Music from Africa and African Diaspora at the Pulitzer
Sound Waves audience listens to Banning Eyre and Chris King talk African music
Sound Waves audience listens to Banning Eyre and Chris King talk African music

Banning Eyre, Senior Editor of Afropop Worldwide, a radio program and online magazine dedicated to music from Africa and African Diaspora, visited St. Louis for Sound Waves on Thursday, January 17. He spoke publicly with Chris King, Editorial Director of the St. Louis American, about the various cultural influences that shape African music and how that music resonates throughout the world.

The next day we had the opportunity to follow up via email with Banning and Chris.

PULITZER: Banning, how do notions of arranged marriage and rebellion play into African love songs, particularly music from Mali?

Also, you mentioned at Sound Waves that Afropop Worldwide did a series on Egypt in 2011 during the uprising. Could you talk more about the popular resistance to love songs at that time, the feeling in Egypt that love songs were “holding people back?”

BANNING EYRE: By way of answering your first question, I refer you to my essay, “Love Songs in Africa,” for The Progress of Love exhibition catalogue.

On Egypt, I am sending you to a landing page that has links to all 5 Afropop Egypt programs. I recommend listening to Egypt 3: Cairo Underground, and Egypt 5: Revolution Songs. One of those programs also has a link to a text interview by Karim Rush, a really articulate rapper. His remarks will tell you a lot about the “tired of love songs” attitude.

PULITZER: Chris, based on your travel experiences, do you perceive similarities between African and American music culture? At Sound Waves you mentioned dancing at a wedding reception — in Togo, I believe — after which everyone went to the disco; I wonder whether you feel the American club scene (and club-hopping) is at all similar.

CHRIS KING: I am married into a large family with many traditional elements that is split between Ghana and Togo. When I visit these countries, it is as an in-law with a large number of mostly older relatives to visit. My African social life, therefore, is pretty limited. I have been to a couple of “spots,” as nightclubs are called there, that feature live music, one at a hotel and another at a restaurant. These bands were playing highlife music, which is now understood to be old-fashioned. The radio mostly plays highly confected music made mostly in a box, in a computer, which has had a bad effect on live music. This is very similar to what you see in Black America, where live bands have yielded in many instances to rappers with show tapes.

But as someone incorporated into a family, I also get to see how music continues to serve ceremonial functions. Our family is fairly affluent so we have hired the Ghana Airforce Band to play one family  funeral, and the best working highlilfe group, the Buoyant Band to play another funeral. We also brought out to the suburbs of Accra for a family funeral afterparty a drum circle from the inner-city shantytown who play very, very old and ritual repertoire and evoked in the dancing of people of all ages some deeply traditional moves.

Here in St. Louis I recently attended the musical celebration of the life of Fontella Bass, who had passed, and this ceremony employed a very traditional African sense of music as functional, ceremonial, ritual material. But Fontella’s family is one of the most musically developed and conscious families in this country, so I can trust them to know their sources. Not many other American celebrations would be touched in quite the way I expect from African ceremonies.


Sound Waves, a continuing collaboration between the Pulitzer and 88.1 KDHX, creates a soundtrack through which visitors discover new ways of experiencing art.

Join us for a unique Sound Waves this Valentine’s Day, 6-9 pm, featuring live blues music with the Fabulous Foehners, poetry with the Fort Gondo Poetry Series, and food by entre. Next door, CAM will feature KDHX DJ Rob Levy and a tarot card reader to complement their exhibition, Jeremy Deller: Joy in People.