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Nigeria’s global star

Nigeria’s global star

...plus, pride and protest in Venezuela, and why Cubans are paying tribute to Pink Floyd

...plus, pride and protest in Venezuela, and why Cubans are paying tribute to Pink Floyd

August/September 2017

Sound and fury
It is the tune that every Venezuelan knows; now it has become a song of protest. The national anthem is often heard at the anti-government marches which have been taking place regularly since last spring. The tradition began following the death at a protest in May of Armando Cañizales, an 18-year-old graduate of El Sistema, Venezuela’s music programme for the poor. Fellow students paid homage to their friend by taking their instruments to rallies. One violinist, Wuilly Arteaga, became a symbol of resistance when he played a flawless rendition of the anthem as teargas canisters exploded around him. The National Guard crushed his violin; Latin American musicians sent him a new one.

Tomboyband
The latest craze among China’s teenagers is Acrush, a boyband with a difference: it’s made up of girls. The video to their first single, “Action”, shows the band members, who all sport short hair, singing, rapping and dancing in men’s clothes. Their androgynous look is not just a publicity stunt. A growing number of young Chinese people are rejecting gender norms for an epicene appearance. The popularity of comics in which the slender male heroes have delicate features, may also account for the effect the “handsome girls” are having on swooning fans, who are besotted with their new crushes.

Wiz-quid pro quo
With their heady brew of west African rhythms and American funk, Afrobeat pioneers like Fela Kuti packed dance floors from Lagos to New York in the 1970s. Since then, Nigeria has unearthed few global stars. Enter Wizkid (above), who with his Nigerian twist on commercial pop, known as Afrobeats in deference to his forebears, commands a global following. On a recent single “Come Closer”, dance-hall rhythms underpin vocals from both Wizkid and Drake, a Canadian rapper who invited Wizkid to rap last year on his song “One Dance”, the biggest hit of 2016. With other North American stars lined up for Wizkid’s major-label debut with Sony, record executives are giddy at the commercial prospects of more cultural cross-pollination.

Past perfect
Teddy Afro is the most popular singer in Ethiopia’s history; his recent fifth album, “Ethiopia”, smashed almost every national record. But Teddy is less saccharine than his cheerful pop anthems might suggest. In 2005 his outspoken lyrics landed him in prison. The authorities may have cause for concern again with “Atse Tewodros II”, a song on “Ethiopia” dedicated to a 19th-century warrior-king, which revisits a recurring theme in his oeuvre: the glory of Ethiopia’s imperial past. His nostalgic message resonates with many, but it makes the government nervous. Young Ethiopians have no memory of the empire; they know well the frustrations of today. A cheerleader for the past is not helpful.

Uncomfortably numb
Rock ’n’ roll was frowned upon in Cuba for decades under Fidel Castro, but at the turn of the century, the government changed its tune. Castro acquireda taste for the Beatles; he named a park for John Lennon (“a fellow dreamer”) and opened a club, the Yellow Submarine, which is required to play a strict roster of Beatles songs. Vieja Escuela (“old school”), a cover band, plays there regularly but its Beatlemania is wearing off. Eager to introduce Cubans to other classic acts, they recently dedicated an evening to Pink Floyd, playing to a packed crowd at a venue in Havana. According to the band, the audience was “moved” by its performance of “Comfortably Numb”. Perhaps the song captures the mood of a country anaesthetised by political uncertainty. 

Songs in the key of life
Oumou Sangaré has captivated Mali, and the world, with her soaring voice for almost 30 years. In that time, she has confronted a slew of taboo social issues and condemned polygamy, forced marriage and domestic abuse. In “Yere Faga”, the lead single on her first studio album in eight years, she tackles suicide, urging her compatriots to stay strong in the face of suffering. “Look at me, Sangaré Oumou, I did not kill myself over pain,” she challenges the listener, over the sparse, hypnotic beats of Tony Allen, a Nigerian drummer. It is a new sound for Sangaré, who weaves together synths and electronic guitars with traditional instruments like the n’goni, and whose personal experience withstanding criticism also resonates anew in an age of malicious online rumours.

An underdog wins the day
After decades of isolation under a brutal military regime, Myanmar, which is now led by a democratically elected government, is opening up to the outside world. The organisers of the recent UnDerDawg festival, billed as Myanmar’s “biggest doppest” (sic) urban music event ever, thought American rappers Nelly and Soulja Boy would wow local hip-hop fans, but they received a lacklustre reception. Their vulgar, materialistic vision of a world where ultimate success means fancy cars and  “f***ing lesbian twins”, as Nelly boasts in “Country Grammar”, just can‘t compete with the wide-eyed romance offered by local artists such as Sai Sai Kham Hlaing. His earnest hit “Will You Marry Me” sees him rapping his proposal to his girlfriend in a field of flowers over an acoustic guitar. Sai Sai might not be winning any rap battles any time soon, but in Myanmar he doesn’t need to.

To listen to a selection of songs from these pages, search “spotify:user:1843mag” on Spotify

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