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SoundTreks: America's Afro-Pop Dreams

by Rachel Devitt

SoundTreks: America's Afro-Pop Dreams

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African music has, of course, always been a crucial (and arguably even dominant) strain of American music's DNA. But every so often, American music seems to go through a phase where it wants to explore that heritage in a more hands-on (ears-on?) kind of way.

Those soundtreks have taken a variety of forms over the years: There was Paul Simon's journey to Graceland by way of South Africa, of course, a monster hit that just celebrated its 25th anniversary this year. (Here's a full Source Material on Graceland, actually, if you're so inclined.) In a similar (though less collaborative) vein are the rash of indie rockers who, starting from around the time of Vampire Weekend's 2008 debut, got obsessed with crafting pop songs gently steeped in Afro-pop.

But the most fascinating wave of exploration has been led by the recent spate of cross-cultural collectives formed by Americans and often including musicians of African heritage. Such groups as Debo Band, Antibalas and Extra Golden take styles like Ethio-jazz, Afrobeat and Benga traditional music as their touchstone, weaving them together with American pop, rock and jazz -- as well as other world musics -- into a complex, multilayered sound that perhaps echoes contemporary American society. In this edition of SoundTreks, we take an introductory tour of just some of the paths American artists have taken to explore their Afro-pop dreams.