Aired live May 13, 2015, and available here online
Tonight we’ll be taking a trip from the two Congos, up the coast of West Africa, to the Americas, and back to Africa. The inspiration for this trip is a 5-beat rhythmic pattern known as the clave, which might be one of the most expressive “genes” in music history, so to speak.
Nobody knows its exact origins. Some music scholars say Africa. Others say the Americas. Or was it the Middle East? What is known is that this beat gained prominence in Cuba and was likely brought by the hundreds of thousands of Africans who were enslaved there. Regardless of where this beat originated, it impacted music on both sides of the Atlantic.
In my earlier episodes, I mentioned how African popular music has had a dialogue with music created by African-descended people in the Americas. Cuban music in particular had a strong influence, and at the heart of it is the clave beat. And after a few hundred years, it’s still alive in both African and American music.
It was extremely difficult putting together tonight’s playlist because I have so many songs that use the clave, so I anticipate this being the first in a series of episodes.
First up are songs that were heavily influenced by Cuban rumba and son. We’ll begin our journey in the Congo with the lovely song, “Bel Ami,” by Papa Noël, which starts out with the clave.
Our next destination is Nigeria, where Cuban music was quite popular as well, probably because it contained such strong elements that were already from there, due to the slave trade. This next song [“Guitar Boy” by Sir Victor Uwaifo and His Titibitis] references Mami Wata, a mermaid-like deity who also crossed the ocean with enslaved Africans and ended up in the Americas.
The Congos, Nigeria, and Ghana are just a few African countries where people adored Cuban music, but it really took root in Senegal. Songs by this next band are regularly played at salsa clubs, where I’m sure many would be shocked to learn they aren’t Latino. The band is Africando and the song is “Aïcha,” first made popular by Algerian singer Khaled. This version is sung in Wolof.
Next we’ll hop over to Peru. Before I became obsessed with Congolese music—there was a time—I was crazy about Afro-Peruvian music. This next song is by Afro-Peruvian diva Eva Ayllón, who sings: “It’s the black people’s rhythm, that flavorful rhythm.” She’s not directly addressing the clave, but the shoe fits!
Before heading back to Africa, we’ll make a stop in my home country, the United States. In the Americas, the clave is usually associated with Cuban music or Latin music in general, but it did make its way into rhythm and blues, popularized by Bo Diddley. Here is Betty Wright, giving us an example with “Cleanup Woman.”
I’m going to end tonight by staying in the Congo but skipping ahead to the present day. As I mentioned, the clave beat is still going strong in African pop music today. Coupé-décalé, an energetic dance music from the Ivory Coast, is but one example. And you can still hear it in Congolese soukous. The Congolese-Belgian rapper, Baloji, is here to demonstrate with his song, “Congo Eza ya Biso.”
For more examples of the clave beat in songs from both sides of the Atlantic, listen here online.
Episode 8 Tracks:
Bel Ami – Papa Noël
Makambo Mibale – Les Bantous de la Capitale
Guitar Boy – Sir Victor Uwaifo and His Titibitis
Kyenkyen Bi Adi M’awu – K. Frimpong and His Cubano Fiestas
Aïcha (Wolof version) – Africando
Las Quiero Término Medio – Tio Gomez Con La Orquesta Riverside
Raíces Negras – Eva Ayllón
Wátina (I Called Out) – Andy Palacio and The Garifuna Collective
Cleanup Woman – Betty Wright
Tsy Kivy – Tarika
Motema na Ngai Télévision – Youlou Mabiala et l’Orchestre Kamikaze
Mwana Djambala – Theo Blaise Kounkou
Baya Baya – Orchestre Kiam
Congo Eza ya Biso (Le Secours Populaire) – Baloji with La Chorale de la Grâce