I have always felt a tinge of liberal guilt attached to the idea of cross-cultural collaboration. Why does the Westerner feel the need to take the traditional melodies and rhythms of other (often economically poorer) communities, left gorgeously untouched for decades, and dilute them with a 4/4 drum beat and a cheesy vocal line? Why do we need to make traditional & world music ‘palatable for the mass market’ like the A&R men say? We all love Graceland, but why do we need Paul Simon to ignore a political boycott so we can listen to him bastardise some tunes that were pretty damn good in the first place?
The answer of course, is that there’s really nothing wrong with letting people who love music make it together, even if that does result in an inauthentic blend of the traditional and the manufactured. In fact, in the case of Faya, by London based indie bluesman/rapper Joe Driscoll and Sekou Kouyate, from Conarky in Guinea (one of the spiritual homes of the West African griot tradition), it’s not even the 1st worlder that does most of the dilution. For the majority of the record Kouyate hooks up his majestic 21 string African bridge harp to an amplifier, cranks up the distortion and lets rip. It’s no surprise he’s been dubbed the Jimi Hendrix of the Kora. A lot of the time, all Driscoll can do is sit back and watch as Kouyate furiously rips apart the centuries of history and culture attached to his instrument, shredding like a man possessed by some old Voodoo magic and only occasionally descending into noodling excess.
If this fusion brings West African music to a wider audience then Faya can only be considered a success. There are even points on the album that touch the heights of some of the great current African artists, the title track more than reminiscent of the Touraeg desert blues popularised by Tinariwen and other Saharan nomads, and the acoustic Kora on Lady not far off the virtuosity of the Malian superstar Toumani Diabate.
However, there are just too many jarring cliches and obvious attempts at radio recognition to make the album wholly successful. Passport, Driscoll’s attempt at a political statement (‘How long do you plan on staying in America?… I didn’t bring no visa…’ etc) is so obvious as to be cringe-inducing, and the bizarre decision to fade out pretty much every track after 3 and a half minutes (often just as the song is getting going) leaves no time for the music to shimmer or develop, presumably at the expense of getting a few singles on radio playlists. The rhythms are fantastic though, Driscoll’s fat bass lines playing with the groovy syncopated percussion shared by both African and American funk, and even the rapping can be quite fun. All in all it’s impossible to say whether this particular cross-cultural collaboration was worth it. Do we want to maintain and enhance the authentic folk musics of the world, or do we just want to dance?