interview by Ken Frye
The special 25th Anniversary of The Best Ambiance at the Triple Door in Seattle, tonight, June 29th: featuring King Sunny Ade and the African Beats, in their first Seattle appearance in eight years, and the first performance in Seattle by the Occidental Brothers Dance Band International. Two shows at 7PM and 10PM, and the early show will be broadcast live on KEXP.
The Best Ambiance offers a unique look and listen into the music of Africa, for three hours every week on KEXP. Jon Kertzer started the program in 1984, while a graduate student in ethnomusicology at the University of Washington, and after returning from 15 months in London, Paris and West Africa, where he studied, played and collected the music of Africa. The program draws upon his collection of thousands of African CD’s and LP’s and features both rare vinyl and the newest in African music releases from Africa and Europe. The music covers that wide range of the musical styles of the vast African continent- and beyond — into Afro-Latin and Afro-Caribbean sounds. Listeners of The Best Ambiance will hear highlife, mbalax, rai, soukous, mbaqanga, chimurenga, benga, maskanda, Wassoulou, juju, kwaito, and shaabi music, just to name of few of the styles featured on the program.
Go behind the curtain with Ken Frye as he talks to Jon Kertzer about the history of the Best Ambiance and Jon’s dedication and love for the many styles of traditional and contemporary African music.
Ken Frye: How did you get started?
In 1982, I started working as the Station Manager. After a year of graduate studies and working as the station manager I started my fieldwork studies in music. I spent a year and half living in London and Africa studying music and playing music. I took drum and guitar lesions from several African musicians. It was a really great time for African music and I saw a lot great concerts and interviewed hundreds of musicians. When I got back to the states I called the station and told them that I had collected all of this new African music and I think we should have a show devoted to this kind of music. They agreed and so we started the show 25 years ago to date in 1984.
Who have you interviewed?
Oh my, I have interviewed so many people but to name a few. When I started in radio in the 70’s, I interviewed Ray Davies from the Kinks and the Grateful Dead. Later I interviewed Pat Metheny, B.B. King, Frank Zappa, Laurie Anderson, Ry Cooder, and hundreds more. I was really excited to interview Peter Gabriel when he was here for the WOMAD festival and we interviewed him live from the festival. I’m going to interview King Sunny Ade when he is here in Seattle.
How are the interviews set up? Do you set them up or do you work through the labels?
I sometimes take the initiative on these interviews and set them up myself as I did with the King Sunny Ade interview. I’m friends with King Sunny’s manager and the one who sets up the tour from Seattle. King Sunny has been on my show but he has never played live on the show, just interviews.
What was the first African music recording made here in the U.S.?
That’s an interesting question. The first recording made here was 50 years ago this year and it was called Drums of Passion by Babatunde Olatunji who is from Nigeria and came over here as a student. He started playing drums in NYC and worked with John Coltrane and they made an album together in 1959 that was put out by Columbia and it was really the first time that people heard African music and the more traditional drums. Later Osibisa in England was the first African pop hit so to speak. That was more like 1970 and that was produced by Tony Visconti who worked with T Rex and of course David Bowie and Brian Eno who also had a huge influence in bringing African music to the western world. In the early 1970’s it was called Afro-rock. Later with the influence of Fela Kuti and Afro-beat many musicians in England turned to this form of African music. It was a lot more popular in England then it was in the States. Fela Kuti worked in the early 70’s and had major label support. After Feli’s death, his two sons, Femi and Seun Kuti have kept the Afro-beat in the afro-beat tradition. Oh, I should also mention, Hugh Masekela who began making a name for himself fusing jazz, latin, African, and pop influences into a style of his own. In 1968, he recorded the breezy instrumental pop tune “Grazin’ in the Grass, “which gave him a surprise number one hit and became the best-known song of his career. He played at the Monterrey Pop Festival in 1967 so you could cite him as a major influence and one of the first along with the great singer Miriam Makeba who left South Africa in the early 60’s because of Apartheid. And Then King Sunny Ade got signed by Island records right after Bob Marley’s death as I guess kind of a way to fill in the space of such a huge voice. Right around 1982, when King Sunny was touring the States that was when people started hearing for the first time, Afro-pop, the African guitars and talking drums of Nigeria. Later, the music of South Africa was made famous by Paul Simon’s 1986 album, Graceland. So, there were a series of turning points.
What were two major musicians that people were familiar with that brought African music to the States?
For me in the Northwest, it was Dumisane Maraire from Zimbabwe, and Odo Addy from Ghana, both of whom I met in the 70s, and were my teachers. Also, it was interesting because my radio show was going for two years before Paul Simon’s Graceland came out. So, I was aware of the music but a lot of people heard this African influence through the Graceland album. I think Peter Gabriel also helped bring African music to the west with the creation of his label Real World, which supported many acts from Africa. It’s a complicated story and a lot of it is subject to the thesis I was working on. I also think David Byrne and Brian Eno made a huge impact with their collaborations (My Life in the Bush of Ghosts and Remain in Light) in the early 80’s. David Byrne released a lot of African and South American music on his record label, Luaka Bop.
How do you put your show together? Is there a language barrier with some of the artists you interview?
I try to educate but I don’t usually talk about the complexities of African music. I focus on the music and the history of that music within the region. A lot of consideration goes into how articulate performers are with presenting their music. So, when I do interviews sometimes the ratio between talking and music playing can really change a lot. This is because there can be a language barrier. Usually when a group is touring the United States, they have an interepter who can translate the different languages. I understand a little bit of French and my wife is good with French, but it can get really difficult if you’re translating between two different languages. I once interviewed an artist named Lobi Traore at a festival in France and he spoke Bambara So, we needed to go from Bambara to French and then to English. I had to speak in English, somebody had to translate from English to French, and a third person had to translate from French to Bombroa and then back again. It was like the old game of telephone. Someone starts by saying something which later in the game turns out to be completely different because of everyone’s compounded interruption of the original spoken phrase.
How has technology changed the distribution and influence of African music?
Music from around the world is much more available now. You can find the rarest of songs online and within seconds have an extensive collection of music you didn’t even know existed. When I started my radio show there were just a handful of places you could get African music records. These places were pretty much all located in Paris, London and Africa. So, I would have to go to these places and then bring back these record collections. Now, there are so many new avenues for exploring music and it’s really cheap now to buy it. It doesn’t cost as much as record collecting. I think after some years of getting familiar with African music. Newer bands are taking elements of African music and including it into their performances. There are some new bands now like Extra Golden who have a mix of African and American musicians. The Occidental Brothers Dance Band International, who are playing at the anniversary show, are another of these new bands, with American and African musicians together.
Has there been financial or political difficulty for African touring acts to come to the States?
There have been a lot of cultural problems especially since 9/11. It’s a lot harder for the artist to get tours and to get visas. I had a group on my show last year called the Master Musicians of Jajouka from Morocco and they were turned down here last year and their visa application denied. I think because of the religious and political dimensions, especially with Middle Eastern music of North Africa there can be a lot of misunderstandings from the west. I would like to think there is a bridge now but it still difficult for some groups to travel. A lot of artists and musicians from areas of political unrest have moved to places like Paris and London. It will be interesting to see how this changes in the future.
What do you see as the future for this kind of music?
I would like to see a lot more access for African musicians to American audiences. It is happening in some ways but it’s harder from them to make any money. For example, there was a large group of musicians and producers touring through Seattle from the Middle East. And they were sponsored by the State Deptartment to learn about America and they asked me, how do we get our music available to you? This is a difficult question but I think there are agents out there that can set up shows and help distribute music via the internet. I guess I’m one of these agents but it’s hard to get people to find out about these things because everyone has their own personal search engine. It’s harder to promote through the billions of advertising decisions out there. I worked on a project for the Smithsonian called Smithsonian Global Sound and it’s a world music website where you can buy world music. The whole idea of the project was to help generate income for the musicians who lived in developing countries around the world. I do think it’s been successful but I think the concept vs. the reality of the situation is very different. I would love to see a future where there was an instantaneous musical and financial interaction between musicians in Africa and America. We will have to wait and see.
Tell us about the upcoming 25th anniversary show at The Triple Door.
I found out that King Sunny will be available to play. He has been a really big influence and inspiration for me and the show. He was only playing up in Vancouver and not in Seattle but I asked him to play through his U.S. manager and former Best Ambiance host Andy Frankel, and he said he would. Here is the story. Before I left to go study in London, I was set to study a whole different research project having to do with Jamaican music. And so a week before I left, King Sunny Ade played here on February 25, 1983. I saw the show and I went backstage and interviewed him and I was totally blown away. The next week, I was on a plane to London to study African music. It was all because of seeing that show. So, I guess you could say that the whole reason that this show exists is because of seeing King Sunny Ade.
Thank you, Jon.
Thank you for having me. We’ll see you at the show.
Tune in tonight from 6-9PM for the special 25th Anniversary show of The Best Ambiance. If you miss the show or want to hear it again, you can check out the show on our 14-day Streaming Archive.