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Mark Hudson's novel trip to Africa

By Banning Eyre

NOVEMBER 2, 1998:  Eleven years ago, when I first went to Africa to look into local pop music for the public-radio series Afropop, I had no idea what the impact of such exploration would be on African music, the non-African public, or myself. After a decade of writing about this music, and three more journeys, including lengthy stays in Mali and Zimbabwe, I realize that all have been affected. African music has revved into a sometimes maniacal high gear in an effort to reach beyond the small segment of the global audience who caught the Afropop pop during those years. And I have found that the most rewarding experiences of African music take place in Africa when musicians play for their natural audiences undistracted by all the hullabaloo. If you find that response cynical, then brace yourself for The Music in My Head (Jonathan Cape/Stern's), a new novel by British author Mark Hudson that tells the story of the globalization of this music through the eyes of a cynical entrepreneur.

Hudson has published two non-fiction books: Our Grandmothers' Drums, about his experience living in a Gambian village, and Coming Back Brockens, about coal mining in the northeast of England. But here, in his debut novel, he explores the phenomenon of modern African pop music and its discovery/exploitation by outsiders with romantic delusions and ill-fated schemes. Fittingly, Hudson has also compiled a companion CD for release by Stern's Africa -- The Music in My Head, Indispensable Classics and Unknown Gems from the Golden Age of African Pop.

The novel's narrator, Andrew "Litch" Litchfield, is a man whose profound, even spiritual passion for the rawest of African music has lead him into situations beyond his cultural depth. In the process, he's become embittered, yet he keeps going back for more. His descriptions of places, faces, and personalities gush with telling detail and mostly ring true. He captures the sweaty chaos and seeming bedlam of a dancing and drumming street party, but also the boredom of long, hot days where nothing seems to happen, the friendly evasiveness and casual betrayals of Africans, and the pretentiousness of westerners who are drawn to such places.

When he moves beyond these free-flowing descriptions into the realm of analysis, however, Litch's conclusions become alarmingly blunt and critical. Musicians, in his view, are incapable of loyalty. Those responsible for the great discoveries in African music -- mostly himself -- never get the credit they deserve. It's important to keep in mind that he's a character, not the author. You're not necessarily supposed to like him. Still, there is some truth in his discomforting vision. In certain ways, outsiders hold all the cards in Africa, but ultimately the deck is rigged against them.

Given the harshness of Litch's views, Hudson is careful to fictionalize the settings and characters. The novel takes place in the city of N'Galam, capital of Tekrur and home to the "greatest singer in Africa," Sajar Jopp. As the Music in My Head CD's sharp focus on Senegalese music strongly suggests, N'Galam is Dakar, and Jopp is Senegalese pop star Youssou N'Dour. Then there's the self-absorbed British rocker who helps Jopp to reach an international audience and then proceeds to muddle up the Tekrurian's music with heavy-handed theatrics. The rocker's name is Michael Heaven.

These roman à clef aspects of Hudson's story are amusing, but what sustains interest in this nearly plotless narrative is Litch's agonizing metamorphosis from true believer to broken man. He starts out reveling in the clamor, the crowds, the colors, and even the rank aromas of Africa. But in time he succumbs "in some deep irreversible way to the bleak tristesse, the all-pervading ossifying fatalism and corruption of the tropics." This is a gonzo Heart of Darkness with a beat that won't quit.

As for that beat, the CD Hudson has compiled reflects none of the ambivalence toward Afropop that his novel suggests. It spotlights inspirational moments in the careers of artists who rose during the burgeoning years of African pop in the '70s and early '80s. N'Dour sings two songs, one as a voluptuous-voiced 18-year-old and one as the sophisticated, worldly songsmith he has since become. The Senegalese focus is balanced out by classic tracks from Salif Keita with Les Ambassadeurs International from Mali and Guinea, and Franco, the greatest bandleader Zaire's rich music scene produced during those years. The selection is neither complete nor definitive, but it includes hard-to-find music, and even though six of the 12 tracks were recorded in the '90s, the entire collection is true to an older spirit of African pop music, the kind of music that hooked Litch, and me, and so many of us, in the first place.


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