Scramble for Africa 3.0

Indie bands lead the charge in sonic imperialism

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Africa is not a monolith. Africa is not even Africa: the outsider bastardization kicked off in earnest when the Roman misnomer of a finite North African region was allowed to stand for the entire continent. However, for the West's millennial hipsters currently emuutf8g such early adopters of 30 years ago — the oft-cited David Byrne and Brian Eno/Talking Heads, Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel, and the Police — the space formerly known as the Dark Continent has come to resemble the Golden Corral.

Vampire Weekend and other indie participants in the sonic Scramble for Africa 3.0 obviously see midcentury and postcolonial African pop culture as a cheap date, a provider of organic rock mystery where one can queue for heaping sides of hi-life, soukous, mbaqanga, mbalax, juju, rai, township jive, and Ténéré desert blues. La Présence Africaine is renewing rock 'n' roll — again. Striving ahead of the pale pack of black Yankee rockers is retired Nuer boy soldier Emmanuel Jal, justly a current press darling for his fine new second release, Warchild (Sonic 360).

Yet the acclaim for Jal has not outstripped the simultaneous giddiness and hand-wringing of a music press delighted by indie's abrupt romance with African styles — hot on the heels of a new generation's overlapping yen for English folk and Balkan gypsy sounds — but vaguely concerned about white exploitation of same, wagging fingers concerning musical "miscegenation." Race mixing yielded my family, cultural exchange has been the way of the world since antiquity, and as a critic whose mission involves exposing audiences to new sounds, I would never deny peoples' enjoyment of genres seemingly beyond their ken. However, as Jal bitingly reminds us on Warchild's unabashed "Vagina," the rape of Africa — that blood-soaked project most essential to modernity — has gone down long enough.

Vampire Weekend, "A-Punk"

The problem with indie's Karen Blixen close-up is that the transference of African mystery is going one-way — as usual. Vampire Weekend (XL) has sold 27,000 and counting and debuted on Billboard at no. 17, whereas, according to writer Robert Christgau in the New York Times, Sterns' recent anthology encompassing the career of Congolese soukous master Tabu Ley Rochereau, The Voice of Lightness, has sold barely 9,000 copies.

Meanwhile, indie's gone natives — including Mahjongg, the Dirty Projectors, Rafter, Yeasayer, and, from across the pond, Foals (Oxford), Courteeners (Manchester), and Suburban Kids with Biblical Names (Sweden) — seem to consider themselves smugly above postcolonial guilt (per DP's Dave Longstreth) and the 1980s-vintage political correctness that plagued Simon and his apartheid-chic Graceland (Warner Bros., 1986). Vampire Weekend is good enough indie entertainment when you find Björk's favorite Congolese likembé ensemble Konono No. 1 too repetitive and prefer songs about summertime splendor in the grass. But when Vampire Weekend's unapologetically preppy white/white-ethnic musicians dub their music "Upper West Side Soweto" and seemingly aspire to come on like Brazzaville Beach Boyz — without any consciousness of such late 20th-century African titans or tyrants as Patrice Lumumba and Mobutu Sese Seko, respectively — it rankles this daughter of third world coalition builders raised in the '70s and '80s postcolonial era.

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