A soundtrack to a West African surf odyssey

I’m lying under a broken fan in a cheap motel in Benin’s capital Port Novo, banished to the corner of the bed by my brother’s marauding limbs. Last night begins to reluctantly arrange itself in my mind: offensively loud Afro-pop forced through pleading speakers, Guinness foreign extra, and another, and another. That now-ubiquitous reggaeton drum pattern starts up once again in my head, inescapable as if being played through the thin peeling walls. This was not the music scene I had convinced myself was waiting for me when I set off from rainy Wiltshire overland to Cape Town with my brother.

We had seen fleeting moments of it. A dusty room full of overpriced records in Casablanca, a sweaty night of frantic dancing in a jazz club in Senegal, an atmosphere of infectious positivity on the banks of a river at Abidjan reggae festival, but glimpses are all they remained. It seemed that globalisation had done its work, spreading its mass consumable music and increasing sense of monoculture to anywhere and everywhere. The Deliveroo bag on the back seat of the car once destined to be filled with records now sat laughing at me, filled instead with fresh fruit and tomorrow’s lunch.

Seeking to halt the alarmingly fast emergence of my tropical hangover I left the motel in search of my good friend cold mango juice. What I found, however, was enough to tame even the most aggressive hangover. Seeing the Afrodisia and EMI logo’s painted in bright colours on the side of a house I put the quest for hydration on hold and popped my head in out of curiosity, only to discover a living room lined almost entirely with records.

A Monday Morning Mixtape consisting solely of records Stuart picked up on the trip. 

After a typically warm welcome, the mother of the household informed me that the entire collection was her son’s and that everything was for sale. Original pressings of Fela Kuti, William Onyeabor and Franco & OK Jazz caught my eye immediately among the dusty shelves. This brief flick through was enough to realise that this was the real deal and would require an urgent bank-of-girlfriend loan and a change of the day’s plans. Hours would then slip by as my brother and I made our way through decades of Nigerian Highlife, Ghanaian Hiplife, Afrobeat, Ivorian reggae and sounds from all over West Africa. At one point I found my criteria for selection was whether the kids of the house would get up and dance when a track was played; the discernible ears of youth.

When we were finally satisfied with our selections, and with the potent smell of cassava threatening to put me horizontal a gentleman called Florent Mazzoleni walked through the door with his young son. Florent turned out to be the author of African Records an encyclopaedic guide to West African records and a book that I had coincidently read the week before. Hearing he had been buying records here for 15 years I asked him how large his collection is. “One of the biggest”, he replied simply, while rapidly flicking through a stack of 45s. Florent complimented us on our choices and then enthusiastically set about the store insisting there were are a few records I couldn’t leave without, including a copy of Honore Avolonto and the Orchestra Black Santiago and a 7″ by Stanislas Tohon titled Africa. I left the store a happy man, albeit financially impaired. I would later realize that that day was Record Store Day, celebrated in its true spirit, in a room full of dusty records thousands of miles from home, with a turntable and dancing children for company.

This chance episode marked the beginning of a much richer and musically diverse chapter of the trip. While the west-facing coastline had supplied us with an abundance of surf, it was the south facing coast that would prove most rewarding in terms of musical discovery and live performance.

A week of painful and extremely expensive bureaucracy would then pass before we were allowed entry to Nigeria. After successfully navigating the 10km gauntlet of corruption that faces any overland visitor we finally arrived in Africa’s largest and most notorious city, Lagos, on the night of a Femi Kuti concert.

It is a testament to how unique the new Afrika Shrine is as a space that the frustration built up over the three-hour battle through gridlock traffic was immediately forgotten upon entry, replaced with boyish wonder and a sense of utter awe. Street food stalls, bars, pool tables and emotive signage lined the sides of the giant shed, flanking a sea of tables and chairs where hundreds of people sit sipping palm wine and smoking, filling the air with a thick cloud of marijuana. Femi Kuti is on stage along with his fifteen strong band ‘Positive Force’ orchestrating a wall of brass that has me pinned to my seat, delivering overwhelming and instinctive joy. For four hours they play the high energy, politically charged Afrobeat that Fela gave birth to fifty years ago. Tuning into the lyrics one was treated to an education in Nigerian politics. The whole show a raised fist against a succession of governments riddled with corruption and greed. “Let the man sleep” Femi shouts as a gentleman is removed from the crowd by security for falling asleep. “What if he has been working hard all day and has no place to sleep tonight? This is a place for the people, the president has been sleeping for three years!!!”. The night culminates in Femi’s explosive sax solo, sweat having now entirely consumed him, while two dancers surround him in a frenzy of movement, with their behinds defying what I thought previously possible.

My diary entry that night articulates the impact the show had on me far more succinctly than I could now.

“The music was as profound as the country’s suffering is deep, and hearing it performed in its rightful place among Nigeria’s disenfranchised people gave it an authenticity that was shockingly powerful. Fela’s anger was present in his son and in his people, boiling over in a moment of musical protest, harrowing and inspirational. Never before have I witnessed music so relevant to its audience, drawing on emotions only those fundamentally oppressed have access to. This was protest music in the heart of corrupt Africa.”

The following night we returned to Lagos Island for an intimate night of live music among the books and records of the Jazz Hole, the city’s finest record store. Kunle, the owner and a jazz head in the truest sense of the term, provided the soundtrack after the show had finished, mostly obscure and beautiful Nigerian jazz, Peter King’s illusive album ‘Man Of Distinction’ standing out in vividly in my mind. Interesting and musically significant places such as the Jazz Hole have a habit of attracting interesting and musically significant people. Over the course of the night we were introduced to numerous musicians, a documentary maker who had just finished a feature length film on the resurgence of Nigerian JuJu music. We also met Duro, who played keyboard for Fela Kuti for much of his career and suggested we meet for a drink after hearing we’d be back at the shrine the following night.

Fast foreword twenty-four hours, including five fine hours at Lagos Jazz festival, and we were back at the shrine sat watching Sean Kuti perform, while Duro entertained us with stories of his time living and performing with Fela. At one point Duro put down his drink and left the table unannounced. I thought nothing of it, presuming he’d gone to the toilet, only to see him moments later on stage mid piano solo. He returned to his seat after his solo was finished and carried on with conversation as if nothing had happened. An extraordinary man. In the rather hazy taxi ride home we were treated to more stories about life with his enigmatic friend, including the time they ended up in jail in Milan because customs found 14kg of weed in the band’s luggage, and the moment Fela’s compound was raided by the military leaving Fela’s mother dead. Before we parted he gave us a CD titled Fela Highlife, containing some of his own covers of Fela’s earlier work before Afrobeat was born.

While performances like those we witnessed at the New Afrika Shrine exhibit the very pinnacle of African showmanship, it’s the unavoidable sounds on the streets that give the continent its deep and enduring musicality. Whether it’s a group of men meeting on a corner to drum together as the sun sets over their remote island, or the sounds of a church congregation ringing out over an entire village on a Sunday morning, its constant presence is uniquely African.

The spirit of this was, for me, captured most clearly at Guinea Bissau’s Madi Gras carnival. In a stroke of luck our brief time in one of Africa’s westernmost counties coincided with their famous carnival, an artistic and musical celebration of its many regions and home to some of the finest drumming we encountered all trip. After the official parade full of masks and naked skin finished, the streets flooded with people and soon a citywide street party was in full swing. Unsure where its heart was we hopped on the back of a truck full of drummers, got handed a djembe and were encouraged to join in. We made our way through the busy streets, hundreds of people trailing us, struggling to keep up and attempting to jump on. Later that night, tired after hours of festivities and wanting to return to our hostel, we hopped on another truck going the opposite direction. Unaware they had gained two stowaways the truck continued to make its way through the dense crowd, beeping incessantly as any proper driver in Africa does. Suddenly worried by a nearby siren we popped our heads up to realise we had unwittingly jumped in the back of an unmarked police truck now heading with purpose towards an incident. We waited for it to slow down and hurled ourselves off the back, burrowing ourselves into the crowd.

Sitting in the fading evening light on the banks of the river Congo playing perhaps our hundredth game of chess, the majority of our adventure behind us, I couldn’t help but recall words written by Paul Theroux in Graham Greene’s immortal ‘Journey Without Maps’. Theroux writes that ‘Difficult journeys, such as overland trips through Africa, tell us many things about ourselves; the limits of our strength, our wits, our spirit, our resourcefulness, even the limits of our love’. What Theroux doesn’t write is that the same difficult journeys teach us many things about others, the places they call home, and the music they hold dear.

Each of the many countries we explored retained an identifiable character, shaped by its history, culture, and language. A deep vein of musicality, however, runs through all its people, blind to national borders and unrelenting in its urge to make people dance.

Photos by Stuart and Callum Swift.


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