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Feature

From Maxi Voom Voom to Afropop

By Dan Scheuerman | HUMANITIES, March/April 2008 | Volume 29, Number 2

Forget Ronald Reagan and Lech Walesa. Radio host Georges Collinet says he knows what beat the Soviets: rock ’n’ roll.

From 1965 until the late nineties, Collinet, now the host of Afropop Worldwide, hosted a hugely popular morning show broadcast by the Voice of America. Every morning 120 million Africans living under socialism tuned in to hear James Brown, Wilson Pickett, and Georges Collinet’s motor-mouth ramblings about girls, cars, and life in America. “We won the Cold War—the VOA won the Cold War,” Collinet says, “because of programs like that.”

Collinet’s claim may sound a bit idiosyncratic, but it is widely believed that American music played an important role in the Cold War. During the fifties, the VOA made Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Dizzie Gillespie into cultural emissaries by playing their music to 100 million listeners a day. In a recent essay in the Wilson Quarterly, public diplomacy expert Martha Bayles quotes Russian novelist Vassily Aksyonov calling jazz “America’s secret weapon number one.” In the sixties and seventies, Washington increasingly turned to rock music. Yale Richmond, a foreign service officer who put in time in Moscow during the Cold War, went so far as to call rock ’n’ roll “the cultural dynamite that blew up the Iron Curtain.”

VOA’s success was a testament to the power of music and the politics of fun—not what one would expect of a station broadcasting from warships. Brutal dictators like Ahmed Sékou Touré of Guinea railed against “this infamous Georges Collinet,” but their peoples couldn’t get enough. Collinet’s first goodwill trip to Mali in 1970 sparked a Beatlemania-style frenzy. “There was a riot,” he says, “because the plane was six or seven hours late.” When he finally arrived, an impromptu parade of thousands scared the socialist government into calling in paratroopers.

Collinet’s current gig hosting Public Radio International’s pioneering world-music show Afropop Worldwide is more sedate. A far cry from the lunatic persona of his VOA days when he broadcast under the name Maxi Voom Voom, the Georges Collinet of Afropop speaks slowly and reverently. Much like Bob Dylan on XM Satellite’s Theme Time Radio Hour, Collinet plays the role of the trusted elder statesman, guiding listeners through a seemingly endless vault of great and rare music.

And the hipsters are eating it up. If the crop of African-influenced indie bands that broke out in 2007 is any indication, afropop is the new dancepunk. It’s being explored for riffs, instruments, rhythms, and sounds, to add depth, or at least something new and cool, to pop music. Dave Longstreth, the musically restless leader of Brooklyn’s Dirty Projectors, has spent his last two records adapting the jittery plucking style of the Ethiopian krar to the electric guitar. Fellow New Yorkers Vampire Weekend, whose MySpace page is wallpapered with a kente-cloth pattern, have appropriated the easy-swinging rhythm and guitar noodles of the Congolese kwassa kwassa form. Meanwhile, Brooklyn’s Yeasayer has incorporated the circular, trance-like sounds of Zimbabwe’s mbira king Thomas Mapfumo into its songs.

It’s easy to understand why African music would be the next frontier for obscurity-worshipping music nerds. While the American blog machine does its best to overexpose each new act into oblivion, Africa seems to hide its treasures away. Afropop creator and executive producer Sean Barlow points out that an African artist can live and die a superstar in his own country without the West paying any mind. And so Africa swells with artists whose ripe careers are still obscure to most listeners.

This is no small part of the attraction of Afropop Worldwide. Listening to the show is a disorienting thrill. The word “legendary” comes up a lot—as in “the legendary Ali Farka Touré”—and it takes some humility to admit that you’ve never heard the legend, let alone the genre or language. For every Ladysmith Black Mambazo, who became a household name when they supported Paul Simon on Graceland in 1986, there are a hundred South African maskanda musicians that few Americans have ever heard of. For every Tinariwen, a band of guitar-playing Tuareg nomads that rocketed to international acclaim on the strength of their 2007 album, Aman Iman (Water Is Life), there are a hundred unnoticed taarab ensembles singing Swahili poetry and fusing Indian and Arabian instrumentation. There’s just so much there.

Yet, despite all this exotic material, the musical selections on Afropop are punctuated by a level of discussion that towers above most radio. Whereas the average DJ can barely be inconvenienced to give a song’s title, Collinet uses his selections as a springboard into discussion of the music’s origins, cultural import, and technical achievement. An episode on the connection between Malian music and the blues features interviews with Bonnie Raitt and Robert Plant, who rapturously discuss the music’s effect and its influence on them as artists.

When I interrupt Georges Collinet in his home, he is hard at work on one of his many video production projects—a voiceover for an exposé of unsavory diamond-mining practices in Africa. In addition to his Afropop work, Collinet produces video and records podcasts that promote World Bank aid programs to African audiences. An avuncular sixty-eight-year-old with bushy white hair, he lives with his wife Cookie in northwest Washington, D.C., in a house that is both home and office. He edits voiceovers on a computer in the sunroom and records vocals in a small basement studio—where he often works alone with his Neumann microphone. Although I am early, he drops what he is doing and greets me warmly. Cookie brings us afternoon tea, and we enjoy it on the couch by the Christmas tree, while Collinet shares stories about his upbringing, his superstar broadcasting career, and his love of music.

Collinet’s connection to African music goes way back, if his prenatal memory is to be believed. “Maybe that’s where I heard the tom-tom for the first time,” he says, “in my mother’s womb.” Born into the Bulu tribe in the jungles of Cameroon, Collinet recalls nightly dances and stories told around the bonfire. He counts them among his most cherished memories. “I was there as a little boy, captivated by the sound of the music and the dancing.”

Equally captivating were the “funny noises, they could be spirits, they could be animals” that came from the surrounding jungle. “This is the land of the living dead,” he says. Family members would explain events such as the clearing of a field by saying, “Well, you know, so-and-so is a big witch doctor, and he has the command of some dead people who are his slaves. At night they come and work the fields.” In this environment, he says, “it’s quite amazing, the things that the mind can do. Somehow it’s more fertile. It’s a fertile ground for spirits to do things.”

At age seven Collinet moved with his French father from the jungles of Cameroon to the Auvergne region of France. At twenty, he moved to the United States and began the nearly fifty-year radio career that would put him in contact with the legends of African music. He became friends with most of the important musicians of Africa, from guitar-great Ali Farka Touré to members of the fifty-piece national bands that young postcolonial governments assembled to forge new cultural identities.

Collinet also helped nurture a younger generation of musicians. In the 1970s, he spent time in Paris working with African musicians as a producer and songwriter in musical theater productions. The VOA even built him a studio there, so he could continue broadcasting his morning show. In his dwindling spare time, he acted as a liaison between the French record companies and “these poor African guys who would be zilched because they never saw any residuals.”

He tells one story about a young man who hadn’t been paid in over a year. In a harebrained scheme that could have been pulled from a Warner Bros. cartoon, Collinet told him, “since they say you are a savage,” go ahead and act like a savage. The young musician barged into the office of the offending record company, wearing nothing but a loincloth and a lion tooth necklace while waving a spear and a machete. The secretary shrieked. The machete went through a desk. And the boss let out what, in Collinet’s imitation, is a humiliating burble. “And, well,” Collinet says, “the musician didn’t get all his money, but anyway.”

A telling record of Collinet’s influence on African music can be heard in the afrobeat movement—a fusion of American soul and African tribal rhythms that began in the 1970s. Although its progenitor, the great Fela Kuti, came across soul music during his school days in England, Collinet says the VOA was responsible for bringing soul music to the African continent en masse. In fact, Collinet has wondered at times whether he and VOA were too successful.

He remembers being shocked during one visit by the impression that American trends were edging out long-standing African traditions. “Everywhere I went,” he says, “all these guys were reproducing James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding. I said, Oh my God. What have I wrought?” His role as cultural ambassador, he found, was a precarious one. On the one hand, he cherished the opportunity to bring the American music he loved to Africans; on the other hand, he grew anxious about the fate of the music Africa had taught him to love. Collinet began cautioning the musicians he met: “You have to keep your roots. Don’t sell your soul to Babylon like that.”

This year Afropop celebrates twenty years of strengthening these roots. Every week since 1988, it has offered new music, new stories, and new insight into the culture of Africa and its diasporas. Carried on 110 American public radio stations, as well as a number of international ones, it was the first nationally syndicated program in any media dedicated to African and world music. Afropop was the first to play many artists who have gone on to become international stars, including Thomas Mapfumo, Cesária Évora, and Angelique Kidjo, who sits on its board of directors along with Youssou N'Dour. The program has developed a reputation, not simply as an entertaining music show or even a pioneering one, but also as a historical institution. The educational materials, bibliographies, and show archives on the Afropop.org website are regularly assigned by university professors.

Beginning in 2003, Afropop sharpened its academic focus with Hip Deep. Described as a “series within a series,” the program’s five to six episodes a year weave together musical selections and scholarly interviews. Producers consult with leading historians and ethnomusicologists to build each episode. Banning Eyre, senior producer and senior website editor, says Hip Deep was a natural extension for Afropop. A musician himself, Eyre knows the importance of a good hook. “For me,” he says, “Hip Deep is all about letting people start with what they understand, the sound of the music. Music really leads everywhere. It touches people at such a deep level . . . that it invariably carries all these imprints of history within it.” Inspired by world events, Eyre trained Hip Deep’s focus on the historical and cultural relationships between the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe.

For its three-part series “The Musical Legacy of Al-Andalus,” Hip Deep brought in University of California professor Dwight Reynolds to guide listeners through eight centuries of Arabic culture in Spain. The program tells the story of a fashionable lute player, Ziryab, who arrived in Córdoba from Baghdad in 822 with 10,000 songs, and went on to start what might have been Europe’s first conservatory. Córdoba grew into what Reynolds calls “the most exciting intellectual center in all of the world,” importing technologies and stylistic innovations that many think of as essentially European. The lute and the end rhyme, for example, both cornerstones of the troubadour tradition that would usher in the Renaissance, arrived from the East during this period.

For a program on African slavery in Islamic lands, Eyre interviewed Eve Troutt Powell, a University of Pennsylvania professor and MacArthur Fellow who studies the Arab slave trade. Here Eyre used a discussion of Ceasefire, a CD collaboration between a Darfuri “lost boy” and an Arabic rapper from northern Sudan, to segue into a discussion of Sudan’s history of slavery, emancipation, and segregation. Powell discussed the “double colonialism” of Sudan in late nineteenth century, when England and Egypt shared governance of the so-called Anglo-Egyptian Condominium. Attempting to suppress the slave trade, British policies effectively severed Arabic northern Sudan from its Animist south. “So you have a terrible bifurcation in terms of opportunities, in terms of education, in terms of political involvement. People in the north are getting involved, and people in the south aren’t.” It’s the beginning of a complicated story that continues today.

Delving into such complex history over a format as ephemeral as radio would seem a recipe for coarse simplification, but Hip Deep maintains a high intellectual standard and remains eminently listenable. Musical strains linger long enough to convey a feeling but not so long that one loses the plot. Much credit goes to Collinet, whose gifts as a storyteller lend a sense of wonder and immediacy to stories that could very well seem obscure in someone else’s hands.

In person, Collinet has none of the pretense one would expect of an international celebrity. He is not the cliché of the burned-out rock star or the aloof jet-setter. He is charismatic, though, and he is a guy with a lot going on—busy, but not too busy to sit down for more than an hour to chat about the old days.

Over the course of our interview, Collinet relates story after story in his magisterial way—that is, excitedly, with pregnant pauses giving birth to sound effects. In one, he is driving a Mini Cooper convertible through the pitch-dark jungle at night when he hears what seems to be the sound of his own voice. “Georges, you’re losing it,” he tells himself. As he gets closer, he finds its source: a table radio balanced atop the head of a villager on a bike. Collinet shouts to him, “‘Hey, you’re listening to my show!’” Terrified by the apparition, “this poor guy,” Collinet says, “he turned ash. I mean, he fell off the bicycle and ran into the forest.” The next day, Collinet went to the man’s village to make sure the man and his radio were okay. But when the villagers heard he was coming, “pshew,” he says, the place cleared out.

In a broadcasting career that spans a half century, Collinet has played key roles on both sides of a musical dialogue. As a DJ for the VOA, he brought American music and culture to Africa, helping to defeat communism with the doctrine of youth. His later work as the voice of Afropop finds him coming full circle. For an hour every week for the past twenty years, he’s been an ambassador for African culture and music, broadcasting its great traditions and the recordings of its most talented musicians to America.