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04/12/2017
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Brilliant, Genre-Blurred African Pop Artists Thrive in Age of Xenophobia

Of course, electronics are as "traditional" for African musicians by now as they are for the rest of the world. Nigeria's William Onyeabor, who died in January, pioneered an Afrobeat offshoot in the Seventies and Eighties driven by synthesizers and drum machines. It had a fantastic revival over the past few years thanks to reissues on the David Byrne-founded Luaka Bop label, which is now working with Janka Nabay, a Muslim expat living in the States and continuing the electro-funk tradition, reimagining the "bubu music" of his native Sierra Leone.

Nabay's career got jumpstarted in the Nineties when, in the midst of a bloody, protracted civil war, he won a Freetown talent contest by electrifying what had been regional Ramadan processional music played on bamboo flutes and percussion. Nabay flipped its rhythms and drones and, in time, began addressing the war in his lyrics. As factions began using his used his music to rally people, he was caught in the middle, and eventually fled to Senegal, where he got a U.S. visa. He ended up in New York City, connected with some young Brooklyn musicians, put out an EP on the indie True Panther label, and began a new stage.

Build Music, his second Luaka Bop set, is a head rush of oddball melodies, guitar loops, and beats that sync up ass-backwards, magically. See the title track, with its mosaic of handclaps, agogo bell, and day-glo synth smears; and "Angbolieh," which weaves sampled bubu flutes into a dreamy, drone-glazed mix. The lyrics mash-up English, Sierra Leone Krio and bits of Arabic – Nabay is trying to connect across multiple platforms in his adopted home. It ain't easy: "Santa Monica" is part memoir about being hassled by cops before performing at the Getty Museum, the words "investigation interrogation" looping vertiginously over chattering guitars and dance-party beats.

Johannesburg's Spoek Mathambo is another beat scientist averse to the obvious: his debut featured a head-turning cover of Joy Division's "She's Lost Control" (with a sly nod to Grace Jones's version), and his second LP, Father Creeper, was issued in the U.S. by the diversifying Seattle indie-rock hosts Sub Pop. Like Prince, to whom Mathambo been compared, this is a creative mind intent on leading, not following. Mzansi Beat Code, his best set yet and one of the year's most thrilling pop rides by any measure, is less an avant-pop LP with club-music fixations than a killer DJ mix with a muscular song sense. In some ways, it's the object-lesson counterpart to Mathambo's Future Sounds of Mzansi, an essential 2015 documentary on South African electronic music which he produced. "Want Ur Love" has Mathambo's band stutter-strutting digital funk under the sister-duo Kajama, who deliver the year's most resonant chant so far: "For fuck's sake, love!" Some grooves lock into established styles like kwaito, South Africa's recalibration of Chicago house ("Black Rose," "The Mountain"), and the starker, darker gqom – check "Sifin'imali Yethu," abetted by moniker-prize-winner DJ Jumping Back Slash and a weirdly menacing reprise of Shaggy's '95 dancehall crossover smash "Boombastic." Other beat equations are playfully tough to pin down: see "Volcan," with Tijuana indie-rock comer Ceci Bastida. Mzansi Beat Code ends with "Pula," which winkingly shuffles a barrage of modern styles with the Eighties "township jive" sound Paul Simon tapped on Graceland – still probably the most high-profile African pop fusion LP in history. But maybe not forever.

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