In The Wake Of Ebola, An African Music Wave Thrives

Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars      Photo: Josh Sanseri, courtesy of Cumbancha records

Staying Safe: Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars                                              Photo: Josh Sanseri, courtesy of Cumbancha records

During early April, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All-Stars – one of Africa’s best-known bands to make a successful go in the United States – embarked on a tour of the country, which was booked through the summer.

Just weeks after they departed, however, the Ebola virus started sweeping through and ravishing West Africa. Unable to extend their U.S. visas due to a stipulation, the management of the band hurriedly booked more dates for the group, hitting the college circuit, the red states, the festivals – almost any venue that would take them, including places completely unfamiliar with world music.

“They want to stay as long as they can right now,” said All-Stars’ manager Eric Herman in a phone interview in early September. “We’ve played in nearly every market since spring and we’re looking for more. We want to keep them here and safe.”

American rock bands face such threats as plane and tour bus crashes, drug overdoses, violent fans and just the regular hazards of the rock n’ roll lifestyle. African bands deal with these and a vast, deadly array of others. There are civil wars, corruption, government instability, disease epidemics, food shortages — and like the All-Stars, refugee camps.

But as an African music insurgency escalates in the states – reaching beyond the bourgeoisie world music aficionados and the latest finds of Sting, Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel – bands such as the blind, “Afro-blues” duo Amadou and Mariam from Mali, Tuareg guitarist Bombino from Niger and the All-Stars have started to play the stages from the Hollywood Bowl to Bonaroo. They have brought with them a coterie of booking agents, record label execs and music managers – some from Africa, some from the states – all of whom keep them out of harm’s way and help them navigate the perils of a foreign market.

“The artists that are the most successful are the ones that are able to reach the widest audience – outside of the traditional African music market – and that will resonate with audiences that might not consider themselves fans of African music,” said Jacob Edgar, the founder of Cumbancha, a record label, booking agent and publisher of world music. “Artists that can appeal to different geographical regions and have something that transcends their story, as well as a great stage presence, are the ones to succeed in the American music scene.”

But in addition to a presence, they have to have their heads together as professional musicians, Edgar said. “There are so many amazing and wonderful musicians in Africa, but if there not a partnership – or too much work to prepare them – their careers won’t take off in other countries.”

Omara “Bombino” Moctar – one of the myriad talented African musicians on the continent, but one of few to effectively cross the Atlantic – has Edgar’s triumvirate of characteristics that overstep the barriers thrown up by skeptical Western tastemakers. Born a nomadic Tuareg and raised on an encampment about 60 miles northeast of Agadez – the largest city in Northern Niger – Bombino was discovered by filmmaker Ron Wyman who had begun filming a documentary about the Tuareg.

After enduring and escaping several Tuareg rebellions, Bombino landed in Libya at the age of 12 with a guitar given to him by his grandfather. He fell in with local musicians who helped him master the guitar through music videos of Jimi Hendrix and Mark Knopfler. Upon returning to Niger in his late teens, he backed several bands before going solo after two band mates from a group called Tidawt were killed in another insurrection.

Enchanted by a tape of Bombino’s music he found, Wyman spent a year tracking him to Burkina Faso, then brought him to the U.S. to record his first album, Agadez, on Cumbancha Records.

“Bombino went from being an unknown to being a cross-over because he has a lot of things going for him: a sound that appeals to a wide range of people whether into rock, or psychedelic, or world; a hipness to him that some African musicians lack in people’s minds; and endorsements,” Edgar said. While in the states, Bombino befriended Dan Auerbach, the Black Keys’ guitarist and vocalist who produced his second album and “helped catapult Bombino into a different stratosphere,” Edgar said.

“Before he knew what was happening, he was an opening act for a world music concert headlined by Stevie Wonder at the Hollywood Bowl.”

A household name in his native Sengal – and most of Africa – in the 1970s Burkina Faso helped develop a style of popular Senegalese music known as mbalax, a fusion of popular Western music and dance such as jazz soul, Latin and rock blended with sabar, the traditional drumming and dance music of Senegal. In the 1980s, he toured Africa with Super Etoile de Dakar, where his voice and style caught the ears of Peter Gabriel, Sting, Wyclef Jean and Paul Simon, among others, who helped him establish a foothold in the states.

Since then, N’Dour has released more than 20 albums, toured relentlessly to sold out audiences and become a tireless international ambassador for human rights and development issues. After an unsuccessful bid for the Sengalese presidency in early 2012, N’Dour took an appointment as first minister for tourism and culture in the government of former Prime Minister Macky Sall and returned to music a year later with plans to record a new album after embarking on a series of concerts in the states.

“Ebola or no Ebola, visa rules and regulations on African artists are all still very strict, and all them have to stay on the right side of the law, use a bona fide attorney and endure a tedious and long process – it’s the way the world goes,” said DuDu Sarr, a friend of N’Dour’s for more than 25 years and his manager since 2011. “I’ve been around the circuit for years and you hear stories of artists showing up and not being paid, sleeping in all sorts of circumstances, dealing with unscrupulous characters across the board – a well-qualified manager would not allow his artist to be taken advantage of.”

N’Dour is one of the highest paid singers in Africa, reportedly worth $30 million from earnings through albums, 30 years of touring and other ventures, such as investment in a local record label, a nightclub and a television station. But Edgar points out quickly that many African artists begin with bigger dreams than the realistic scope of reach or income from their music – many of them hire managers who are equally as naive.

“Even if you’re an artist from Africa and are able to be a pop star in your own country, you can’t expect the same thing in the rest of the world. Bombino is still a niche market.” said Edgar, who would not disclose the musician’s earnings, though he said they were not at a level above most indie artists, who make just about six figures after all the expenses and fees. “If that is what you’re looking for, you shouldn’t be working with me.”

Sierra Leone’s Refugee All-Stars know all too well the reality of living in an African country and playing to audiences in developed countries. They also have the extra pressure of unexpected crisis they will face if and when they might arrive home – except at this time they will have to watch from afar.

After eventually wrapping their tour in early October, the All-Stars have indefinite plans to stay in the U.S. due to the impending travel ban to West Africa. No strangers to hardship, the band members – who met in the Kalia refugee camp in 1997 during the civil war in Sierra Leone and who honed their musical skills with two beat up electric guitars, a microphone and a meager amp donated by Canadian aid workers – have started a series of concerts to raise money for those infected with Ebola back home.

“One of the main reasons we need them here is to play concerts to send money home to their families and friends, who can’t work because of the outbreak, and to the people helping, specifically Doctors without Borders,” Herman said. “Compared to American bands doing charity shows, these bands can obviously speak more personally to the issue, and are obviously very interested in uplifting the Sierra Leone community.

“They are a source of pride to the community and cultural ambassadors for Sierra Leone. Their work – and their music – take on special meaning because of it, but they are also just happy to play.”

Source:Adrian Burne|

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