Why is African music so influential?

Why are Africa and America the world’s popular music powerhouses? Tyler Cowen, who knows more about minutiae than I know of my core discipline, has this to offer:

1. Most African music has scales very similar to those of European music and thus we are arguably considering a unified and indeed accessible style.

2. Many African musics emphasize rhythms and rhythm is arguably the most universal element of music and thus it is relatively easy to export. American music has in this regard a strong African component, for obvious historical reasons.

3. The micro-tonal musics, as we find in India and the Middle East, don’t spread to many countries which do not already have a micro-tonal tradition. Cats wailing, etc., though it is a shame if you haven’t trained your ear by now to like the stuff. It’s some of the world’s finest music.

4. Many Asian musics, such as some of the major styles of China and Japan, emphasize timbre. That makes them a) often too subtle, and b) very hard to translate to disc or to radio. African-derived musics are perfect for radio or for the car.

5. African music is really, really good. And America is really, really good at entertaining people. It’s an unstoppable alliance.

This brings to mind another question: Why does Canada produce so many comedians?

13 thoughts on “Why is African music so influential?

  1. im gonna go with a combination of 2 things for canadian comedians. their geography gives them access to the media outlets of the united states but they have a better education system relative to the united states (according to the latest human development report). if it’s true that more educated people = more comedians (reasonable?), then we have an explanation.

  2. I think the explanation for the large number of Canadian comedians is very simple. First of all, comedy does not travel well across cultures. A few minutes of watching Japanese TV will quickly convince you that what passes for funny will not consistently marketable on a major TV network in North America. The North American market places a lot of value on comedy within its entertainment market. Canadian being cultural similar to the US provides an accessible market for Canadian comedians. It is not so much the case that Canada produces an absolutely large number of comedians. Afterall, most comedians in the US are still American. Canadians are just over-represented (relative to other areas) among the small group at the top. And one other thing that gives the impression of a large number of Canadian comedians in the US is that they never miss an opportunity to remind viewers of their Canadian background. I would too if I were Canadian…

  3. It would be worthwhile to do a comparative analysis of Canada and Australia on this front. Viz: Australia has a much more vibrant domestic comic industry than Canada, but few of these become successful comedians/comic actors in the US. Some Australians who worked in comedy in Australia end up as dramatic actors in Hollywood (eg Eric Bana). On the other hand, several Canadian actors who started off as dramatic actors domestically ended up as comic actors in Hollywood (Leslie Nielson, William Shatner (?)).

  4. Omair.
    Start with Fela Kuti and don’t ever look back.
    If Fela and the Nigeria 90 can’t get your tailfeather shaking, nothing will.

  5. One key place to start for good African music is Mali:

    Salif Keita
    Habib Koite
    Ali Farka Toure (passed away)
    etc.

  6. I would say Canadians are good comedians because, much like blacks and Jews (the other groups who have done very well in US comedy), they have a good sense of self, are far better at looking themselves in the mirror than mainstream America, are self-deprecating, etc. And then add to this mix the British influence of irony/sarcasm and you have a great recipe for comedy.

    As for African music, I highly recommend Orchestra Baobab.

  7. As to music: there was a huge wave of South African pop of various styles, from very traditional to very “westernized” (the “western” pop music tradition that is already immensely influenced by African music) back in the eighties; finding some of the old “Sound of Soweto” compilations would be a great start. Also Mali (as noted above) and especially Senegal have some great exports these days.

    As to comics: Comedy is all about channeled anger and bitterness. Happy people are rarely comics; scratch beneath the surface of most comics, and you find an angry, dysfunctional person who just has a knack for turning that anger into humor for others (excpetions exist, of course). How this relates to Canada, I’ll let you figure out for yourself.

    (And as to Canada’s educational system – always consider the source of “Human Development Reports”)

  8. Much of the “American” music we love has roots in Africa, with some Spanish, Scotch-Irish, and Eastern European Jewish diaspora thrown in. Much of the “African” music we love got a lot of backwash from across the pond (e.g. rumba/ soukous). So it is the historically contingent and highly fertile Afro-Atlantic exchange, more than anything intrinsic to a particular part of the world. Music that travels and absorbs but retains some of its roots seems to be especially good: take the gypsies/ roma as another example.

  9. Why did you ignore Brazilian music in this landscape? It contains a long history of combined African and Classical music styles