African Electro Dance Music Strikes Gold:
The Music Of Yanju
The popular music that has come from America and influenced what people listen to around the world, has its roots in Africa. Blues, jazz, rock and roll, rap, funk and dance music of all types, have spread across the globe thanks to records, radio and now the internet. Every country has its versions of these music forms, but just as dancing is universal, so too is dance music, whether it's funk, techno, house or various combinations and sub genres of these music forms. These DJ-based forms are felt worldwide because they can combine and recombine the music of many cultures. This is the concept behind the music on the new album IWA, by Yanju, a Nigerian singer and producer.
His music is different from most dance music records for a variety of reasons. First, there is an overwhelming African influence heard not just in the instrumental tracks, laden as they are with talking drums and other percussion sounds, but in the vocal melodies and harmonies. And there is a depth to his music lyrically that puts it closer to his forebearer, Fela Kuti, than "pump up the jam."
Already known in Europe and Africa, he is poised to take his African techno house soul music - my term for his sound, not his - to America and back. His route to this point is as circuitous as the route traveled by black music, and is interlocked with the situation of Africa itself. A deep thinker, educated and opinionated, Yanju's explanations and intellect are as driving as his music.
"The Nigerian music scene is a metaphor of the state of Africa, which has been contaminated and continues to be tampered with. The result of this contamination is a complexity which sometimes mutates into a new art form or genre all together. Popular music in Nigeria has evolved as three parallels all running side by side. And it continues to do so today.
"First we have traditional music on one parallel and within that we have many music styles and genres such as Fuji, juju, and Apala. We have the fusion parallel where western music influences have been either deliberately or unintentionally fused with African music elements and genres. There are many other styles which have evolved as a result of this fusion such as Afro beat (Fela Kuti) and Highlife (Osita Osadebe, Rex Lawson). This complexity has given birth, in most cases, to new genres. I regard this as the real and authentic world music.
"This is also where IWA album comes in. I am basically doing the same thing, but this time I'm fusing a variety of African elements and music genres. The last parallel is a result of the African Americanization of Nigerian music and is dominated by the youth who want to be the next Usher and Kanye West. Most youths in Africa are into hip hop. Usher and 50 Cent were both in Nigeria last year to perform. African American music has always, and continues to have, a heavy influence on African music."
As a child of middle class parents, Yanju was influenced by the funk of Earth, Wind and Fire, Lionel Ritchie, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Bobby Brown, and the New Edition, amongst others. This was a result, in part, of Africa's middle class bringing colonized values and colonized media back home. His early music was strictly R&B, jazz and '80s funk.
"Unfortunately we were brought up to believe that indigenous Nigerian music was inferior to western music." However, upon going to London, he saw his homeland's reflection in this so-called superior culture's music. "I realized Africans have largely contributed to the dynamism of pop music as it is today."
Your music style has - in addition to elements of American soul and African pop - an electro-dance element as well. Did you evolve this style when you were in Africa or when you arrived in London?
[Yanju] The style evolved when I was in London contemplating a new music direction. It was born out of frustration of getting rejected by record companies here in England. It was born in my kitchen. I remember very well standing by the kitchen radiator and thinking about the song "Lonely Woman." It was just melody and only the chorus lines had the lyrics "lonely woman" to it. But every time I hummed that melody, I could feel the two worlds there. It was then that I began to toy with the idea of mixing two different musical worlds together.
You can hear this weaving best on the song "IWA." At first he wanted to make it a completely African song in the Zairean Soukous style. "I wanted to include a pure African song to give the album a wider dimension," he explains. "But then I went to see a film called ABC Africa. I wrote down all the things that I found emotionally touching about the film, then rewrote the lyrics around what I had seen. We changed the arrangement slightly by just adding an electro dance groove and changing the instruments, but not the musical phrases. What you have now is an African music arrangement sitting on top of a European electro groove."
How did you come to have techno elements in your music?
[Yanju] My music producer (Valery Proletarski) advised me to infuse techno elements into my music. I was initially going to add hip hop and pop elements into it. My producer, who is also a co-composer on all the songs, reminded me that Africa was a continent of dance music and it was then that it dawned on me that this would fit into the spirit of Africa. It has, however, proved to be a decision that has astounded everyone who has heard the album because it has been unexpected.
Yanju's song lyrics also reflect a modern take on African culture and tradition. In Africa the griots - musicians who keep the stories and the culture alive - have songs that deal with all aspects of life; with struggles, hope and celebration. On this album Yanju reflects this heritage and the culture's perpetual rebellion against oppression and colonization and their effects.
On the title track Yanju issues a warning to all leaders: "Master of the house treat people kindly / master of the work / treat people kindly / head of state treat people kindly / politicians treat people kindly... because no one knows tomorrow / you who own the world behave kindly / remember the end... revolution is coming to swallow you."
Yanju sings a poignant song of uplift to women mistreated and abandoned on the song "Lonely Woman." Over a mellow, swinging, soulful groove of sparse synthesizer, African drums and thumb piano, he croons: "you re alone in your mind / you re alone with a new fate / if given a choice you wouldn't choose / and no one cares / how you tend the plant / into a tree that gives all life / lonely woman don't you worry you are the hero / lonely woman you are the one you are the hero."
Nigeria is by all accounts a military dictatorship. Given the overtly political lyrics of the songs "IWA," "Koseru" and "Iro," are you worried about what the government might do to you or your family?
[Yanju] "No, I am not worried about what the government can do to my family or to me. I am more or less worried about being banned or censored from the media. Fortunately this has not happened. My video for the song "IWA" is currently on rotation on some music programs on Nigerian television. It has also been showing on some cable channels here in England and on Channel M Global Beats in Canada.
"Let's not forget, I come from a country with a tradition of artists singing about politics. The late Fela Kuti was extremely political in his music. His sons are carrying on and there are other artists who are doing the same. You mustn't forget that politics is responsible for the mess in which Africa is today. And I will continue to sing about politics until it stops messing up the lives of Africans. Our political leaders have failed us and continue to put us as a people at the mercy of the world's toes. It's really a shame that after Live AID we still have Live 8. Why only Africa and not other continents?"
IWA is one of the most original recordings to come out of Nigeria. Yanju is the first Nigerian to fuse techno, house, and soul with elements of African music. The video for "IWA" is currently showing on Channel M in Canada and also on Silverbird television in his homeland, Nigeria.