Saturday, February 16, 2019

Toto's Rains of Africa

Early in my Africa sabbatical, I spent about 15 minutes going down the rabbit hole of the eponymous 1981 song by Toto. I reemerged quickly, but the song is still with me, consarnit! In a undoubtedly vain effort to stop it from playing in my head before I board a plane to Africa next month, I'm returning to that rabbit hole for a bit, this time bringing along any willing readers.

After all, if a serious public intellectual like Meghna Chakrabarti can devote 26 giggling minutes of her show to the questions raised by Weezer's unfortunate cover of the song (and the Twitter campaign that made it inevitable), I can justify a couple hours delving into some geographic considerations.

This Radio Boston program aired in August 2018, just before I was to teach  GEOG 388 -- Africa: People, Resources, Development for the first time. Because I somehow ended up teaching the course before the sabbatical in which I would plan the course, I grasped at more than a few straws for content, and playing the original music video on the first day was one of these straws.

I did so by waying of highlighting the fact that in the United States Africa exists primarily as a vague cluster of stereotypes, rather than the world's second-biggest continent. The original MTV video has two things to recommend it: is set in an imaginatively-staged library and it features a globe. Its connection to Africa is in the form of overworked and disjointed tropes.

This may be seen as ironic -- just as Carly Simon's "You're So Vain" was explicitly not "about" its subject, so too "Africa" has nothing to do with the place it names. The irony is celebrated by Namibian artist Max Siedentopf, who is -- as you read this -- playing "Africa" in Africa. Specifically, he has installed an armored, solar-powered, omni-directional speaker system that plays the song on infinite loop in an undisclosed location in the tractless Namib desert. He chose the oldest desert in the world, and though it is not as big as the Sahara, its very name means "vast," so that Toto has a good chance of playing for years without being heard.

BBC's report on this installation is what started me down this rabbit hole back in January, starting with a link to another BBC article about the surprising endurance of the song and its malleability into memes and parodies. By hiding the song in plain sight in a tangible but unknown place in Africa itself, Siedentopf in part reclaims continent's ownership of its own discourse. He disrupts -- or at least interrogates -- the problematic imbalance between the narrator and the periphery that is "down in" his subject.

Lyrics

It was from the reporting of Meghna Chakrabarti that I learned that "Africa" is an exemplar -- perhaps the exemplar -- of something known as yacht rock, a genre whose name derived from an internet television program produced only after the genre had been put to rest. Catchy tunes and vacuous lyricare hallmarks of yacht rock. This explains the longevity of a song that nobody can -- or even tries to -- explain.
I hear the drums echoing tonight
But she hears only whispers of some quiet conversation
She's coming in, 12:30 flight
The moonlit wings reflect the stars that guide me towards salvation
I stopped an old man along the way
Hoping to find some long forgotten words or ancient melodies
He turned to me as if to say, "Hurry boy, it's waiting there for you"
It's gonna take a lot to take me away from you
There's nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do
I bless the rains down in Africa
Gonna take some time to do the things we never had
The wild dogs cry out in the night
As they grow restless, longing for some solitary company
I know that I must do what's right
As sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti
I seek to cure what's deep inside, frightened of this thing that I've become
It's gonna take a lot to drag me away from you
There's nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do
I bless the rains down in Africa
Gonna take some time to do the things we never had
Hurry boy, she's waiting there for you
It's gonna take a lot to drag me away from you
There's nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do
I bless the rains down in Africa
I bless the rains down in Africa
(I bless the rain)
I bless the rains down in Africa
(I bless the rain)
I bless the rains down in Africa
I bless the rains down in Africa
(Ah, gonna take the time)
Gonna take some time to do the things we never hadSongwriters: David Paich / Jeff PorcaroAfrica lyrics © Spirit Music Group

Coming the lyrics for geographic meaning, I find nothing more significant than a weak metaphor involving Kilimanjaro. I am still likely, however to play this song on opening day of my next GEOG 388 section in September.

Lagniappe

In my "research" for this post, I learned of the existence of this artifact, an Africa picture disk. Rather than plunking $275 to buy one for a phonography I no longer own, I will share this virtual version.


Final Note (for now)

In the opening paragraph, I mention my upcoming trip "to Africa," reinforcing the common representation of it as a single place. It is, of course, a continent of 55 countries over a billion people, so I should be a bit more specific. I will be visiting Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Durban Maseru, and Johannesburg.

I will be carrying with me a giant National Geographic floor map of the entire continent to do some school programs while learning what I can of the geography of its southernmost edge. This blog, of course, will feature some of what I learn.

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