US country music strikes a chord in Africa
Music transcends race, nationality and creed. Even country and western music, with its image of being the genre of choice for predominantly white, redneck fans in the US, has transcended national and continental barriers.
This was illustrated by country and western star Don Williams, who died in September. He played a style of "plain-spoken", traditional country that epitomised the image of the genre’s hardcore white US fans.
Yet Williams had a serious following in Africa. He was one of a few international country stars to tour the continent. In 1997, he released a DVD, Into Africa, which was recorded live in Zimbabwe.
A quote from Kenyan satirist and journalist Ted Malanda, in an affectionate obituary in The Standard, illustrates his influence on Kenyans from different backgrounds: "A moment of silence for the thousands of Kenyan kids who were conceived with Williams crooning in the background."
However, despite its popularity, the genre continues to be dominated by white musicians. This is true in the US and Africa. Yes, there have been black country and western musicians such Charley Pride, Darius Rucker and Mickey Guyton. But country continues to be the domain of white musicians.
This hasn’t, however, diminished its appeal in a number of African countries.
Country is played religiously on a number of radio stations in Africa. In Malawi, for instance, where I grew up, country music is very popular. Malawi Broadcasting Corporation’s Radio Two devotes an hour to the music on Saturday mornings.
But the music featured is nearly all from the US — the programme hardly plays music from Malawi or from elsewhere on the continent. The programme continues to be dominated by white musicians such as Williams, Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton, Dan Seals, Mel McDaniel, Shania Twain, Leann Rimes and Taylor Swift.
Kenyan country star Elvis Otieno, or Sir Elvis as he is known, told CBS News there was a huge audience in Kenya for country music.
From the ’50s and ’60s, there has always been a country music programme on the airwaves on Kenyan soil.
When National Public Radio’s Gwen Thompkins visited Kenya, she was blown away by country and western’s popularity.
Thompkins explains that "the allure of country music in Africa is its iconic characters — the gamblers and the highway men, the handwringing mothers and the cocksure sons, the Rubys, the Lucilles, the Joleens, the grievous angels and the folks who just ain’t no good".
The programming head at Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, Henry Makhoka, told her: "Most of the country music we play talks about country life, talks about the farm life and so on. That kind of environment was abundantly available where I was born."
Promising Kenyan country singer Esther Konkara said she could identify with the stories told by artists such as Parton: "I really love singing her songs. Most people say I sing like her, or she sings like me. Country has such rich themes, like love, God and country roads."
What is more, black people have made significant contributions to this genre. One of the genre’s first black stars was an influential harmonica player, DeFord Bailey
Kenya’s biggest radio station, Radio Citizen, which targets "the man on the street", is planning to launch a new country music show soon.
Programme director Fred Ofune told Thompkins that the genre resonated with his listeners because, like working-class country fans elsewhere in the world, they were "struggling to put food on the table, take their kids to school. They are people who are frustrated by the politicians and the government, who feel let down.…"
Music writer Dan Juma once stated that it was not strange to find black Africans relating to this kind of music.
After all, the banjo, which is a mainstay instrument in the country and western genre, has its roots in Africa.
What is more, black people have made significant contributions to this genre. One of the genre’s first black stars was an influential harmonica player, DeFord Bailey.
Dubbed "The Harmonica Wizard", his famous train-mimicking song, Pan American Blues, became an instant hit on release in 1927.
He was one of the top stars on the WSM Barn Dance Show, which became the hugely popular weekly Grand Ole Opry — still the longest-running radio broadcast in US history.
Although Bailey became the first African American country musician to perform on the Grand Ole Opry, he did not receive the recognition he deserved until his death in 1982. Bailey would only be inducted into the famous Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, 23 years after his death.
Bailey and Pride remain the only black country musicians to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. Country and western music still has some way to go in terms of accepting black country musicians in its fold.
Much has been said about the contributions of African Americans to country music but not much credit has been given to Africans from the continent who have contributed to this genre.
It’s true that white South African musicians such as Lance James, Tommy Dell, Barbara Ray, Sally Vaughn, Clive Bruce and Bernie Williams have made a significant contribution to the genre. But the contribution of black Africans hasn’t been given as much attention.
Otieno is one of them, as are Nigerian stars such as Ogak Jay Oke, Emma Ogosi and Poor Charley Akaa.
Although not technically a country and western musician, Malawian gospel artist Allan Ngumuya has infused gospel with country.
It’s surprising that the genre has not grown to its full potential in Africa — like R&B and reggae. What can be done to change this? The continent’s broadcasters have the largest role to play by giving a regular platform to Africa’s country and western musicians.
• This article first appeared on www.theconversation.com