and “Life/Spirit” in his mother tongue, Mbeere), and the most intriguing track is the haunting “Heart of Africa,” sung from the point of view of trees. The refrain is “Leave Us Alone,” a cry against deforestation. The CD notes state that the music “is inspired by the singing of birds in the morning, the roaring of lions, and the cries of monkeys—it is Mother Nature Speaking.”

The band Urban Village from South Africa

Urban Village from Soweto, South Africa is a sort of a cross between the traditional Zulu music of Ladysmith Black Mombazo and jazz or rock bands. Their name comes from how Soweto developed, the township that grew because people from other areas of the country came to work in the city of Johannesburg. The title of the CD is Udondolo (Stick). Following the end of apartheid, this is the young generation striving to “build the nation,” which is the meaning of their song “Sakhisiwe.” But they are very well aware of the great obstacles to overcome. The video for the song “Ubaba” shows the difficulty and pleasures of township life. The song honors the struggles of the older generations.

South Pacific

There are some amazing musicians from the South Pacific islands, as well as Aboriginal and Maori musicians from Australia and New Zealand that have little exposure in North America. Here are a few that I think are quite beautiful.

Tio Massing is a gentle singer/songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, fire dancer/performer, and activist from Ambrym Island in Vanuatu. However, he now divides his time between Efate Island in a simple house he built in a banyan tree and Melbourne, Australia. He incorporates local instruments and traditional melodies in his songs, and sings in English and local languages. His CD is titled Sorousian (meaning “Story”). In his song “Black Butterfly,” in English and Daakaka, he sings, “I am poor, no no, I still believe, I’m still living, so I must sing, for the voices that can’t be heard anymore.” For those who don’t know, South Pacific islanders are Black people, and Tio (his only name on the CD) is singing about the difficulties of living on a small Black island. In “Tanrah,” he sings in the Bislama language of the natural beauty of Ambrym Island, of the wind, waves, and smoky volcano. Vanuatu is one of the most vulnerable countries to climate catastrophe, and he obviously feels that deeply.

Album cover for Frank Yamma’s Countryman

Frank Yamma is a singer/songwriter from Australia’s central desert. His heartrending songs are in his Pitjantjatjara language and English, but he speaks five languages. He is not afraid to sing about alcoholism and cultural degradation. In his CD Countryman, he sings about the loss of freedom as a prisoner in the song “Inside.” In his song “Down the River,” he sings about how the Aboriginal people’s land was stolen, but “We belong down the river.”

Gurrumul performing

Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, known as Gurrumul, is another amazing Aboriginal musician from the Yolnu peole. He was born on Elcho Island off the coast of northern Australia. Although blind from birth, he was a multi-instrumentalist with an amazing plaintive voice. He was the most commercially successful Aboriginal musician at the time of his death in 2017. A documentary film with the title Gurrumul was released soon after his death. His song, “Gurrumul History (I Was Born Blind),” is not only a lament for his disability in dealing with the world but also a call for harmony between the traditional cultures and the dominant white culture in Australia. He sings, “United we stand, divided we fall, together we’ll stand, in solidarity.”

Fat Freddy’s Drop is a band in another genre altogether. From New Zealand, this seven-member band’s music is classified as “Electronic” by Apple Music, but that doesn’t do it justice. Rather it is a fusion of cool jazz, soul, reggae, rhythm-and-blues, and groove dance music. It is a mixed group: Maori, Samoan–New Zealander, and descendants of European immigrants. Although they have a great new CD, my favorite song is “Hope,” from their older CD Hope for a Generation. They sing, “Hope for a Generation, just beyond my reach, not beyond my sight.”

Enjoy the music.

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