Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Race and the Bay Area Afrobeat band Albino!

This morning I posted this article on describing a four month lab residency for the Bay Area afrobeat band Albino! to play at the Elbo Room in the Mission. Each month they will team up with a different artist to experiment with the kind of music that might come up out of that partnership. This is month (Friday) they are playing with Liberian-Bay Area DJ Jeremiah.

I'm not gonna lie, when I first heard about this band three years ago, it made my stomach churn a little bit. The idea of an Afrobeat band called Albino! which is comprised of *mostly* white dudes in costume (often African-themed costume and "tribal" face paint) was not really appealing to me at all; especially coming right out of an Ethnomusicology academic program where I thought about race and music consistently for three years. I was even sure that the band was pretty damn good, but it was still disturbing to me.

But then, the more I thought about it, and the more I got to know the Bay Area and its sense of humor and awareness, it seemed less and less of an issue. I mean, in Austin I was in an afropop band where we often didn't even know what we were singing about, let alone if we were singing words that made ANY sense in the original language (we learned covers phonetically). We just liked the music and wanted to recreate it the best we knew how. At least Albino!'s lyrics are in English and write about political and racial issues in their own community (class struggle within Oakland for instance).

The name Albino! and the costumes seem to be merely poking fun at the fact that the musicians are a bunch of white guys, and yeah, "we play African music," so what? There are dozens of afrobeat bands in the US comprised of mostly/all white people (Antibalas, Budos, Nomo, Afrodesia etc), and they're damn damn good bands that I love very much and do all I can to support them. Can I single one out because of a band name and funny outfits? Can I seriously consider this tasteless enough to count them out?

The music is good. The music does not poke fun. I now have one of their live CDs and it's great music.

What do you think; am I trying too hard justify this idea? Can we just laugh at it and dance?

Albino! promo photo


Susan DuBois said...

Hey! I love all kinds of music, and play in a samba-reggae all-women percussion band called Batala. I also hope that I am tolerant of self-expression. That said, I am the mother of two children with albinism (the preferred term for "albinos"). I also founded an organization named Asante Mariamu to help people with albinism in East Africa, who are hunted by witch doctors. So, the mixture of proud mama-hood and the Africa + Albino! combination makes me cringe a bit. I doubt the musicians realize how people with albinism are treated in Africa, but it is inhuman. Maybe they can spread the word through their music!

Jamie: said...

Hi Susan! I didn't even think about that whole issue while writing this. I learned about struggle of people with albinism when covering a Salif Keita show last year (that man is amazing), so thank you for bringing it up.

Albino! does encourage their community to follow in Fela Kuti's legacy and "take action and make your voices heard" (text from their website) but I don't know if they single out albinism, it would be interesting to research it a little bit to see if they've brought it up at shows.

Thanks for your comment!

Jamie: said...

And Susan, I wish I knew about Batala when I lived in DC back in 2004-2005, the group looks AWESOME!

Mister Chris said...

I think it always depends on the artists' intents. Maybe in this case, it's a matter of homage/tribute versus parody. I would probably react the same way you did when you first heard about the band. But in this case, if I found out their intentions to form the band is out of pure love and respect for the genre and not to openly mock it, I'd soften up to it, especially if they were really good.

There's always a raised eyebrow whenever people of a certain ethnicity or race get into a venue that are stereotypically not linked to them, especially white people. It's kinda sad, but at the same time, there's a long history of racism and open mockery of ethnic culture, so there's always going to be uneasiness about it... at first.

In a completely less offensive yet kinda similar(?) topic, my friends play in a Japanese rock band, they dress up in the typical J-Rock fashion, but they're not Japanese nor are they from Japan. They just REALLY love J-Rock and the culture and fashion surrounding it. I don't find it offensive because I know their intent. But would other people, especially Japanese people, find it offensive that they're a J-Rock band and not their race? I don't know.

Anyways, that's just my take :)

cam said...

truthfully, i wouldn't give it a second thought. here's why.

given SF's diversity, i see no reason to assume that albino! is anything other than the name of a band who has something to say. i'm pretty sure they have no intent on insulting anyone.

this is no different than eminem pulling off rap, and in most instances, better than his counterparts in the genre. he's about as pale as the freshly driven snow. if he can pull off performing in a culture that is not of his ethnicity, why can't these whyite guys make african music?

ignore the fact that eminem *strives* to insult; he's never claimed otherwise. however, he's not fake. his music is real, his talent is undeniable, and he's flat-out good at what he does. he's white, and he raps the shit out of everything he touches.

so if albino! is made up of a bunch of pale guys making african tribal music, and they're doing a good job of it and not insulting anyone in the process, i say let 'em have at it until they give up.

Jamie: said...

The costumes don't bother you?

It's not the ethnicity of the musicians that bothers me, it's the name and the costumes. It's like so over the top.

Like I said, there's a bunch of American bands (with lots of white people) that play afrobeat, and I don't have a problem with that. It's the name and the costumes.

cam said...

given that you studied this for so long and know the cultural impact better than I, I will defer to your expertise. as a common lay person, however, they strike me as artists trying to be true to their medium and genre. you know ... if it were up to me, I'd ask to interview the band--see what their deal is. get the scoop! I bet they'd grant one! can't Hirt to ask, right?

Jamie: said...

If only I had such a forum for said hard hitting interview... lol!

That's a very observant suggestion. I might just do that! Thanks Cam!

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