Tom Simmert: "Dance Music Across the Atlantic"

Robert Johnson Theory 56


Tom Simmert (Photo by Thomas Pirot)

What I want to share today are some considerations on electronic dance music in Africa, which has been my research topic for seven years now. I will stick to two countries: Nigeria and South Africa. I want to present certain snapshots of how two distinct music scenes have evolved there. I will tell stories that lead up to two of the biggest, most interesting and vibrant music scenes existing globally, from two of the most influential countries on the African continent. And I will raise the question, how much this music is represented on European dancefloors.

So what I want to do is tell the story of how dance music developed in both countries from a somehow similar starting point: Disco music – and how it departed from there into very different directions. Moreover, I will try to sketch why we need to consider the continuous exchange of people and music between continents, but I also want to destroy some of the common misconception in this regard showing that African dance music genres are something that developed in its own right to a large extent, because many people – here and in these African countries – share the sentiment, that these genres are just “local variations” or even inferior copies of “Western” styles.


Tom Simmert (Photo by Thomas Pirot)

Disco came up on the Eastcoast of the US from the turn of the 60s to the 70s. The genre’s history is often streamlined to a focus on the US, but early on, even before the term “disco” had become a genre, music from outside became important – from Puerto Rico, from Trinidad, bringing lots of Caribbean influences; but several proto-disco records come from Manu Dibango, a Cameroonian, also. This becomes less special, if you consider, that Disco itself emerged from Soul, R&B and Funk, which are all genres that were shaped across the Atlantic, between America and Africa. Disco music hit Nigeria hard in the mid 1970s. Musically, the decade was pretty much dominated by Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat music – a genre consisting of eclectic songs, ranging from 10-20 minutes, with highly political lyrics about the countries corrupt military leaders – and religious leaders.

Example (1)

An important style of music, as Nigeria had a troubled path since its independence in 1960: Democracy only held up until 1966 and then 11 years of military regime followed. The 70s brought an economic boom for Nigeria: Due to the Yom-Kippur war and the Iran-Iraq war, the oil prices were exploding and Nigeria, then and now, makes most of its money by exporting oil. In 1977, democratic elections were held and once more, everything seemed to get better. So by the end of the decade a new young urban middle class emerged, profiting from economic and political change. They were exposed to plenty of “Western” popular culture: Radio stations gave airplay to funk and disco music from labels like Salsoul and Solar Records and the latter even had a branch in Lagos. Life seemed pretty good for this young urban middle class; they were the first generation able to afford turntables and music instruments and quite a number of them began to make disco records themselves. Between the end of the 70s and early 80s a vibrant Nigerian “Boogie” scene evolved. The whole era just seemed to be about going to the clubs, dressing up, being in style, spending money and showing off. Musicians offered the soundtrack for this lifestyle: From one-Hit-Wonders like Peter Abdul and singers like Christy Essien, who started a career that would last over decades, to completely exceptional characters like William Onyeabor, who invented his relatively own style of synthesizer funk, who recorded, pressed and distributed eight albums on his own. One of the records that I found in the African Music Archives in Mainz is Sunny Okusun & Ozzidis “Mother & Child” from 1982.

Example (2)

Like lots of Nigerian productions, it’s a straight up no-bullshit disco tune, but you can hear several distinct elements, like the highlife-style guitar, or the dunduns (talking drums) on the b-side. But the golden days of this music did not last very long in Nigeria: A massive drop of the oil price in 1981 started a series of events that resulted in 11 years of recession. Moreover: In 1983 a military coup took place, standing for the begin of a campaign called “War against indiscipline”. This set up the decline of nightlife at large. Uchenna Ikonne, who can’t be credited enough for the research and reissue of plenty of rare Nigerian records from that time, summed it up well: “There was a bit of a belt-tightening after 1983, and a return to more conservative values. The flashiness, the flamboyance, the glitziness — all of those things were just swept under the rug by the mid-’80s. You saw religion becoming more of a force in society, taking the place pop music and film and art had held earlier in the decade.”

For example, William Onyeabor, who I have just spoke about, ended his music career in 1985, and became a born again Christian – he would have rather talked about his faith than his music for the rest of his life and his name was kind of forgotton until a re-release on Luaka Bob in 2013. So as fast as Nigeria’s disco funk had risen, as fast was its decline.
But in 1979 Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rappers delight” was released. Widely considered the first rap recording, it featured the bass line of Chic’s “Good Times” – so it was build on the fundament of Disco.

Example (3)

It was released in Nigeria in the same year, introducing Hip-Hop to Nigerians. The common idea was and still is: The internationally known rappers of the 90s, like Tupac and Biggie, introduced West Africans to Rap & Hip-Hop. Instead, Nigerians had their very own old school phase throughout the whole 80s – parallel to the US. The first popular example is Ron Ekundayo’s “The way I feel (rap)” from 1981.

Example (4)

Over the following decades, rap should become a pretty important thing in many countries and in Nigeria, too.
After a big general decline, the Nigerian music industry is on the rise again – for the last decade. It is the time of “Afrobeats”. What is interesting to me now: There is a massive hype going on in Europe with the re-issueing of these records from the Disco Funk era and in Nigeria the majority doesnt care about it at all. People I know from that very generation tend to be rather annoyed by us Europeans and our very narrow focus on a particular style and the attitude of some reissueing labels, while so much other great stuff is not even on our radar. And the young generation is totally into the contemporary stuff – which is unknown to plenty of audiences here.


Robert Johnson Theory 56 (Photo: Thomas Pirot)

In South Africa, disco was not any less popular than in Nigeria, but due to the institutionalized system of racism called “Apartheid”, the majority of the population (devided down in different racial categories) were not granted citizen rights by the government. The lack of rights to participate in society had a huge impact on all areas of life; in regards to music, it meant no access to nightclubs in the city. In the strict sense this means: There was disco music, but no urban disco scene like in Lagos. Like the rest of your private life, music had to happen in the townships or in the countryside.

One of the most important dance music styles of the 70s was “mbaqanga”. Mbaqanga was a music derived mostly from Zulu influences, that could be followed in the townships and rural areas and that already came up in the 60s – Miriam Makeba is one of the most prominent figures of its early days. Mbaqanga predated Funk and Disco, featuring a comparable tempo and four to the floor rhythm, but with distinct drum patterns and more syncopated elements.

Example (5)

In the 80s however, the style was succeeded by something called “bubblegum pop”. Bubblegum paved the way for Black artists to reach an audience across ethnic boundaries for the first time; it was present on the radio and on TV through music videos.

Example (6)

It is hard to determine at which point house (and rap) music became fashionable in South Africa for the first time. What we know is: When House music became a thing, it was just another music genre that – from a local perspective – could not be properly practiced due to the absurd Apartheid system: „In the beginning it was struggle, because black people were not really allowed to go out at night and party. […] After seven, they don‘t want to see you in town. I had runnings with cops, they didn‘t get it, when you said ,I‘m going to play at a certain club‘, they were like ,what are you doing here in town? You are not allowed here“ (Vinny Da Vinci in „Real Scenes – Johannesburg, Resident Advisor”). So the beginnings of both – House and Hip-Hop – in South Africa happened in a quite literal underground, invisible to the authorities.
What is kwaito? Usually it is described as rapped lyrics on slowed down house beats – but its more than that: What is perhaps most interesting for the early South African kwaito records that came out even before the end of Apartheid in 1990, is that they feature these Mbaqanga rhythm patterns.

Example (7)


M-M Deluxe, one of the first acts that can retroactively defined as kwaito – the instrumentals seemingly resemble house, but hihats, snares and claps follow patterns that differ a lot from other kinds of House music of the time and the tempo is always moderate, often slowed down even more towards the 100 BPM mark. You rarely find high tempos in kwaito. From 1990 on the genre really emancipated itself from bubblegum pop through rap as vocal practice, in contrast to singing. Another essential feature of kwaito music was, similar to the Nigerian disco-era: No political content anymore (with few exceptions). This was condemned by some, but embraced by large parts of a young generation, who was happy to see a change of system and if not the end of the struggle, then at least a well-deserved break. As it was not politically radical, it was taken up by the established music industry and commercialized, used for TV-ads. Soon Kwaito songs became the pop hymns of the post-Apartheid generation and were the major music genre for the following decade.
In the mid of 2000s house music turns up again from two directions in South Africa: From the underground, but also from within the kwaito scene. Two of the biggest figures: Black Coffee on the one hand and DJ Cleo on the other. Ever since, house music has become an incredible pop phenomenon in South Africa, which is still highly distinct through its drum patterns and the selection of instruments.

Example (8)

What is interesting here, is that despite its status as a mass phenomenon, South African house is strongly routed in a DIY culture; despite the fact that songs with vocals are quite common, it is a producer-focused music: A track produced by Black Coffee is always credited as a Black Coffee-song – featuring the singer that may be on it. That alone is an extreme exception in the global pop music sphere. Another thing to acknowledge is that Coffee’s type of deep and soulful house has been seen as an underground alternative to a kwaito mainstream for decades, before becoming the mainstream itself. It is interesting to acknowledge that, because from a European perspective, its sonic features have been interpreted as cheasy, polished and commercially appealing – meanwhile they are coming from the opposite direction within their local background. This might be at least one reason for the under-representation of South African house records that I experience on European dancefloors.


Tom Simmert (Photo by Thomas Pirot)

To wrap it up
In Nigeria, disco came up at the right time – it set the right impulses, when a number of wealthy urban kids felt a need for hedonism, and it declined again due to political and economic processes. Little was left of the disco legacy, besides rap as an aftermath.
In South Africa, disco, house and rap were included into existing music practice more creatively, due to specific restrictions of possibilities. Many of their elements were reinterpreted in the context of preexisting genres like mbaqanga and bubblegum. But the way things are going, house music has become one of the most popular genres in the country.

Tom Simmert held this lecture as a part of Robert Johnson Theory 56.

Tom works as a research assistant for the Department of Anthropology and African Studies at the University of Mainz and is associated with the African Music Archives Mainz. His research interests are popular culture, popular music and media anthropology. His regional research focus is in West Africa (especially Nigeria) and South Africa.

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