Journalism

Music Across Africa

Music Across Africa
Written for Snap! magazine, published in August 2009
Online version can be found on pages 70-72 at:
Snap!
Music Across Africa
Katie Kotler interviews Frank Gossner, a music buff who has worked in music and radio for three years in a number of West African countries.
Frank Gossner, aka DJ Frank, is wearing a shirt from the Ivory Coast, showing me his tattoos and telling me how despite being German, he does not like soccer. He also doesn’t really like New York, where he currently lives, finding it ‘too over-regulated and boring’. Frank prefers the New York of the nineties, when he hosted a French soft-porn themed night at Bar 16, which ran for four years. His wife, then, was one of his go-go dancers. Today, she works for the German Mission.  That’s how Frank ended up spending 2005-2008 living in West Africa and collecting records. Right now he hosts the Voodoo Funk blog, many nights throughout New York City and a radio show on WFMU.  He is also the subject of the upcoming documentary, ‘Take Me Away Fast’ .
What are the kids listening to now in West Africa?
Countries like Benin and Guinea listen to a lot of old music, while Ghana and Sierra Leone are more into new stuff.
Do they sample it in hip-hop?
Ghana does, Nigeria just started. Mostly modern pop music there is not sample-based, but cheap electronic, desktop music. Very horrible stuff. There are some really cool bands like H20, though, from Benin, who use real instruments.
How’s the music industry in general? Do people use MySpace?
There are a few, but only those who have some status in the West. There are no real local acts that I know of. It’s very hard for young musicians. All the problems that the West have, such as piracy, are much worse there.
What kind of clubs did you go to when you were in Africa?
I mostly went to the bars where they had live bands. I went to a few discotheques, but it’s very tough. I was always traveling by myself. You attract so much unwanted attention and get harassed by girls. Nobody takes no for an answer. Ghana was the most aggressive. In Benin, you definitely can go out without being bothered.
I’ve seen some dark stuff, as far as the ex-pat community goes. You have a lot of old and ugly guys picking up cute young girls there and it doesn’t really constitute as prostitution because they engage in a relationship, but still it’s obvious that these girls are not with these guys because they have such a great character.
What are the biggest differences between audiences in the West and those in Africa when you play this music?
Here it is easier to get young people interested in this type of music and there it’s difficult. Everybody’s so oriented to Western culture. They also don’t want to listen to what their parents and grandparents listened to.
How do you think the political situations in each of these countries affects their music?
Each country has their own government which was very different from every other country. Guinea was very much influenced by music from Mali, because it was part of the Malian empire.  The president of Guinea, Sekou Toure, kicked out the French in ’58 and started a government-run record label, Syliphone, which ran from the late sixties until the early eighties. Syliphone paid a lot of money for local bands to record, travel around and play. They even had bands from Ghana come and teach people how to play their instruments.
Toure wanted people to feel proud of their own culture and get over the influence of colonial power. He started as a liberator and had support from all over the world. For example, (South African singer) Miriam Makeba went to Guinea to record because they had some of the best musicians. Later, Toure became a madman, completely paranoid. He ended up killing and torturing lots of intellectuals, artists, close friends and family members.
What’s the music like in Liberia?
I only have two records from there, because the Civil War was so devastating. It is the same with Sierra Leone. These records sound very high-lifey, with very little drumming, mostly guitar and singing. There’s something wrong with getting records from places that have been so destroyed.
In Sierra Leone, they used to have a big radio station in Freetown, SLBS, ‘Sierra Leone Broadcasting Services’. I did radio shows there for awhile. They had this huge house, filled with records, which the rebels burnt down during ‘Operation No Living Thing’. There were hundreds of thousands of records, the largest in the entire African continent.
What do you think is the future of African music?
The bands who are really good don’t have much of a chance. The stuff they play on the radio is usually commercial crap. There are countries, like the Ivory Coast, for example, where they have this horrendous kind of style of music Coupé Décalé. It starts with young guys who have ties to the government or military. There is this one guy who  hands out money at his gigs.  The guys in the video clips pose with fancy champagne bottles,  sports cars, green screens in the background…
Did you feel like they were trying to take advantage of  your money?
Sometimes. You’re in a country that’s really poor and everybody is trying to make a buck. Some people are clever, or friendly about it. If you go around and somebody invites you to their house and then it turns out that they don’t have anything of interest, you still have to buy something. If you leave some money behind, then you can make them happy.
Whenever I go to Benin, I always go across the villages and we have a voodoo ceremony and sacrifice chickens for good luck, so that we can buy many records. It’s always a lot of fun.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about Africa and African music?
Most people can’t believe that there were records made in Africa. Most people think that it’s just a desert, dry, unfertile, everyone’s starving and it’s super poor.  It is poor, but it’s also very rich. There are a lot of resources. It’s very fertile. Everything grows there. This is not just an accidental misconception. That’s the way governments want us to think.  If people would know how many resources there are in West Africa, they would start to wonder, ‘Why do we have to put in so much money and yet it is still so poor?’  It’s only poor because it’s being exploited by big corporations, who go there and buy the resources for less than ten percent of the market value and pay money under the table to some government official and take off with it. It’s the same kind of model with how all of those other record dealers collectors operate.  They buy their records for fifty cents, or a dollar and then sell them on Ebay for $200, 300, 500.
This is neocolonialism, which, in a way, worked pretty well for me, because I paid my people well and it was easy to convince people to sell their records to me instead of all those other guys.
So how much would you pay for a record?
That depends on from who I buy it and what sort of condition it is in. Sometimes there would be a random guy on the street who had just grabbed his grandfather’s records. I would also employ buyers who travel around Nigeria and Ghana when they send me big packages of records. Almost every week I get like 100 records in the mail. I sort through and what I need for myself, I pay 50$. And what I don’t need, I give to a record store in the city and if he doesn’t sell them in a few weeks, he puts them on Ebay and 50% of the final sales price goes to Africa. I don’t make any money off of those sales. My advantage is that I get first pick. I have this one Nigerian buyer and we have so far sent him $20, 000 in the past six months. He’s a wealthy man.
Voodoo Funk

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