After the scramble

It's time to return Africa's vinyl records.

Vale in Mabu Vinyl. Image credit Mallix via Flickr (CC).

In August of 2018, the Ethiopian government “requested” Britain’s National Army Museum to return two locks of hair of the late Emperor Tewodros II, killed during Britain’s oft-forgotten invasion of Abyssinia in 1868. It was the latest movement in a snowballing repatriation of looted treasures and historic symbols during Europe’s four centuries of sordid theft. In one case, France patted itself on the back for concluding, after a comically unnecessary but inevitably rigorous study on what its many museums of contraband should immediately return to its “former” African colonies. Netherlands, Germany, and Belgium have promised the same.

Of course, these gestures—a tiny fraction of the grand total amassed from gratuitous plunder, not dissimilar to the ratio between western aid to African countries and taxable income siphoned offshore—are designed to placate an increasingly young, diasporan votebank and the new elites they will have to deal with in these African countries. But let’s not get carried away. Were a coalition of African countries able to exert the kind of pressure China usually puts on, they could sway a European country to rapidly surrender 800 prized artifacts. But until then, this incredibly rare concession and de-facto admission of guilt from normally unyielding erstwhile masters must suffice. Between 90 to 95 percent of Africa’s cultural wealth no longer resides on the continent.

Yet, while calls are made to return the bronze statues of Benin, the masks of Cabinda, a range of artwork, and even the remains of rulers, one of the most powerful artifacts from the African continent, which circulates through online auctions and lines the shelves of private collectors in rich countries, has not figured in demands: physical recordings of African music from independence onwards, large catalogs of which are no longer on the continent. This could be an opportune moment for a global movement of Africans and their allies to carefully amass, organize, and begin the process of repatriating the immortalized soundtracks to one of Africa’s proudest eras back to their respective countries. Quite simply, we have to give Africa its music back.

From the 1960’s to the mid-1980’s, western cultural centers like New York, Chicago, Liverpool, and London were no match for the innovation and creativity in Africa’s newly independent capitals. Dakar, Khartoum, Kinshasa, Luanda, Mogadishu—you could literally name them all—were at the forefront of sound, far from the margins of the world, rather at the very center of the very best that humanity has ever produced.

Western bands, largely blessed with unrivaled marketing and export power, won over ears and hearts worldwide. Had African bands had similar reach and clout, at worst they would have gone toe to toe with Europe and North America’s most revered. At best, you may have never heard of your favorites. I would argue without respite that what was happening in the buzzing cultural citadels of Africa—the railway station hotel of Bamako with Rail Band, Mogadishu’s Jazira Hotel with Iftiin Band, Dakar’s Le Miami nightclub with Star Band, the recording studios of Cotonou with Orchestre Poly-Rhythmo, the musseques of Luanda with Jovens do Prenda—was simply a notch above.

In contrast, “The Beatles,” Quincy Jones said confidently and bluntly in an interview with Vulture, “… were the worst musicians in the world. They were no-playing motherfuckers. Paul [McCartney] was the worst bass player I ever heard.”

Jones may not have even had an opinion on the Liverpool group if recordings of  Zani Diabate, Zoundegnon Bernard, Axmed Naaji, or Paulino Vieira were more accessible at the time. Africa’s post-independence music housed the story of the world; the centrality of the continent to the cultural exchanges of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, the blending of sounds from far and wide a testament to an innate cosmopolitanism and openness.

Music of this immediate independence era was the maximum expression of a new found genuine autonomy. A world class showcase of the continent’s capabilities when given just two decades of breathing space by western political and financial power. Whatever their leanings or however neurotic, or at times brutal, Africa’s first generation independence leaders shared the same affinity for and utility of authentic cultural ideas, long repressed, to decolonize spiritually and reaffirm a much needed sense of self confidence.

In Senegal, Leopold Senghor spent nearly a quarter of the national budget on the arts, proclaiming Dakar as the capital of Black civilization and hosting the Festival of the Black Arts in 1966. In Somalia, Siad Barre’s belief of music as a public good funneled state funding towards the national theater, whose soundtracks comprise Somalia’s finest musical hour. In Sudan, Gaafar Nimeiry, emulating Gamal Abdel Nasser, befriended the artistic elite, guaranteeing them all the support they asked. In both Congos, titans like Franco inspired instrumentalists and vocalists across the continent. In Angola, as independence shuttled into civil war, the bands of 1970s Luanda remain some of the strongest guardians of the country’s recent history.

The culmination of this political will and youthful endeavor was a massive network of exchange between African countries, their musicians, their cultures, all as a necessary tonic for stolen histories and even more necessary unifying force. The likes of Sudan’s Mohammed Wardi performed in Yaounde, Cameroon to a sold out 60,000-capacity stadium unable to understand his Arabic lyrics but infatuated with Sudanese music nevertheless. Somali bands and dancers were heralded as the leading acts in Nigeria’s 1977 FESTAC event. The smoothest musicians from then Zaire recorded and mingled regularly in Nairobi. I’m reminded of Orchestre Veve’s saxophone-driven Congolese classic “Nitarudia” where the lead singer proclaims to his lover, “Don’t worry baby, I will come to Nairobi to see you,” and just the extent a simple lyric reveals about this era.

Mogadishu was the cultural epicenter of not just East Africa, but the Indian Ocean, its musicians seamlessly blending the melodies of Persia, India, and East Asia into their rich repertoire. Many who were fortunate to experience Mogadishu’s nightlife before the war speak only of the ubiquity and caliber of Somalia’s relentless bands. Let’s also not forget the powerful Authenticité movements of Guinea and Chad.

The true depth of recorded music from this burst of creative freedom and celebration of economic and political autonomy is untold. But most of it, the very best of it, has been pressed on vinyl records, recorded on cassettes, finely interlaced on master tapes. Collectively, these recordings form the single most important historical document of a continent on the right course.

By the 1980s, western financial power had laid waste to almost all gains. Currencies were destroyed, borrowing increased, economics were carved open, tariff protections gutted. Music was not spared. Countries collapsed, economies paralyzed, and the cultural arms of neoliberal capitalism sequestered one of the finest eras of human cultural history.

Not too long after, and perhaps as a consequence of the nadir of the ‘80s, Africa’s recordings were forcefully inducted into the global marketplace, with arbitrary values based on contrived rarity turning a perishable medium of history into luxury items for affluent markets. The most coveted sounds from harder to access countries regularly sell for four figures on eBay or record collecting site Discogs. An original LP of Hailu Mergia’s Ethiopian classic, “Tche Belew,” sold for over $4,000. Auctions occur with numbing regularity. Nigerian boogie and funk LPs, many recorded as the Biafra War raged, require very deep pockets. The 7-inch singles from 1960s and ‘70s Sudan and Ethiopia often sell for not dissimilar sums a piece. The constant inflation of value of Sudanese singles inevitably drove up the prices in Sudan itself, outpricing local incomes. With the exception of a small handful of labels that recycle lucrative record sales into payments to artists, almost none of this money is remitted to musicians or their families.

The head of Radio Metropole, a historic institution in Haiti with a well maintained archive of the country’s lavish musical output, told me one of the biggest collections he’s seen is in a Caribbean-themed Tokyo bar.

My shelves alone are filled with hundreds of East African cassettes, Haitian records, some of the most treasured cuts of traditional Malian music, masterpiece LPs from Brazzaville in mint condition, amongst much, much more. This call to action is born out of an intensive self-critique, immediately inspired by a cassette shop owner in Djibouti, who, upon handing the receipt, reminded me that I was “taking all this culture out of the country.” Consent and a fair price are no longer an excuse.

Most recently, to locate LPs in reasonable condition to use as master sources for a compilation of Star Band de Dakar’s Afro-Cuban recordings, I had to go through three European dealers. Our contacts in Dakar could not find a single copy.

The right of return, firstly, involves gatekeeping. From the National Library in Singapore, which houses historic recordings from across Southeast Asia, to the Smithsonian, it remains standard operating procedure to furnish sufficient licensing documents to access physical copies for commercial use or otherwise. The gatekeeping of African records should be with institutions and museums on the continent. This small step alone would prevent piracy and wrest back control of auditory heritage.

To chart a course, the recently unveiled Black Civilizations Museum in Dakar is an ideal place to start. If the museum’s operators agreed to house an archive, record dealers, shops, and private collectors could begin repatriating parts of their collection in the best condition. This would of course require empathy and moral graciousness. Any refusals to ship even symbolic amounts would be a scathing indictment of a diminutive but growing worldwide music community. It would reveal a love for African culture conditional on control and concepts of private property.

This proposal may seem quixotic, but it is eminently feasible. We need not empty all the record shops, libraries, and private collectors’ cellars. A modest collection demonstrates a rare appreciation for cultures relegated to the margins of the world and a much-needed global mindset. But the surplus amassed from hoarding should be on the same shipments as the treasures rescued from the crime scenes of European museums.

Somalia and Somaliland, through immense foresight, have already established exclusive guardianship of its music. To access recordings, one must be granted entry by archives in Hargeisa and Mogadishu. The same template must follow for the rest of the continent. For archives starved of investment and in a decrepit state, like those in Ghana or Sudan, the commandeering of a gatekeeping role would be revitalizing. Fees could be charged for foreign access to recordings, for commercial use or otherwise. There is enough demand for the continent’s historic musical output for this to work.

Record labels who no longer need the master copies of the material they have published must to be among the first to begin this process of return. All our efforts should focus on digitization: a win-win solution that allows outside use of recordings and provides a digital archive for the gatekeeping entity.

No longer should music be removed from the country in large amounts. Similar to how Thailand bans all images of Buddha from export, because they believe, according to the signs warning of harsh penalties for illicit export, that these are not meant to be “decorative items.” African recordings, especially given their magnificent artwork, need laws governing their removal. Indeed, large quantities were manufactured in Europe and produced by European labels. Yet we can all agree where true ownership lies even for the riches mined from the silt of Africa’s earth by western and Chinese companies.

But by and large the most pressing reason to return these artifacts of sound rests with images. To control access to someone’s history is to control their image. For the world’s youngest continent—the median age in Niger is 14—to come of age without a sense of the high cultural achievements of its past, to be unable to physically touch said achievements, is to enter the world without confidence, a world where many walls and ceilings are built and strenuously maintained for young black Africans.

“History is not a mere accumulation of facts,” the late scholar Ivan Van Sertima said in a lecture in the 1980s, “it is the creation of a different vision; a different way of seeing, thinking, and feeling. What happened in history—or what we think happened in history—affects the way we think. It affects our prejudices, our reflexes, our conceptions of ourselves, the way people conceive of us, the way we treat ourselves, the way we are treated by others.”

A flooding back of Africa’s cultural wealth from an era that is now three to four generations removed from the current generation would engender confidence and eradicate lingering notions of an empty history. It would remind everyone that we need not hark back to the ancient past or the great stories of medieval Africa to draw a sense of its centrality to world affairs, but only a few decades ago.

Music, particularly physical music, is the most powerful corrective force, a guaranteed remedy for one’s global image. A Somali official told me one of the hardest existential challenges his government faces is the transformation of Somalia’s image in the global imagination. We agreed the music that survived three decades of civil war, sitting today in Radio Mogadishu’s archives, is the ideal place to start.

Consider when Mali descended into violence and extremism, a fallout from NATO’s war on Libya, and grand old cities, centers of learning like Timbuktu had music banned and musicians persecuted. An ancient culture was on the brink of destruction. The healing effect a return of the many copies of Timbuktu’s most famous outfit, Le Mystere Jazz de Tombouctou, floating around auctioning circles, is glaringly evident.

Indeed, recorded music can be reproduced and consequently lose its value, unlike sculptures, jewels, and artwork. But music itself is an intangible patrimony. And many of Africa’s most wonderful yet unsung late talents, like Amara Touré, who personified the deep bond between Cuba and the continent, and Abu Obaida Hassan, whose tambour music is a shining modern relic of the ancient traditions of northern Sudan, recorded very few songs in comparison to the leading legends. However many reproductions come about, the few originals are invaluable.

An argument is made that recordings are better off sitting with private collectors or institutions in the global North, more capable of ensuring their longevity through meticulous care. While this is not untrue, for reasons of infrastructure and available public funds, it is simply not for anyone but the cultural vanguards of African countries’ to decide. “We cannot let those who looted our assets,” Hamady Bocoum, director of the Black Civilizations Museum told OkayAfrica, “then tell us what we should do with them. Restitution needs to happen with the knowledge that the looter has no right to decide what happens with items that were never theirs in the first place.”

We must not, even with the best of intentions at heart, even out of pure love for the power and awesomeness of this special era of music, be complicit in the rampant extraction of cultural wealth, the cornerstone of a people’s self-image, confidence, and, by extension, their chances for future success.

“My aim,” the African-American journalist Howard French wrote in A Continent for the Taking:

…is to help those who yearn to know and understand the continent better, and indeed Africans themselves, of the continent’s cultural strengths; my own discovery of them kept me going through otherwise depressing times, injecting relief in a tableau of terrible bleakness. Therein lies a genuine source of hope for Africa’s nearly [one billion] people and for Africans of the future.

Those cultural strengths are preserved on the recorded mediums of music that from the next decade must make their way back home.

Further Reading