TALKING MACHINES HIT WEST AFRICA.
TELLS THE STORY OF A GROWTH INDUSTRY
At the turn of the 19th century the West African coastal communities were experiencing deep culture shock. Colonial expansionists had drawn new boundaries across tribal regions they barely understood. The British, French, Germans and Portuguese sat cheek by jowl from the Gulf of Guinea to the Cape of Good Hope. With them they brought Eurocentric values, a variety of Christian religious ethics and the technology necessary for successful dissemination.
The European colonisers set about developing Africa and availing them-selves of the natural resources. Merchant ships docked at Accra and Lagos, delivering. not only material goods, but new musical thought and ideas. The average crew of such a ship brought Caribbeans, Americans, Indians, other Africans and a smaller but significant cross-section of the rest of world culture. Resultantly' African musicians encountered new influences that were to have a profound effect upon the course and character of their music.
Contemporary Highlife and juju were born out of the union between tradition, the fresh cultural input, and the importation of that most ubiquitous of instruments, the guitar. Peter Manuel (l) has pointed out the key role played by Kru sailors from independent Liberia in popularising the guitar along the West African coastline. Traditional Kora playing adapted easily to the guitar and, like the fusing of electricity and rock'n'roll,. it became a cornerstone of the new syncretic styles. The other major influence that came down the gangplank was the acoustic, hand wound gramophone.
The extent of the recording industry's influence upon the development of West African music needs some re-definition in order to be fully understood. Until recently, the bulk of this industry's early history in West Africa has been lost and forgotten, with it's visible roots petering out in the late '30s.
An accurate and detailed chronology of events is difficult to reconstruct more than 60 years after the event; however, most very early African recordings reflect a European, rather than an African influence. Until 1927 only the Gramophone Company of London (HMV) showed any real interest in catering to the West African market, and its efforts were clearly marked by a lack of any cohesive policy. In 1911 they released some sides by "C.W.A. Pratt", a Christian pseudonym for Shotayo Adeyami, music which so far remains unrecovered. An eleven year gap, largely attributable to the First World War, followed. In June 1922 the Rev. J.J. Ransome-Kuti (grandfather of Fela Kuti) was brought to London to record a massive batch of stiffly performed Christian hymns with piano accompaniment. Very probably these records were aimed at a European audience and regarded as novelties akin to Dr. Johnson's Women Preachers. Activity for the next five years was almost imperceptible. Only three artists recorded and only five 78's were released. All quiet on the Western Front. Although the fusion process that would produce the new Urban West African sound was obviously developing, nobody recorded any early evidence.
In 1927 all this changed. Around early April a German record company issued 10 double sided 78's by Roland C. Nathaniels, a university educated musician who had been resident in London for some time. Unwittingly, Nathaniels was to provide the catalyst for subsequent events. Quickly poached from the Germans by the Gramophone Company, Nathaniels was the first West African artist to be recorded by the new 'Western Electric" recording system, a technical innovation as startling and influential in the mid- '20s as was the CD in the mid '80s. Nathaniels did not represent any reflection of the syncretisation process, however. His music was still firmly rooted in European rather than African tradition, but his contribution to African music was two- fold. Unwittingly, he started the competitive ball rolling between the major companies and, wittingly, he acted as talent scout for the Gramophone Company's new African endeavours.
Roland C. Nathaniels
With Nathaniels help, the Gramophone Company embarked upon a major campaign to capture the Gold Coast market and sweep any opposition off the board before it could get a foothold. What they needed, and quickly, was a significant number of records in the major West African dialects so that the widest possible market could be quickly created. Their first answer to this problem was a man called G. W. Aingo, an extraordinary musical interpreter from Cape Coast Castle, capable of singing in all the significant dialects and styles. Although still some distance from the 'pure' styles of grass-roots syncretic music, Aingo produced performances that were significantly less European than anything heard thus far. The Gramophone Company, launching it's West African marketing offensive under the 'Zonophone' logo, devoted the first 16 issues to Aingo's readings of Fanti songs.
The success of the Zonophone records is reflected both in their constant media exposure (West Africa magazine routinely noted new issues) and the simple fact that in a five year period they issued a staggering total of 572 records. As the series progressed, so the music inched closer to a recognisably African sound. By 1929 the overall character of the catalogue was much less European Aingo, Domingo Justus, Ben Simmons, Harry Quashie (Later to record with Awotwi Paynin's Ghana Rockers in the early '50s and the influential Jacob Sam were all producing increasingly authentic new African music.
Zonophone's efforts did not go unnoticed by other companies. An almost unseemly flurry of commercial activity exploded throughout West Africa. Whether by bringing artists to Europe, as Zonophone did, or recording in situ, the other major record companies all cut themselves a slice of African pie.
Principally, the major challenge came from the German-based Odeon company; since before the First World War they had practiced the canny art of appointing local agents world-wide to seek out and record talent, ship masters to Germany for processing and then, 're-import' the records for local sale. The policy ensured a more authentic reflection of any local market and, in this way, the Odeon Company was more able to offer a thoroughly relevant local style to its customers.
Irewolde Denge's initial recordings, in 1929, were made for Odeon in Lagos and Chris Waterman has stated that they represented "the first series of commercial recordings of Yoruba urban popular music". (2) In fact, the 1928 London sessions made for Zonophone by Domingo Justus were probably the first syncretic Yoruba recordings, but Denge's music made greater impact upon its intended audience. With an ear closer to the ground, Odeon, and it's sister label Parlophone, offered thoroughly authentic Yoruba recordings and they may well be the earliest examples of unadulterated urban African music. Thus British and German business interests were to be found competing for the vernacular African market and stimulating interest among musicians and audiences.
Meanwhile in the Francophone areas, Cote D'Ivoire, Dahomey, and the coastal regions of the Congo, both French Pathé and Odeon entered into competition with the Gramophone Company's French sister 'La Voix De Son Maitre'. Thus for the five years 1927 to 1931, we can see a period of intense activity along almost 1000 miles of coastline.
Because the Gramophone itself acted as an influence upon hitherto isolated cultural groups, a flow and exchange of musical ideas, previously inexperienced in African society, soon created a fertile soil from which now musical directions could grow. By 1931 the component parts that would ultimately become modern West African music were firmly in place.
West Africa did not escape the world wide economic depression of the early '30s. In 1931 major changes in the record industry, brought about by economic collapse and the need to retrench, effectively stopped almost all African recording activities. What happened was simply this; falling sales worldwide created a domino effect within the record industry. In 1925 English Columbia had bought German Odeon, but continued to allow it to run autonomously. Now, with a bleak future staring them in the face, Columbia and the Gramophone Company decided, in 1931, to merge rather than compete for shrinking markets. This effectively brought almost all the important record labels outside of the USA under one umbrella organisation, Electrical and Music Industries, or EMI for short.
During this consolidatory period, the African market appears to have been ignored and a six-year gap occurred before EMI were back in Lagos recording Irewolde Denge and Tunde King. Records by these and other artists appeared on a variety of labels (HMV, Parlophone, Odeon and Columbia) but the controlling hand behind them all was now based at Hayes in Middlesex.
While the record industry was busy reshaping itself, West African musical styles continued to develop; Juju, traceable to urban roots in '20s Lagos, had first appeared on record as early as 1928 but by the time the second wave of recording started, it had gelled into a much more recognisable style.
Many of the West African recordings made by EMI in the latter part of the '30s appeared on the Parlophone label. The bulk of this music is in Yoruba, with Tunde King's classic recordings helping to crystallise the Juju style. However, sixteen other dialects and languages wore also recorded by Parlophone, including remarkable traditional performances of the Northern Sudanic Hausa styles, and a variety of sub- genres and commercial offerings.
EMI continued the practice, initiated by Odeon, of relying upon local agents to make recording arrangements and then ship masters back to England for processing. No-one had yet thought it necessary to build any manufacturing facilities in Africa itself. Trade was good, the shipping lines between Europe and Africa frequent and affordable, the investment that would have to be made in building and tooling up a local pressing plant made no economic sense.
However, the outbreak of World War Two radically altered the situation. EMI, still the only company with any real knowledge and experience of the West African music scene, found themselves confronted by a number of key problems. Most of their resources were recommitted to war work. Whilst it was still possible in theory, for them to maintain overseas links, the practice was often more difficult. Recording engineers and experienced pressing plant workers suddenly vanished into the armed services. Those that were left had new priorities; shellac, the basic ingredient for producing 78rpm records, was strictly rationed, and EMI's export department suddenly found it's resources severely limited.
Furthermore, the Board of Trade placed limitations on what could be exported from Britain. For the first time, a governmentimposed quota system had to be taken into account) There was, in short, a hiatus from about 1940 to 1947 during which time only a limited quantity of previously recorded music could be shipped into West Africa. Thus, at a second key period in the stylistic development of West African music, there is almost no aural evidence to refer to. By the time the engineers had discarded military uniforms the transitional electrification of West African music was already under way, and something else had also occurred; the Cuban-isation of West Africa.
Again, we must look to the record industry's endeavours for this remarkable and influential phenomenon. Since the mid-30's, a vogue for Cuban rhythms in general, and the Rhumba in particular, had fascinated the western world. Some of the best authentic Cuban recordings had been re-issued by HMV on a special series known popularly as GV's (the prefix allocated to the series). The successful exportation of these records into Nigeria and Ghana had a profound effect upon a rising generation of musicians who took the Juju and Palm Wine styles that were their heritage and married them to Cuban rhythms.
Exposed to the music of Trio Matamoros, Septeto Habanera, Canario e se Grupo and many other seminal and genuine Cuban performances, younger West Africans enthusiastically re-moulded a new syncretic style. This complex and convoluted process would require a book- length examination to explain fully, but essentially it meant this; because Cuban music was in itself heavily influenced by African cultural input, its absorption along the West African coast represented the logical conclusion of a long cyclic development. It brought African-influenced music back home to Africa. Like any traveller who has been gone a long time, the changes were significant, and it brought about change as a consequence.
Many younger West African musicians had themselves had the opportunity of stepping out of their local culture and gaining wider experience as a direct result of the World War. Returning home, they too brought fresh perspective to the local music scene. Thanks to technology, they also had the opportunity to plug their guitars into a mains supply. The effect was not dissimilar to parallel developments thousands of miles away in cities like Chicago, where traditional and rural styles were thrown into the urban soup and powered up by electricity.
Because this advance in technology also brought with it the by- product of greater media dissemination, the post-war years saw, perhaps for the first time in Africa, the rise of the individual star. Whilst Tunde King and Irewolde Denge rode on the coat-tails of this advantage, the obvious beneficiary was E.T. Mensah. A remarkable musician bristling with new ideas, Mensah's marrying of Cuban rhythm and American arranging with electricity and a thoroughly modern African viewpoint ensured, for the first time, a widely popular single style of music that commanded great attention and influence. He was, in a way, playing the same role as Muddy Waters in the development of Chicago blues, or Amalia Rodrigues in shaping the future of the Portuguese Fado.
Mensah's success popularised Highlife during the '50s and '60s, a music that' whilst already successful in it's own right as an urban style suddenly became a motif of post-war African society.
Highlife's success was not all- pervadeing. The Juju tradition continued to devel
op and found a new mentor in I.K. Diaro; Dairo performed a similar function to Mensah in bringing his chosen musical style into a contemporary framework and reshaping it for a future generation. In the meantime a smaller percentage of older
West African genres continued to be popular; Syncretic music had reached a point of maturity where several types could co-exist and develop at their own pace. During this post war period, the EMI companies faced a fresh challenge; Decca Records decided to try it's hand at success in Africa. Decca had been launched in 1929, as a subsidiary of a successful gramophone manufacturing organisation. Throughout the '30s they gave EMI a good deal of stiff* competition, principally in Britain and the European Continent. During the Second World War they had, as a result of government sponsored research, developed for the R.A.F. the remarkable "Full Frequency Range Recording" system (FFRR), a major technical development that greatly increased the sonic range of recording and playback.
When the war ended and the 'secret' development could be used for commercial purposes, it gave Decca a technical edge over most other companies at a time when the 78 rpm disc was starting to lose ground to vinyl. Thus, Decca felt bold enough to stretch their field of operations and launched a series of African recordings that were almost immediately successful.
The third period in a now cyclic scenario of feast and famine for African recording was marked not only by ever developing musical ideas and changing tastes, but also by a struggle between to major companies that was more intense and competitive than either of the previous periods. Decca were strong enough to withstand both tough competition and take-over bids. In the end, it was not commercial manoeovring or war that overtook the situation, but political and social change. As the map of Africa altered colour in the second half of the 20th century, and colonies became independent states, so a gradual widening of opportunity grew within Africa itself.
No longer tied to the economies of Colonial parenting, Nigeria and Ghana, despite turbulent political situations, increasingly found wider and subsequently more flexible markets for their music. From a time when 'vernacular records' were produced in England and France specifically for consumption in Africa, with the control inherent in that situation, the music itself now spread out across the world inviting fresh audiences to enjoy something that had been nurtured by an odd mixture of tradition, diverse cultural input, interest both altruistic and self-seeking, and the ramifications of technological media development. The parenting of modern West African music was all those things, but by the mid '60s the child was mature enough to start creating its own destiny.
With thanks for information and help to; Bruce Bastin, British Library, John H Cowley, Ruth Edge, National Sound Archive and E.V. Samuels Pictures; EMI, Interstate Music,
Published sources consulted: Popular Musics of the Non Western World (P Manual); Grove Dictionary of Music & Musicians;
(1) Popular Musics of the Non Western World (P Manual) (2) Notes to Juju Roots (Rounder 5017) by Chris Waterman.
This article was originally published in the magazine FolkROOTS.
Copyright belongs to the author.
Electronic edition by Lars Fredriksson, April 17, 1997