Africa, whose art forms have revolutionized the visual arts, music, and dance of 20th-century humanity, is musically an unknown continent. Like the maps of slave traders that showed only the slim lines of the African coast, the knowledge the rest of the world has of its immense legacy is shamefully superficial. Incapable of communicating the subtleties but profiting greedily from the rhythms, pop music has significantly reduced the fabulous conceptual and organological material of a continent whose cultural treasures are hidden behind the veil of material poverty.
I remember the most famous groove of an album from Radio France’s Ocora collection, featuring music of the Ba Ben Zelé pygmies: the simple song of a girl alternating in syncopation with a leaf whistle that she blew with perfect regularity. A surprising moment of genesis, a musical dawn, a meeting of rhythm and breath that becomes a form of dance; a dialogue between the syncopated human voice and the constant pulse of nature made into instrument.
From there we jump to the master drummers of Burundi, where a homogenous army of giant tumblers executes in unison the orders of a conductor who instructs the group with an improvised sequence of mimicry. The monumental sound is like the tap dancing of elephants. From Nigeria we have the most electrifying dance in the world, accompanied by the sublime Batá polyrhythmic orchestra whose sudden shifts in musical meter reveal hidden folds of time, rhythmic equations intelligible to our Caribbean onomatopoeia. Listening to the tubular harp of Madagascar – the valiha – with rattle and song, we feel a similar inexplicable familiarity – it is almost the same as the harps from the Tuy region south of Caracas. The island’s impressive ethnic diversity shows its greatest intensity in the music of the Bara, masters of hyper-speed. And we mustn’t forget the kora – the giant-gourd harp of Senegal; the oud – a fretless bandola (the tenor mandolin of the Colombo-Venezuelan plains) that covers the huge arc extending from Sudan to Morocco; the South African sanza or the talking drum of the griots, fantastic troubadours and cultural messengers; the xylophones of Equatorial Guinea speaking tonal languages; the Mongo vocal polyphonies from the deep jungles of the Congo, as elaborate as Renaissance polyphony.
Paradoxically, this image of musical Africa was crystallized in Europe (Borges said the idea of Europe was created in America) with the 1960s ethnomusicological recordings of Ocora, Folkways, and others that left us samples of the fabulous cultures that industrialized countries were destroying. We could compare this situation with the scene in Fellini’s Roma where the excavators of the metro discover Roman frescoes and invite a television crew to film the event, and before the cameras, the polluted air attacks the paintings, erasing the images forever in a macabre breeze. The microphones of the investigators in Africa captured rituals that would never again be seen, instruments now forgotten. They recorded songs and exclamations of troubadours that have disappeared, of ethnic groups that have been exterminated or crushed by poverty in the dramatic African acculturation. These lost cultures were far more valuable than all the diamonds, uranium, petroleum, wood, and blood. True appraisals always come too late.
Translated from Spanish by Rosemary Holland