Let’s talk the impact of geography on influences for a bit, shall we? Let’s take Blues for an example. From the outside, it’s easy to look at the musical form of Blues as just a blanket term, but within that category things are much more fine-grained. For instance, you have Chicago blues, which has a heavy horns influence, as opposed to Delta blues which is guitar-centric, as opposed to Texas blues which is more electric guitar-centric. All three are, undeniably, the blues. But sprouted from the same seed, they grew up to reflect the other influences, both musically and culturally, that were going on around them.
This is particularly relevant when discussing Asa, and the new-soul revival. Grown from the same seeds of old-school soul (Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, etc.) the new-soul movement has slight variances in flavor/style, small, but to my ear undeniable. Maybe it’s the production style, but there’s no doubt that American musicians such as Jill Scott or Fitz & the Tantrums or Mayer Hawthorne are drawing from a different playbook than British musicians like Adelle or Rumer, despite the common origin point. Same too with Asa (pronounced Asha), who was born in Paris before moving Nigeria with her parents. Her father had an extensive collection of records containing many of the same seeds as the other new-soul artists, but also a deep catalog of Nigerian artists such as Fela Kuti and Ebenezer Obey. When she returned to Paris around the age of 18, she was on her way to defining her own sound.
There’s something cosmopolitan about Asa’s second album, “Beautiful Imperfection” that has me listening to it on constant repeat the last few days. It is both comfortable and familiar at the same time that it’s undeniably alien. The inclusion of lyrics in Yoruba contributes mightily to this. There’s this perception by a segment of the western world that African is one big primitive wasteland in constant struggle, decades behind everyone else. While there are regions that are certainly suffering from war, famine, corruption, and general collapse, Africa is a BIG place. The continental United States can fit inside the Sahara desert with room left over. And there are more countries, language groups, and cultural identities than I could conveniently list here.
So when I say the music on “Beautiful Imperfection” sounds cosmopolitan, I don’t mean it sounds Parisian. No, there’s no denying the influence of Nigeria here, though at the same time, it’s absolutely a western new-soul album. It doesn’t sound like anything else I’m listening to right now. The closest parallel would be how I felt about Sade’s first few albums…but less sultry. In fact, the first song on the album, “Why Can’t We” is a bouncy joy that seems more influenced by Bob Marley than anything else. Then you get to “Be My Man,” which was the first single that calls to mind Amy Winehouse and the British new-soul sound. Only to switch with the next song, “Preacher Man” that I’ve linked to above–a live recording for German TV…so forgive the minute or so intro, because the performance is excellent. Then a few songs later, my personal favorite, “The Way I Feel,” which is the whole reason for this post.
“The Way I Feel,” feels like a song from a slick, noir spy film. Timeless, the way a good Bond theme is timeless. It makes me want to write cyberpunk thrillers set in Lagos with Asa playing in the background. Now, keep in mind, I’ve never BEEN to Africa, much less Lagos, so I’m probably not the person best suited to this task. So I’m putting this idea out there to the universe. I’d love to see some more sci-fi coming out of Africa. I mean, we have this outstanding-looking anthology out this month, I believe? But other than a handful of novels (Zoo City and Moxieland by Lauren Beukes, both of which are excellent, btw), there’s a lot of room in the market.
And if someone writes that Lagos cyberpunk novel before I get to it, let me know. I’d read the HELL out of that! In the meantime, I’ll just continue enjoying the music.