by Bram Posthumus
One of the worst things that has happened to Africa, musically speaking, is We Are The World. Saccharine lyrics, simple melody and yes, of course, that earworm refrain. It sticks in memory but rather like any ditty written for soap advertisements.
We Are The World. Africa has several inexplicable love affairs with similar sentimental sludge. There was a time, mercifully mostly behind us, that you could not turn on a radio station without being subjected to Céline Dion. But We Are The World has staying power and some thirty years after it escaped from the studios, there is still no escaping it. Especially around Christmas.
In the mid-1990s, when it seemed as if West Africa was filled with armies of child soldiers (an Occidental obsession), the Cameroon producer Wally Badarou recorded So Why. Like its predecessor, it was born out of good intentions. The execution was equally competent, production flawless. Simple sweet melody, some percussion, keyboards, a little saxophone, it susurrated on for a good eight minutes, this time to the accompaniment of shooting noises because War Is Bad, you know.
Still, So Why featured some interesting voices. Jabu Khanyile, the late singer of South African supergroup Bayete was on the song, as was Papa Wemba. Another late great, the Angolan singer Lourdes Van Dunem was part of the project, as was Lagbaja, the Nigerian protest singer. And Youssou Ndour.
Youssou has earned his place in music history. He is fêted outside his country and yes, also well-liked in his own native Senegal. But at home he is not beyond criticism. Artistically, he has not produced anything major for a decade or so and his shows feature old successes. All well played of course. But truth be told, Senegal is home to a raft of more interesting musicians: Omar Pene, Walflash, Pape&Cheikh…
Youssou is also a successful media magnate, founder of Groupe Futur Médias (GFM); he is a major shareholder and heads the administrative board. GFM runs a television channel, a raft of local radio stations and the country’s bestselling newspaper (circulation a staggering 100,000). He also has gone into politics. In January 2012, he announced, on his own TV of course, that he would join the race to become president of Senegal. That never happened but after that initial disappointment he adroitly aligned himself with the eventual winner, president Macky Sall.
He was rewarded with a ministerial post. First it was Culture but there was a problem there: you should not let the biggest media tycoon in the country be in administrative charge of…the media. The next post was Tourism, which was a full-blown failure. On his watch, Senegal introduced obligatory visa for its visitors. He still is a presidential counselor and he has his designs on another top post: mayor of the capital, Dakar.
Now, history does not recount how the following idea came into the world but earlier this year Youssou Ndour (Senegalese, Muslim) found himself in the studio with the eye-catching Idylle Mamba (Central African Republic, Roman Catholic). The objective was to record a song about the war that had exploded in Idylle’s republic, known under the abbreviation CAR. The world had been told (and continues to be told) that what was going on in the CAR was a fight between Christians and Muslims and since the world only wants to be told super simple stories, that became the story about the CAR. Back to the song.
The title is One Africa.
It starts with one of those instantly irritating deliberately unstable r&b trembly voices, to which the natural response is: learn to sing fer chrissakes. Followed by saccharine melody, musical arrangement for which the word “twee” was invented bit of percussion, a little saxophone. You are detecting a pattern? Wonderful, we are together. As One. The World even. Now, the message is of course that Christendom and Islam, monotheistic religions that were exported to Africa from Europe and he Middle East respectively, should be able to live together and, truth be told, in most parts of Africa, they do.
‘Senegal, Centrafrique, let’s pray together for One Africa,’ the song goes. Hate is bad and long live tolerance. All noble sentiments but goodness gracious Youssou, does it really need to sound like something that was mashed up and thrown out there on a Wednesday afternoon? Because, unfortunately, that’s how it sounds. It was, of course, immediately presented at the Couleurs Tropicales on Radio France Internationale and thus the love-in was perfect. All for the CAR. All for Africa. All for Youssou. Maybe he should go into politics full time.