Shiny dance machine

It was the 1980s. We all had glossy hair, wore shoulder pads, and made music with the same three models of FM synthesiser. Style was substance and everything was shiny. African musicians were beginning to make an impact on global record sales, and France was starting to be known as the place they went to record their crossover releases. There’s a certain kind of over-produced, synth heavy ‘world music’ which (justly or unjustly) I tend to associate with France in the 80s and 90s—an endless succession of relatively anodyne albums from artists originating not just in sub-Saharan Africa and the Maghreb, but also Western Asia, the Far East, and anywhere else that could supply the right degree of exoticism. These recordings would usually feature some players that the artist brought with them, along with some French session musicians, supplying slick horn riffs, lyrical fretless bass and ethereal synth pads, and they reduced the music of the world to a marketable genre. A whole musical culture would be cut down to linguistic and melodic spice in a smooth, digestible dish that European audiences knew how to eat.

These prejudices of mine aren’t backed up by any kind of rigorous research, or even really of any detailed knowledge of how the World Music market worked in those days—they’re just an impression, but I think they paint a recognisable picture of the era. One record that managed to more successfully bridge the culture gap was Mory Kanté’s Akwaba Beach. This album (which was recorded in France) presents a successful fusion of West African and Euro-American pop music, deploying the high production standards of a well-equipped European recording studio to present authentically African grooves with a layer of unmistakeable 80s gloss. It was an extraordinary success, its lead single ‘Yé ké yé ké’ topping the charts in several European countries, and selling over a million copies, a first for an African record. It even troubled the charts in the UK and USA, which have traditionally been less hospitable to music from outside their own stylistic and linguistic orbit.

Listening to it now is an irresistibly nostalgic exercise for me. Nobody produces records in this way any more. You can listen to some hard rock or acoustic guitar records from the 1970s without detecting any appreciable differences from the way they’d be produced today, but in the 1980s commercial music was in love with synthesis—sounds which would later come to be regarded as unsuccessful attempts to imitate acoustic instruments were valued precisely because of their unmistakeable artificiality. Akwaba Beach has some wonderful kit drumming on it, but there’s electronic percussion on almost every track as well. Willy N’for’s pulsating bass and Kanté’s scintillating kora sit among fizzing synth pads and electronic horn arrangements. Everything is big, chunky 80s dance music, with huge gated snares, thunderous bottom end and glassy treble—and over it all, Kanté’s golden tenor vocals soar like a call to prayer.

Without knowing what the lyrical content is, I’d say that Kanté’s approach was rather less activist than some of his West African contemporaries, and this record is certainly less concerned with presenting an authentically African sound to the world than it is with absolutely fucking killing it on the dancefloor. Unless the 80s stylings of the production are a fundamental turn-off, no listener is likely to resist this album’s drive and funk. The rhythm section riffs dig so deep that you’d expect them to come out the other side of the world, and the bass is always in lockstep with the top line of kora or vocals, tying the whole thing together into an irresistible dance machine. Given that it was competing with the birth of the literal dance machine, Akwaba Beach offers an insight into the impact electronic and digital technologies might have had on the dancefloor if the centres of that transformation had been Conakry and Bamako rather than Detroit and Chicago. Opportunities for dancing have been thin during the Covid-19 emergency, but for the past few months this record has been the principal floor-filler in my kitchen.

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