Country Music in Africa

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nigerian-sounds-pop-africana

from Sam Backer’s interview with Uchenna Ikonne about the history of country music in Africa  (www.afropop.org):

Sam Backer: How popular is country music in Nigeria?

Uchenna Ikonne: Country music has been popular across Africa for a very long time. I don’t know when it became popular exactly, but I know that it’s been in circulation for at least the 1920s or 1930s, perhaps.

So, really the same time that it was coming into widespread popularity in the United States.

Exactly. So Jimmie Rodgers, for example. Jimmie Rodgers was probably the main pioneer of country music in general and he was also one of the first country music artists to find some popularity in Africa.

So his records were distributed and sold?

Not only him, but his records were quite popular. They were on 78s.

Somehow, in a lot of ways, Jimmie Rodgers makes some sense. He–I mean, he yodels! Jimmie Rodgers is kind of intense music. The thing that I find remarkable is that there’s a much smoother sound that was also very, very popular.

I would say that the style that probably achieved the most popularity and has remained popular is the Nashville sound. That is the sound that was pioneered by Chet Atkins and other Nashville musicians and producers and that was a lot smoother than the honky tonk style that had come before; it had rich background vocals and strings. I think that is the style that has endured most of all.

So when that style first came out in the ’60s, was there any particular segment of society that listened to it?

I think that everyone listened to it, because it was played on the radio and it was very appealing to the whole population.  The thing about country music though, despite the fact that its lyrical concerns were very similar to what you would find in 99 percent of Western pop music–which is basically the ups and downs of romantic relationships–people tended to ascribe a kind of spiritual quality to the music. I think there are a lot of reasons for that.

First of all, it’s probably the sound of it: country music always had very curious sounds–whether it’s the nasal vocal style or the yodeling, or whether you are talking about those very high pitched and keening instruments, like the pedal steel guitar or the string sections that came in during the Nashville period, a lot of these sounds had an otherworldly quality that I believe that African artists tended to interpret as spiritually reparative. So despite the fact that they were singing “You done left me and now I’m drinking,” people really felt that there was something about that music that was beyond sensual concerns.

A mix by Uchenna Ikonne  features Nigerian artists like musician/actress Christy Essien-Igbokwe and singer Henry Pedro playing in the folk, country, and rock genres that are typically associated with America and the U.K. Featuring tracks that recall Western classics like Simon & Garfunkel‘s “The Boxer” or Elvin Bishop‘s “Fooled Around and Fell in Love,” the compilation is at times melancholic, at others hopeful, but always engaging. Listen to it here.

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