Who knew back in January that when Vampire Weekend tinkered with soukous' guitar-driven dance rhythms on its self-titled debut, the band would set the tone for the next 12 months? In many ways, 2008 was the year Afropop fully cracked the American music landscape. This sort of appropriation was anything but novel: Western artists have long been partial to popular music from the motherland, among them David Byrne, Brian Eno, and Paul Simon, who introduced Americans to native South African sounds on Graceland. Only now, artists are taking a different approach to capturing Africa's sonic exuberance and grit. Rather than simply weaving African styles into their music, they're fully refashioning genres with varying levels of attitude and aptitude. For all the success Vampire Weekend attained this year, many other artists weren't content with using the Afropop-cum-Western pop template. Instead, their tactics were wholly African: Turn every sound into a rhythmic element.
Those carrying African pop's torch in 2008 share common threads: they're multicultural (Akoya Afrobeat's members hail from Panama, Ghana, Benin, South Africa, Japan, and the U.S.); they're eager to flash catholic tastes (Antibalas explores Cuban rhythms and dub); and they're savvy about bridging left-of-center and mainstream pop (Occidental Brothers Dance Band Int'l is known for its rumba rendition of New Order's “Bizarre Love Triangle”).
Such illustrations of shared aesthetics and ambitions may compel some to dub this blending of Afropop and Western influences a genuine movement. “Curious listeners are starting to explore the African continent more,” said Nathaniel Braddock, who heads up Chicago's Occidental Brothers, which played this year's Pitchfork Music Festival. “The reissue of Fela Kuti's music in the late '90s opened a lot of ears, and interest in the Ethiopiques series took people further.”
Acts from San Francisco to New York experimented with African styles. Locals Sila and the Afrofunk Experience moved the feet of many a gig-goer with tracks like the perspiration-inducing “Funkiest Man in Africa.” Sonoma County's Firenze Records continued to showcase songwriters like Markus James and his captivating synthesis of Malian roots and Delta blues. Beyond the Bay Area, New York's Akoya Afrobeat and Antibalas emerged as this movement's heavyweights. Hear the former's cooking “Fela Dey” (off this year's P.D.P.), helmed by the call-and-response style of its magnetic vocalist Kaleta, or the unleashed horn-driven dancefloor beats in Antibalas' “Indictment.” Several overseas labels also rode the wave: Germany's Strut Records released Nigeria 70: Lagos Jump, which highlighted artists indebted to styles from Afrobeat to juju; England's Soundway Records issued a series of compilations concentrating on Nigerian funk and disco from the 1970s.
Elsewhere this year, the output was varied. The percussion on North Carolina's Toubab Krewe (from the recently released Live at the Orange Peel) is casually indebted to the talking-drum sound of juju pioneer I.K. Dairo. Meanwhile, fellow North Carolinians the Afromotive, who took the stage at Bonnaroo in June, produced Afrobeat that's short on profundity and largely derivative. And there was the benga tune “Obama” (popular for obvious reasons) from Kenyan-American ensemble Extra Golden, which felt rather clunky and tepid.
Nonetheless, it was refreshing to hear such groups fully embrace the many colorful genres of African pop. Doing so not only brought infectious rhythm, melody, and poetry to modern American music, but also introduced countless new listeners to sounds they were unfamiliar with previously. How this movement evolves remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: It all kicked off in a big way in 2008, the year Africa got America to sway its hips.