It’s Carnival time again! Besides being one of my favorite annual excuses to party (although I usually partake in August, as I’m usually stuck in the northern cold at this time of year), it always gives me an excuse to catch up on the musical output of many of my favorite scenes from around the Atlantic world. Yesterday, when listening to a new soca mix from Hamburg-based DJ duo So Shifty, I couldn’t help but get (over)excited about some of the connections I heard being made between Africa and the Caribbean. The first song that stood out was “Chuku Chuku” by Denise Belfon:
“Chuku Chuku” caught my ear, because I noticed that it interpolates “Ashawo,” a global smash by Nigeria’s Flavour. The song already had a trans-atlantic dimension as a version of the classic Cuban song “Manisero” or “The Peanut Vendor.” Afropop did a great audio documentary on the legacy of the Cuban original, and its mark on popular music:
However, perhaps unaware of the American origins of the melody, Flavour meant for “Ashawo” or “Nwa Baby” to be an homage to Nigerian Highlife, a style that had lost out to the more hip hop and dancehall inflected musics that became popular across West Africa in recent years. The original highlife version of “Nwa Baby” was Rex Lawson’s “Sawale”:
In the end Dancehall won out, and Flavour’s popular “Ashawo Remix,” versioned from Benin to Ethiopia to Zambia, became the logical candidate for a song to cross back over the ocean to the Caribbean.
That’s all exciting in its own right, but it wasn’t what excited me most about So Shifty’s mix. The song that deserves that distinction is one by Olatunji Yearwood (shout out the Nigerian OG). This is the tune that caused me to proclaim via Twitter the arrival of Azonto Soca:
To me, besides the clear rhythmic similarities of the Stag Riddim to Azonto, Olatunji is clearly channeling the singing styles of Ghanaian and Nigerian pop singers, making the connection explicit.
I’ve been aware for some years that contemporary Afropop styles were becoming popular in Caribbean scenes. Decale Gwada or Madinina Kuduro show how connected the French Caribbean islands are to the Francophone capital. Some of those explorations have crossed over into the smaller neighboring islands, and I’ve even heard Kuduro tunes played at house parties during Brooklyn’s West Indian day parade. But these incarnations for me are outliers, intrepid explorations into the outer realms of the African electronic diaspora by experimenters or progressive-minded DJs. Or they’re just superficial fads. For example, during last year’s Labor Day weekend festivities I had to laugh when the DJ at a Soca fete I was attending threw on Puerto Rican Don Omar’s cover of a Portuguese singer’s misappropriation of an Angolan dance style, and then proceeded to give a massive shout out to Venezuela!
The arrival of the influence of contemporary Afropop on the Soca mainstream didn’t become clear to me until this January while DJing a party in Brooklyn. Dlife, one of New York’s biggest Soca DJs approached me during my set to talk about the Afrobeats tunes I was playing. He then told me about Machel Montano’s Carnival remix of Timaya’s “Shake Yuh Bum Bum”:
I imagine my Sierra Leonean father and his friends, who used to take me to the Caribana Fesitval in Toronto as a child, would be quite tickled if they attended the celebration this year. In order to understand this you have to know that for decades Africans have been consuming Caribbean music, merging different musical cultures and histories into new forms. In Sierra Leone especially, calypso-influenced styles such as palmwine are part of our national heritage. Because of this, and because of my experiences going to Carnival-like celebrations in North America, I’ve always felt that Anglophone Caribbean culture from places like Jamaican and Trinidad was part of my own cultural heritage. For me it is a great source of pride to see some explicitly African contributions coming to the fore in dancehall and soca circles. Every year in Brooklyn, amongst the roll call of Caribbean nation flags waving on Eastern Parkway, once in a while you might see a Ghanaian or Nigerian one pop up. This year those flags might just wave a little higher!
After a couple of initial tweets, the great Wayne and Wax chimed in, and asked my why I heard the songs as Azonto. We had a quick exchange where we discussed the rhythmic breakdown that identify it as Azonto or not. Siddhartha called us nerds. Alexis Stephens chimed in with Busy Signal’s version of U Go Kill Me, and pointed out the connections that DJs in London like Hipsters Don’t Dance are making in their work. So Shifty responded with Yung Image’s cover of P Square on the Alingo Riddim, and Iswayski submitted a mix by Brooklyn-based
Guyanese Grenadian DJ Speedydon. Erin MacLeod loved it, and an overall grand time was had by everyone.
Later in the night, as almost if to settle the issue @RishiBonneville submitted this video from St. Vincent:
Tempering my excitement for a resurgence of some kind of 21st Century Pan-Africanism, what we’re observing is more a story of the ascendance of a unitary global pop. This global pop rides the waves of neoliberalism, and aspirational belonging to an individualized consumer-driven global economy. However, it also accompanies an increase in South South connections, albeit mediated often via immigrant populations in Northern capitals – but also new economic relationships and the Internet. It’s doing crazy things to culture, and such musical connections in this day and age are just more proof that we’re living in a hyper-connected world. The differences between Rio, Port of Spain, Accra, London, and New York are melting away to reveal one giant mega city – inside of which the divisions between classes may tell us more about international society than national borders.
However, let’s not dwell on the dark side of globalization too much, after all this is Carnival! The only time in many former-slave/colonial societies that racial, class, and cultural barriers are temporarily lifted in the service of universal revelry. So go ahead, dive into Azonto Soca, and imagine the possibilities of our new world!
* Top image by Blaine Harrington.