The African-indie connection

Vampire Weekend at the Egyptian Room

Midway through Vampire Weekend’s recent appearance at the Egyptian Room, the band launched into a lively version of their 2008 single “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa.” From the opening notes of singer Ezra Koenig’s sinuous soukous guitar intro, the near-capacity crowd went wild. As a lifelong fan of African music, it was beautiful to see a room full of mostly white, American college kids dancing ecstatically to the group’s loving recreation of the Congolese kwassa kwassa rhythm.

“Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” is not a mere anomaly in the the band’s catalog. Vampire Weekend have embraced African music textures as an integral core element of their sound and they’re not alone in their adoration for African sounds. In the 1960s, Santana recorded the FM staple “Jingo,” a composition by famed Nigerian percussionist Babtunde Olatunji. The ’70s saw legendary Cream drummer Ginger Baker collaborating with afrobeat star Fela Kuti, and in the ’80s Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon brought African sounds to the Top 40 pop charts. Heck, rock and roll itself was born from the wellspring of African rhythms forcibly imported into the Americas during the slave trade.

But the current African-indie trend marks what is perhaps the most significant and prolonged interaction between Western rock culture and the music of the motherland. In the spirit of this blossoming connection, I compiled the following list documenting 10 significant moments in the musical dialogue between indie rock and Africa.

Ten defining moments of the African-indie rock connection:

1. Vampire Weekend: Name dropping artists like King Sunny Ade, Orchestra Baobab and referencing music traditions from Madagascar to the Congo, Vampire Weekend have elevated indie rock’s African influence to its highest yet. It will be interesting to see if the band continues to incorporate African rhythms and sounds on their soon-to-be released third LP.

2. Santigold with Amadou et Mariam, “Dougou Badia”: A riotous anthem featuring hipster queen Santigold performing with legendary Malian duo Amadou et Mariam. As an added endorsement, the singer’s new LP Master of My Make-Believe makes frequent use of African music textures within the new wave-styled beats.

3. TV on the Radio with Tinariwen, “Tenere Taqqim Tossam”: In their 10 year career, TV on the Radio have achieved iconic status within the indie rock scene. The band’s 2011 collaboration with Malian “desert rock” group Tinariwen spotlights the natural connection between the two seemingly disparate traditions.

4. BLK JKS: South Africa’s BLK JKS are one of the first and perhaps most important African rock bands to have their music released in the U.S., as iconic (and local!) label Secretly Canadian has issued a handful of releases from the acclaimed band.

5. tUnE-yArDs, Whokill: Merrill Garbus’s subtle incorporation of African music traditions has pushed the African sound deep into indie culture — tUnE-yArDs 2011 cult hit LP Whokill references everything from afrobeat to pygmy singing. Garbus recently recorded a cover of Fela Kuti’s “Lady” with Beninoise singer Angélique Kidjo, further solidifying the African-indie connection.

6. Damon Albarn, Rocket Juice & The Moon: Former Blur frontman Damon Albarn has been involved in several African music projects since releasing the album Mali Music in 2002. His current band Rocket Juice & The Moon might be his most Africa-heavy endeavor yet, featuring legendary Fela Kuti drummer Tony Allen and guest spots from artists like Cheick Tidiane Seck and Fatoumata Diawara.

7. The Very Best: A collaboration between Malawian singer Esau Mwamwaya and London-based production duo Radioclit, The Very Best have crafted an extensive catalog of afropop-influenced dance floor grooves, while working with a long list of artists from M.I.A. to Vampire Weekend.

8. Extra Golden: Ian Eagleson traveled to Nairobi in 2004 to study Kenyan benga music for his doctorate thesis. His interactions with local musicians led to the formation of Extra Golden. The band released their debut LP Ok-Oyot System in 2006.

9. Sub Pop Records: Sub Pop is synonymous with the early ’90s Seattle grunge scene, so their recent foray into African sounds might be the best example of the importance of this trend. The label has issued a variety of African sounds from the avant-electro dance noise of South Africa’s Spoek Mathambo, to the traditional Malian folk sounds of Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba.

10. Malcolm McLaren, “Double Dutch”: It would be wrong to label notorious Sex Pistol’s manager Malcolm McLaren as the father of the African-indie trend, but his 1983 hit “Double Dutch” provided an early and influential example for future experiments. “Double Dutch” fuses hip-hop rhythms with an addictive guitar sample from “Puleng,” a classic mbaqnaga music track by South African stars The Boyoyo Boys.

Each edition of A Cultural Manifesto features a mix from Kyle Long, spotlighting music from around the globe. This week's edition explores the African-indie connection.

1. Vampire Weekend - Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa [afrobeat remix] (XL Recordings, 2008)

2. The Very Best featuring Amadou & Mariam & Baaba Maal - Bantu (Moshi Moshi, 2012)

3. Amadou et Mariam featuring Santigold - Dougou Badia (Nonesuch, 2012)

4. Tinariwen featuring TV on the Radio - Tenere Taqqim Tossam (Epitaph, 2012)

5. Rocket Juice & The Moon featuring Fatoumata Diawara - Lolo (Honest Jon's, 2012)

6. tUnE-yArDs, Angélique Kidjo & ?uestlove - Lady (Knitting Factory, 2012)

7. BLK JKS - Molalatladi (Secretly Canadian, 2009)

8. Malcolm McLaren - Double Dutch (Island Records, 1983)

Community journalism can only survive with community support.

If local, independent journalism matters to you, please consider supporting NUVO with a paid membership. In 2019, 100 percent of membership dollars go towards our editorial budget/paying writers.


Kyle Long pens A Cultural Manifesto for NUVO Newsweekly and in 2014 began broadcasting a version of his column on WFYI.