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Sean Barlow and Banning Eyre are the founders of Afropop Worldwide, a Peabody Award winning radio show about African music. This year, they’re celebrating 30 years of sharing some of the best African and African-inspired music in the world. The beauty of their show is not only in enticing their audiences with fresh, joyful music, but also in providing a rich cultural, historical, and political context and education. The show creates a potent atmosphere filled with magic and joy that is likely to open the heart of the listener.
In this episode you’ll hear Sean and Banning talk about how they set out on a life-long adventure of tracking down epic African music, then exuberantly sharing it with the world through their show. You’ll also hear them reminisce about some of their favorite African artists, including several they developed close relationships with over decades, like Thomas Mapfumo and Johnny Clegg. You’ll hear never before released tracks from Mapfumo and Clegg, as well as Ali Farka Touré and others. These recordings, going back as far as 1987, were pulled just for this show from the massive Afropop archive.
Immerse yourself in the sounds and stories that caused Sean and Banning to build a lively, kaleidoscopic community and platform that many people hold very dear to their hearts.
To learn more, visit afropop.org and listen to the Afropop Worldwide podcast here
Banning’s book, Lion Songs: Thomas Mapfumo and the Music That Made Zimbabwe
To watch the YouTube video of Johnny Clegg dancing, click here
Rosemary Pritzker: You’re listening to A Show of Hearts, the podcast about finding the courage to live a deep and magical life. I’m your host, Life Coach, Rosemary Pritzker.
Rosemary Pritzker: (singing)
Rosemary Pritzker: Hi everyone. Welcome. Today I have two super awesome guests who I can’t wait to share with you. Shawn Barlow and Banning Eyre are the founders of Afropop Worldwide, a Peabody Award winning radio show about African music. This year, they’re celebrating 30 years of sharing some of the best African and African inspired music in the world. The beauty of their show is not only in enticing their audiences with fresh, joyful music, but also in providing a rich cultural, historical and political context and education. Sean and Banning met at Wesleyan where they both discovered their fervent passion for World Music.
Rosemary Pritzker: In this episode, you’ll hear about how that led to immersing themselves in the cultures of countless African countries, falling in love with each distinct style of music, then exuberantly sharing it with the world through their show. I was introduced to their work in 2005 when I attended the Afropop Awards Gala. I was blown away by the vibrant community they created around African music, and honored to be in the same room with such musical legends as Youssou N’Dour and Angélique Kidjo. The potent atmosphere was filled with magic and joy, and it opened my heart. Shawn, Banning and Afropop have since become an important part of my life that stoked my enthusiasm for African music while we cultivated our friendship based on shared passion. We’ve spent a great deal of time together at shows all over New York City in Brooklyn, and at one point I even joined the board of Afropop.
Rosemary Pritzker: When I was interviewing them, Sean joked that I’m probably their most enthusiastic supporter. I’m very pleased to share this interview of two people who I adore, who have built a lively kaleidoscopic community, and platform, that I hold very dear to my heart. When I first sat down with them, I asked Sean and Banning what it meant to them to follow the heart.
Sean Barlow: Well, it goes way back for me because my mother used to use that expression. We were raised in the ’60s and my parents were pretty liberal. They always had that ethic of you should do what you love. I always had this conflict all through my formative years of I loved writing and I love music, and I really said both of them were things that you had to dedicate yourself to entirely. It’s always like which one do I love more? I never really was able to make that decision, so I still do both. It is exactly what it sounds like. You do what pulls you. You don’t think about the practical or economic implications. To an extent you do, but in the beginning, I was always driven by just going to places I wanted to go, pursuing the things I wanted to, playing the music I wanted to play, writing the things; and some of them … a lot of them didn’t work. I still basically operate on that principle.
Banning Eyre: I had parents with very similar philosophy, and it was all about don’t force your kids to do what you want them to do because they’ll wind up resenting you; and allow them to do what they love to do. God bless my parents, that’s what they taught us. I can just trace nature; I grew up right on the Potomac River, and I was all up and down the Potomac River all the time as a kid, canoeing, swimming; swimming on vines and so on. Then later on hiking in the big national parks out west. That was my passion, and hitchhiking here, there and everywhere. Really, it was music that pulled it all together for me as I’m not a musician, but I studied music. I was aware of some big aesthetic principles that guided Javanese, Indian, African music and so on. I started doing radio, which is a passion for me up in Alaska, where I worked as a commercial fisherman, and cold storage worker part time, and travel … I love to travel.
Banning Eyre: That was a big passion of mine. I think I tell all the interns who come here, “Whatever you do, take time off from school and go traveling. Live in Morocco, spend time in an Egyptian monastery, whatever. Become an assistant to a game warden in Tanzania. That’s the stuff you really learn from.
Rosemary Pritzker: Was there anyone who inspired you when you were a kid, who you looked up to?
Sean Barlow: Well, I would start with my mother. She inspired me a lot artistically. Well, first of all, she played guitar and sang songs, and when she was in college in the ’30s or ’40s, she traveled through Mexico collecting folk songs, and she always had this idea of ‘found music’. That was actually what started me playing guitar. She also made mobile. She was a visual artist. Just her dedication to creativity would just put the whole idea of being an artist in my mind very clearly. There were many. Another one I would point to would be a particular teacher that I had in high school, who … his name was Gilbert Burnett. He was British originally. He’d become American, and he’d been in the OSS, which was the precursor of the CIA. He taught anthropology and biology, and he was just … he was very fastidious, very demanding teacher, but he was so incredibly open-minded.
Sean Barlow: There were so many ideas that I was introduced to as a high school student that really have stuck with me ever since; just ideas about culture and how culture makes people who they are. Gil was the first person who really talked about culture to me and made me think about it as all the things that you acquire in life, and from your surroundings as opposed to things that are just inbred in your genes or in your blood. That distinction, of course, it’s a huge ongoing debate in so many disciplines. Once that idea was in my head, I’ve tended to think about things in those terms, and how much of your attitudes, your capabilities, your senses of what’s possible, even your emotions and the things that draw you are really derived from culture. When we started traveling in Africa, there were just so many fascinating examples of that. As a musician, I always note the way kids in Africa learn about melody and rhythm, especially rhythm, because there’s so much dancing and so much rhythmic activity. I remember being a young guitarist, before I ever went to Africa, and being told that the hardest thing for most guitars is to have good rhythm.
Sean Barlow: I’ve really noticed it because when I started trying to play African guitar, it was all about … never mind what the notes are. Don’t drop the time. That was just so complete. I realized, okay, this is culture. This is something that I just was not programmed to do. Then I’m having to struggle to rewire my brain to operate in this other culture because it’s really counterintuitive, and I find this all the time when I teach people who are trying to learn African guitar. You just see over and over again how weak the rhythmic training is in our musical pedagogy. It’s definitely an afterthought, unless you’re a drummer. That’s just one example. There are so many things that really are intrinsic to who you are, and they’re established so early by the people around you and by the things that you see as just normal.
Rosemary Pritzker: Sean was the only one that inspired you when you were a kid?
Banning Eyre: Lots of people, but I’d have to say my older brother Mark because he is a really cool guy who’s an actor, musician. He played in a soul band, funk band, performed for Robert F. Kennedy. He just did everything. He played basketball. I could not be nearly as cool as he was.
Sean Barlow: He was five years older, right? Isn’t he?
Banning Eyre: My brother?
Sean Barlow: Yeah, he’s old-
Banning Eyre: He’s five and a half years older …
Sean Barlow: Yeah.
Banning Eyre: Older, right.
Sean Barlow: Quite a bit older.
Banning Eyre: Anyway, he was, in our family, the first one to go to Africa, and he came back from, I think, Ghana was his first. He brought back all sorts of instruments and stories. He really inspired me that way. He went on to become a recording artist under the … his artistic name is Marcus James. I think fast forward to school at Wesleyan where we both went to … where we met. There was a course called Ancient Rights of Initiation in Modern Psychological Therapies. My god, no.
Sean Barlow: That’s good.
Banning Eyre: It was a room full of 200 kids just busting with curiosity. Every week, or it was twice a week, I guess, there was lectures and films. The basic principle was the journey of the shaman, and people who go beyond their known world and come back to their world to share some of the sacred knowledge that they’ve gained.
Sean Barlow: It was co-taught by religion and philosophy … and a psychology professor so-
Banning Eyre: Right.
Sean Barlow: They were working together.
Banning Eyre: That became the imprint for my life. That’s what I did. That’s what I’m doing. Of course, I had other reasons to do the research and so on; to go to Africa, but I would say it was very … made a huge impression. Our school was really amazing. The religion department was fantastic. The English department was fantastic. The dance department fantastic. We were liberal artists; we were lucky enough to do some of everything. That particular course is the one I remember especially.
Rosemary Pritzker: Tell me more about Wesleyan. I’d love to know, was there a moment that you guys remember meeting each other?
Sean Barlow: I’m not sure. I think we … were in the same class. We knew each other … we knew who each other was in the early years, but we didn’t really become friends till later.
Banning Eyre: Junior year or something like that.
Sean Barlow: You were on the same hall with one of my best friends from high school, who I used to visit with, and that was a real party hall.
Banning Eyre: Yeah.
Sean Barlow: It was like-
Banning Eyre: Yeah, Fost Hill.
Sean Barlow: The ShangriLa.
Rosemary Pritzker: Sean spoke about the typical college tour that East Coast kids did to schools like Harvard, Amherst and others.
Sean Barlow: They’re also boring. These places are so boring. I drove into Wesleyan, in Middletown, Connecticut, and just parked haphazardly. I walked across to the nearest building, looked inside, and there was a gamelan, a full out gamelan. It’s a Javanese tradition.
Banning Eyre: It’s an orchestra.
Sean Barlow: It’s an orchestra.
Banning Eyre: Lawns, orchestra.
Sean Barlow: It looks like pots and pans, it can look like that to the untrained eyes, and big gongs. We, Wesleyan, brought it back from the New York World’s Fair in 1964 because the Indonesians are … What are we gonna do? We’re not going to ship the gamelan back to Indonesia. Who wants to buy it? Wesleyan said, “We’ll buy it.” That was just one place, activity in the World Music Hall. All of a sudden, I realized, wow, this place is different. This place has West African drummer and dance masters, teachers; has Indian singing masters.
Banning Eyre: I mean Wesleyan … one of the reasons … and the reason that gamelan was there, I think, is Wesleyan was actually the first American university to offer a PhD in Ethnomusicology. It was really a hub for people who were interested in international music. Really great artists came through. They had incredible performances of Indian music and Indonesian, and African; just so many mind-blowing things were happening. I was really determined to be a writer at that point. I was an English major and I had a very great professor, another person who inspired me, Phyllis Rose. She, in the freshman writing class, basically told the class, “Look, if any of you are here because you’re thinking about your career, you might want to think again because the only thing you can do with being a writer is to become an English teacher like me, and you’ll never make any money.” She was very much saying that. This is not a good thing to do if your career oriented.
Banning Eyre: I, having been raised with this whole ‘follow your heart’ ethic, was undissuaded by that. The weird thing is, it turned out not to be true, because one of the only things that I’ve ever done that did make money was writing.
Rosemary Pritzker: Yeah, but it seemed … you talked earlier about having these two passions and never being able to pick one of the two, right, writing and music; but it seems to me like you’ve combined them in a way.
Banning Eyre: Yes, well, that’s what the Afropop career has allowed. Yes.
Rosemary Pritzker: After graduating, Sean went to Alaska to work in the commercial fishing industry.
Sean Barlow: I had the naive notion that you could go up to Alaska and make money. A lot of kids …
Banning Eyre: That’s not true?
Sean Barlow: Well, eventually. First you have to learn the trade. Fishing is a difficult trade. First year, I didn’t really make a lot of money, but it made a lot of good friends and I … it was my first experience with radio because there was a … KCAW, Raven Radio. Was literally the month I got there in Sitka, Alaska, that’s the southeastern Alaska, went on the air playing way too much Irish music because the programming people were all Irish music fiends. Anyway, so I had this mixed experience of learning radio and getting to do my world music program for the first time, and making some money, making friends. It was appealing enough that I went … came back the second year, and I did much better; learn new things on the radio. I earned enough money that I could actually travel around the world, one way. I traveled around the world one way for eight months, for $6,000.
Rosemary Pritzker: Wow.
Sean Barlow: Yeah, that was ’83, ‘84.
Rosemary Pritzker: When I was one.
Sean Barlow: China was really cheap.
Banning Eyre: Okay.
Sean Barlow: It was when you were … not yet?
Rosemary Pritzker: I was one. I was born in ‘82.
Sean Barlow: That’s …
Banning Eyre: I don’t remember.
Sean Barlow: Okay. They … you missed … we missed a great era there for us. Anyway, the focus for that was a radio project in Madras, or Chennai, as we say now. It’s South India. I did a four-part series on the Carnatic music tradition; everything – engineering, voicing, writing, marketing. I just did everything up at my little station in Alaska. I learned some things I was good at, and some things I was maybe not so good at. I didn’t …
Rosemary Pritzker: Good to know early on.
Sean Barlow: I was okay as a voiceover person, but I wanted people who were better than me. Yeah. I earned enough that season to go to, this time, to Ghana, Cameroon and Congo. At the time we called it … it was called Zaire, under Mobutu Sese Seko. That was just such a mind-blowing experience because I had studied West African music in college. I’d seen King Sunny Adé perform live in ’83, in California, which like, Whoa, that is a mother of a big band with four guitars and five dancers. That really opened my eyes to what contemporary African music was and how much I loved it. No one was paying me really. I mean there … I was not on assignment in West Africa, and Congo. It was all my own earnings, but Ghana, I loved, especially the traditional culture. It was still very rich there. The highlife bands are faded away a bit, but there were still some highlife artists who are cool. Cameron was … remember Makossa and Bikutsi. That was really hot in African music in, especially, Paris and elsewhere in the mid-80s.
Sean Barlow: Really, the mother lode was Kinshasa because Kinshasa was the most musical city I’d ever been in my life. You go out at midnight to see your first band. You wind up around … they call it njuskalob up until dawn, njuskalob. You might see two or three bands at night, and every band had particular dance routines. My god, the level of unison singing high, male, unison singing was …
Banning Eyre: Harmonies.
Sean Barlow: Harmonies was extraordinary. The level of guitar ship was extraordinary. The rhythm section was fantastic, too. I bumped into after interviewing him and, this guy by the name of Franco, who is grand artist, singer, composer, bandleader, legendary figure.
Sean Barlow: (singing)
Sean Barlow: I went to his house and his house is like a furniture showroom. It was beautiful furniture. His garage had eight luxury cars in it. I learned that … a Mercedes, Renault, this or that. I learned that he didn’t … when was one of his composers, Benson, composed hit song, he didn’t pay him. He gave him a car, which is not bad to get a Mercedes for a hit song. He was bit of a control freak, too. He was … The seminal moment for me was there I am … I was in this little dive bar in Kinshasa. This guy turns to me and as … my god, it’s Franco. He’s wearing a beret. Franco’s a big guy, like 300 pounds, and a deep voice. I did interview him, so he knew who I was.
Sean Barlow: I was an American journalist, and so on and so on. He turned to me and said to, “We … these aliens. We know Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Otis Redding, but you Americans, you know nothing about music. Why?” It was this cry from the heart that just pierced my heart, because he was right, of course.
Rosemary Pritzker: Yeah.
Sean Barlow: It was phenomenal. This is the best music in Africa. Why was it so little known in the world?
Banning Eyre: That’s more than 10 years after the rumble in the jungle, when that was all supposed to be thrown open by that big festival they had and it didn’t happen so he was frustrated.
Sean Barlow: He was very frustrated. He wasn’t speaking about me not knowing because obviously I was there and I was learning. He was talking about me representing Americans. I said something like, “Franco, you’re right. You’re so right. This is a bad situation. I’ll try to do something about it.” I think I said something like that.
Rosemary Pritzker: You did.
Sean Barlow: I did.
Banning Eyre: This came through.
Sean Barlow: Anyway, then the next time I went to Africa, I invited Banning to come with me as a co-producer, and we also went to Kinshasa. This drew us back. You can’t just name the names of the stars at that moment we were there Pépé Kallé, Papa Wemba …
Banning Eyre: Koffi Olomide.
Sean Barlow: Tabu Ley. There’s so many brilliant artists and fortunately, because we have recordings, you can actually listen to these artists.
Banning Eyre: Yeah, there’s a lot of them.
Sean Barlow: A lot of them are dead, unfortunately. Anyways, there’s always new artists coming up. We really were on a roll. At that point, actually, we were funded. We had gotten funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. I came back from this trip, saying, “Maybe I could put together a little 13-part series or whatever.” The big dog at CPB in the radio program, Rick Mann, rest in peace, he said to me, “Well, son,” kind of sternly, “The panel listened to your demo tape. We think that 13 programs is not enough. We want 52.” I said, “Well, I’d have to go back several times to do the research, to Africa.” He says, “Do it.” He says, “Do you have an accountant.” “No.” “Find one. Do you have a computer?” “No.” “Buy one.” Basically, gear up-
Rosemary Pritzker: It’s on, yeah.
Sean Barlow: … really quickly and then we’re on …
Banning Eyre: Can you imagine? This would never happen today.
Sean Barlow: Yeah. In retrospect, this is in the wake of Graceland. God bless Paul Simon. We were … the right place at the right time. We had the right concept and of course, mostly, the music was so powerful.
Banning Eyre: And unknown.
Sean Barlow: Yeah. That’s the point of public broadcasting, isn’t it? To introduce people to new things for their aesthetic enjoyment and for their spiritual consideration. I mean, I don’t think there’s enough sense … don’t get me going now about my sense, but anyways, there was more openness to … amongst program directors, too. Public radio used to be a lot more open to allowing their viewers and their listeners to learn new things and explore new things, as opposed to just be titillated.
Rosemary Pritzker: Well, but somehow Afropop has managed to exist-
Banning Eyre: Yes, somehow.
Sean Barlow: Yes.
Rosemary Pritzker: …for around-
Sean Barlow: 30 years.
Rosemary Pritzker: 30 years now?
Sean Barlow: Yes.
Banning Eyre: Yeah.
Rosemary Pritzker: That’s amazing.
Banning Eyre: It is amazing.
Sean Barlow: It is amazing.
Banning Eyre: Yeah, it was 30 years ago, this … right now, that I made my first trip, Sean’s second trip, to Africa.
Sean Barlow: He said …
Rosemary Pritzker: What other music show is there that’s lasted that long? I mean, especially one that’s about other cultures?
Banning Eyre: it’s a success story.
Sean Barlow: I don’t think there’s any other show really.
Rosemary Pritzker: There’s nothing like it.
Banning Eyre: No, that’s true.
Sean Barlow: Yeah.
Rosemary Pritzker: What you created was entirely unique.
Sean Barlow: Yeah, right.
Rosemary Pritzker: Early on, they decided to change the name from Afropop to Afropop Worldwide, to include a focus on the African diaspora’s influence on music in places like Cuba, Brazil, the American South and countless others. Over time, they became more and more deeply involved in the music scene in New York City.
Rosemary Pritzker: Can you talk more about why it was so important to you to share that music and that culture with the world?
Banning Eyre: Just the music was so great. Okay, let’s say Bikutsi in … or Makossa, let’s say, Makossa in Cameroon, it’s just this magical, complicated pop music that wasn’t that well known beyond Africa and Europe. Then, of course, Congo; we talked about the Congo as being so … the music being so phenomenally powerful. It was more than just the music being cool and fun. It’s also there’s a lot of stories. Music is always associated with a story. Franco had a story, and you can play his music, but we are right there in his living room, recording his story. We got that firsthand chance to record people’s … the story of their lives. I think everywhere, but musicians in Africa, certainly, they want to be known in America because why? Well, they grew up listening to James Brown and funk, and so on, and then, in more recent generations, hip-hop and so on. If they know our music, why doesn’t … why don’t we … it’s the old story of Franco. We are basically just serving that bridge function.
Sean Barlow: One of the things that I think is really important about what Afropop’s done, and right from the beginning, is to just present an alternative view of Africa, from the one that’s in the news-
Rosemary Pritzker: Yes.
Sean Barlow: …which is, as we know, focused usually on disease, and war, and starvation and various things like that. The big aha moment I had was when I was living in New Mexico, and I saw a core a kora player from West Africa. I felt this really strong connection between the rhythms, melodies, and finger style stuff that he was doing on the kora. A lot of it sounded like American folk music to me.
Banning Eyre: He was from Gambia. It might have been…
Sean Barlow: For me, one of the things that I’ve really felt a really strong mission for in working with Afropop, is making Americans understand how connected this music is, not only the way they reflect back funk and R&B, and hip hop to us, but the way they hear blues and Cuban music, and other American forms, and feel, and see themselves in it, and then seeing how that is explained through history. Where did the African Americans who came here come from, and what did they bring with them?
Sean Barlow: What did they bring with them that then became the DNA of our folk music? Sometimes I think of some of the modern forms of folk pop in West Africa and Central Africa, especially … and our music, they’re like twins separated at birth, is the image that I always use because there’s this mysterious connection that you can never completely understand because the history was never well recorded. There are these murky centuries that go by that we don’t really know exactly how all these forms came together. You look at something like the banjo, which is clearly originated from an African model; the original ones were gourds. They had no frets. They had the highest string in the thumb position; all these basic … the finger picking stuff. Through the history of minstrelsy, the banjo became very stigmatized. African Americans didn’t really want to play the banjo very much anymore.
Sean Barlow: They moved to the guitar, and the banjo becomes part of Bluegrass. Just in a fairly short period of time, less than 100 years, it goes from being a distinctly African instrument played by African Americans, to being a very white identified instrument, to the point where when scholarships started coming out about this, all these banjo aficionados who say, “Now, that’s impossible. This is not an African …” There was a lot of bickering and fighting about that, even in academic circles. Now it’s accepted, but it’s just one example of how so much of Africa is infused into our culture that we don’t necessarily recognize. Music provides a way to reconnect. That’s always been something that I felt was really important about the work we do.
Rosemary Pritzker: One of the most important relationships that Sean and Banning cultivated with an African musician was with Thomas Mapfumo. Banning wrote a book about him called Lion Songs, which was the culmination of a 20-year friendship. This song is a recording that Sean and Banning made at one of Mapfumo’s shows at SOB’s, in New York City in 1989.
Rosemary Pritzker: (singing)
Banning Eyre: Thomas Mapfumo was … he’s like the Bob Marley or Fela Kuti of Zimbabwe, in the sense that he was both the creator or shaper of a music style, but also a very important political voice. He was … during the ’70s, during the war, he wrote songs that did two things; they both brought traditional music that had been very much stigmatized by missionaries because it was connected with spiritual practices that Christian missionaries found horrifying. They stigmatized the music and everything that came with it. This is religion of the Shona people that’s connected with the mbira. Then at the same time, the songs were bringing Shona language, because the Shona language is a very mysterious elliptical language, he was able to, first of all, take this music and adapt it to a rock and roll band, basically in the British … and it was just a guitar band. They had a brass section. They had two guitars, bass and drums for singers.
Banning Eyre: That’s it. They were … but they were reshaping this traditional music, and now singing in Shona in ways that gave a lot of encouragement to people to join the struggle against the white Rhodesian regime. For a long time, this went unnoticed by the authority. He was really seen as the muse of that very harsh bitter war. Then in the years after independence, in 1980, he created this whole new evolution of the music by bringing the actual mbira’s into band. By the late ’80s, when we first went there, it was like this folk orchestra with the mbira’s and guitars, and horns, and dancers; it’s 17 people on stage.
Rosemary Pritzker: Oh my god.
Banning Eyre: He was … wrote just such beautiful songs, and a really masterful lyricist and melody writer. He would draw from so many different sources, not just the mbira. He had South African jazz, and a little bit of Congolese music and other kinds of country music’s, and other traditions from Mozambique and Zimbabwe. He was a real synthesizer.
Sean Barlow: I just find Tom Mapfumo’s music some of the most powerful, ecstatic, that is the word for it, ecstatic music’s In Africa, or anywhere in the world that I know. There’s something about … the songs start slowly and build, and you’re not understanding the Shona, but the music can make its way directly.
Banning Eyre: On that first trip, I had already really cottoned on to him because right, just shortly after discovering Johnny Clegg, Sean was in London, and sent me a cassette. It had the Mahotella Queens from South Africa, and Tabu Ley from Congo, and various things; King Sunny Adé, but then it had a few tracks from Thomas Mapfumo. The guitar playing, which was basically imitating the sound of the mbira, just knocked me out. I started playing along with those records and then we started going down to Washington, DC where there was an African record store and just, I would buy every Mapfumo thing that was there. By the time we went there, I was really primed to meet this guy. He was one of the people who had really stood out in my imagination. The band, at that time, had never been to the US, and they really, really wanted to come. They were hungry for it. We were so knocked out by their shows. They were incredibly nice to us, first of all. They just invited us into their world.
Banning Eyre: We were like family and that was just very charming, and very sweet. Most of the musicians we met were really open and friendly, but this is on another level of just embrace. Sean had a connection to an organization that was looking for bands to tour, and after we saw them a couple of times, Sean made a call and that led to their first US tour. We became really tight from that point. When I went back to my second trip to Africa, I spent a month in Zimbabwe and spent a lot of time with that band, and hung out with guitar players, learning stuff from them. I think it was at that moment when I realized that this needed to be a book. This guy’s story was so interesting and has all these different dimensions to it, because right around that time was the point when he started to really annoy the Mugabe regime. Mugabe become president in 1980 and by the late 80s, he was … the corruption of his regime was becoming apparent.
Banning Eyre: Thomas, who had been the muse of the revolution, would now … became the critic of its result. That was a very dicey position to be in, but it was also just fascinating to me as a writer because it was like this whole transformation, turning of the tables, and all mixed up with this incredibly beautiful music. I just thought, “Okay, this has to be a book.” It took a good 20 years after that to actually produce the book, but I did, and in that time, he went into exile. He now lives in a … since 2004, he’s lived full time in Oregon with his family. It’s tough. It’s a really difficult situation to be in. Through many, many adventures, he’s … we’ve become really good friends. Publishing that book was hard. It was hard for him to see. It was just a different book than, I’m sure, he imagined because it’s very honest and it deals a lot with people who had beef with him, and were critical of various things. When Sean was talking earlier about Franco, and the cars, and that there’s always the … it’s true of bands everywhere, but African bands, the leader tends to develop a very, very large ego and a great sense of entitlement to everything that happens.
Banning Eyre: It’s a very common dynamic, that musicians feel wronged and abused, and even great musicians. That wonderful family atmosphere that we experienced in 1988 became much more frayed as Zimbabwe’s economy tanked during the 90s, and into the 2000s. I was pretty unsparing in showing the full dimensions of this in the book, and for a while he was very angry at me. We eventually made up and now we’re friends again. It’s been a journey.
Rosemary Pritzker: Another one of the closest relationships that Sean and Banning built was with Johnny Clegg, a white South African, who passionately and voraciously threw himself deep into Zulu culture as a teenager through both music and dance. He later gained notoriety for combining the traditional Zulu music with modern pop. His band combined black and white musicians in the height of apartheid, which was a brave act of resistance. His music is full of heart, and you can hear the deeply rooted connection he has to African culture in his singing. This next song is a recording Sean and Banning made of Johnny playing guitar and singing a traditional Zulu song in his home in Johannesburg in 1987.
Rosemary Pritzker: (singing)
Rosemary Pritzker: He was, in a lot of ways, the voice of the freedom struggle of apartheid in South Africa.
Sean Barlow: He was an important voice because he was white.
Rosemary Pritzker: Yeah. He was willing to take great risks, to put himself in great danger, to go and be with his Zulu brothers to practice with this dance group when he was a teenager and whatever. I have such awesome stories about that, too.
Banning Eyre: Yeah. He’s someone who … he’s African, but he’s white. It’s such a rare special combo that that allows two worlds to come together in a way that’s actually really beautiful because it’s through culture.
Sean Barlow: It’s true. He was important to me, too, because even before Afropop was thought of and we went to Africa … when I was living in Eugene, Oregon playing with my reggae funk blues band, a friend of mine from Wesleyan who’s a doctor had been doing some work in South Africa, and she brought me an album of Johnny Clegg’s. It was the Scatterlings album. I became obsessed with it, particularly with the guitar playing, but also that deep Zulu vocal stuff. It was very exciting to me, but I didn’t really know … I had no idea where we were headed with this journey, but I really loved that record. It started me thinking about how, “Wow, man, there’s really cool music happening in Africa that we never hear.” He was very important early on.
Rosemary Pritzker: Yeah. Well, and then you got to meet him.
Banning Eyre: Yeah, on the very first trip.
Rosemary Pritzker: Probably soon after that, right?
Banning Eyre: In ’88.
Sean Barlow: Yeah.
Banning Eyre: Yeah.
Sean Barlow: In Johannesburg.
Banning Eyre: He was such a great storyteller. He taught me some of that Zulu guitar stuff that I actually still play. That was really important.
Sean Barlow: Also, the dancing is remarkable because there’s this certain Zulu style of dancing where you kick your leg way high. how do you do that?
Rosemary Pritzker: I know.
Sean Barlow: And you smash it down. The backstory of that is, so Johnny and his Zulu bands mates, who, as you say, would go into the townships where white and black bands were not supposed to play.
Rosemary Pritzker: Well, it was illegal.
Sean Barlow: It was illegal.
Banning Eyre: Yeah, the show is closed now.
Rosemary Pritzker: He got arrested how many times? Countless times.
Banning Eyre: Many times, yes.
Sean Barlow: A lot.
Rosemary Pritzker: There’s a video on YouTube of Johnny when he was younger, doing the wild and powerful Zulu war dance that Sean described earlier. The link to the video is in the show notes. They would row their leg way up in … almost doing the splits, but bending forward with their trunks or whatever, and then slam it down to the ground. I guess it’s a war dance, right?
Banning Eyre: Yeah. It’s …
Sean Barlow: Yeah, that actually … about smashing the skull of your enemy. That’s a good way to finish off-
Banning Eyre: Yeah, the Zulu are my people.
Sean Barlow: …a foe.
Rosemary Pritzker: I grew up listening to Johnny Clegg with my family. His music was profoundly important and formative for me. Last October, Sean, Banning, and I went to see him perform at B.B. King’s in New York City. This was part of his goodbye tour. It was a deeply moving and joyous, but emotional experience.
Banning Eyre: Well, the thing is that Johnny was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer a couple of years ago, and he’s now been through chemotherapy twice. Basically, his prospects aren’t good. He was in remission, so he decided to do a world tour, farewell tour and make this show that summed up his life. We’ve met so many artists over the years and sometimes they remember you, and they’re friendly. Sometimes they don’t remember you at all. Johnny has always been really present. He remembers right back to that first time we met. He really … he treats us like friends, which is nice. He’s given us some just really spectacular, very deep interviews over the years. In this case, he was singing one of the songs that he often ends his show with, Dela, which is really a beautiful song. It’s a song about longing and under … it has this great line, “I think I know why the dog howls at the moon.”
Rosemary Pritzker: Yes.
Banning Eyre: Which is … and then he sings this incredibly moving chorus and everyone’s singing along. Then it has this refrain, “I burn for you,” and right when he hit it, he spotted me in the audience and he pointed right at me-
Rosemary Pritzker: Yeah.
Banning Eyre: …and then said, “I burn for you.”
Rosemary Pritzker: “I burn for you.” Yeah.
Banning Eyre: I was like, my god. That was powerful.
Rosemary Pritzker: Yeah. How did that hit you?
Banning Eyre: Well, I was just really touched by it and it sent shivers down my spine. I mean, really, it was beautiful.
Rosemary Pritzker: You’re listening to A Show of Hearts. I’m Rosemary Pritzker. If you’re inspired by what you’re hearing, grab your phone, take a screenshot of this episode, open Instagram and post the photo to your friends. Tell them why you love what you’re hearing and how you’re going to apply it to your life. Then use hashtag, A Show of Hearts. Three years ago, we were planning a trip to Tanzania together when suddenly Afropop received a Peabody Award, which is like the Radio version of an Oscar. This foiled our travel plans, but it was a very happy surprise.
Sean Barlow: All of a sudden, we were getting calls from all over the world coming.
Rosemary Pritzker: It’s a good problem to have.
Sean Barlow: No. No, the Pea- … but I have just mentioned something about the Peabody, and you’re right, it’s like the Oscars for radio, television,
Banning Eyre: TV and net.
Sean Barlow: …internet and films. You’re competing in a pretty big field. I had dutifully applied for the Peabody every year
Banning Eyre: Year after year, after year.
Rosemary Pritzker: Really?
Banning Eyre: Yeah.
Sean Barlow: Twenty-six years.
Rosemary Pritzker: I didn’t know that.
Banning Eyre: Yeah, you have to … it’s a process. You have to pick particular things to present.
Sean Barlow: Yeah, you have to pay 400 bucks and you have to fill out the application. You have to guess which …
Banning Eyre: You have to pick one show.
Sean Barlow: …which show is going to be …
Rosemary Pritzker: Oh god.
Banning Eyre: Yeah.
Sean Barlow: Anyway, so every year I’d be like, “I don’t want to waste $400.”
Banning Eyre: Agonizing.
Sean Barlow: “Okay, I’ll do it.” Did it for that year and got the call. My god! Because usually you get a Peabody for a film, or a radio show or something. We got a Peabody for 27 years of work.
Rosemary Pritzker: All those years of applying …
Banning Eyre: Counted for something, yeah. I think so.
Sean Barlow: Right.
Rosemary Pritzker: That’s great. The moment that you found out that you’d won, what was that?
Banning Eyre: Go. Find a good story.
Sean Barlow: I thought it was like … I thought the guy who was working here at the time as our Director of New Media, Sam Backer, I thought he was pulling my leg. I couldn’t believe it. “Sam, what are you talking about? What do you mean?” Then it became real, and actually got on the phone with the director of that Peabody’s, who confided in me that he was really lobbying heavily for us. Immediately … I’m pretty savvy about publicity and marketing, and that kind of thing. I realized we just got to run with this. You’ve got to tell everybody. We got to have a celebration with … The Ford Foundation actually hosted us on the 11th floor, looking at on the East River. We had musicians. It was just wonderful. One would hope that foundations and companies would line up afterwards, and that didn’t happen. Anyway, it gives us great … Every time we write about ourselves on the internet or whatever, it’s Afropop Worldwide, the Peabody Award winning public radio show. That’s stuck to us forever.
Rosemary Pritzker: Yeah.
Banning Eyre: Yeah, well …
Rosemary Pritzker: That’s great.
Banning Eyre: Yeah. When …
Sean Barlow: In my obituary, that’s what it’s going to say.
Banning Eyre: When …
Rosemary Pritzker: Bigger than your name.
Banning Eyre: When that news came through, I was actually on a ship in Praia Harbor, in Cape Verde. I had … my job was to do lectures and to arrange for concerts. There was an artist, Zé Luis, a singer who was supposed to come on the ship and perform. They hadn’t showed up and it was late, and it was just becoming stressful. I ran down and got my little laptop, and opened it up to find the contact number of the person that I was supposed to be talking to. There was this email from Sean saying that we just won the Peabody. It was just surreal. I mean, that was a wonderful day in a number of ways from that point on, but it was funny because the Director of Entertainment there was this British woman, and she had never heard of Afropop, had no idea; didn’t even really know what a Peabody was.
Banning Eyre: I mentioned it to her and she immediately got on her computer. The funny thing was that the other person who got the institutional award that year was David Attenborough, the naturalist filmmaker, and he was like a god to her. It was like, “You won the same award as Attenborough.”
Rosemary Pritzker: That’s good.
Banning Eyre: It was a funny day, but boy, yeah, it was a real high.
Sean Barlow: Yeah.
Rosemary Pritzker: Well, and what did it feel like to have that long of a body of work recognized in that way, after all the effort and love, and sweat that you put into all that work?
Banning Eyre: Yeah, overdue.
Sean Barlow: Well, it’s a weekly radio series, I’d say. It’s like we’re writing a chapter in a never-ending novel because there’s so much. You could have 5, 10 lives and never finished this job. We get to go to the coolest places, and whether it’s Cuba or Brazil, or even just do the research from here and do historical research.
Rosemary Pritzker: I asked Banning what he wants his readers to take away from his book about Thomas Mapfumo.
Banning Eyre: Well, I guess the fundamental one would just be the power of music. That’s the right music for the right time and place to actually create change. I also think, I mean, Sean mentioned the ecstatic quality of the music. That’s partly because the mbira part of it, which is … maybe it’s only like 40% of his repertoire, but it’s some of the most powerful and memorable material. It’s drawing to directly from a tradition where music actually brings about possession. This is something you find all over the world. You find it in Sufi music in North Africa and the Middle East. You find it in-
Rosemary Pritzker: Peru.
Banning Eyre: …Cuban music, Peru; so many places. Music is used as a way of … Sean talked about the journey of the shaman. It is a shamanistic thing. You’re using the music to actually transcend reality. In the case of the Shona with the mbira, they conceptualize it as bringing about possession of an ancestor so that you can actually communicate with that ancestor and figure out some problem you’re having or resolve some situation, or conflict. That’s another fascinating thing about a lot of African music, is the way it forces you to reconceptualize the whole way that you think about music.
Rosemary Pritzker: Well, and culture. Not like the whole way you think about music culture ancestry because the purpose of the mbira is to call on the ancestors, and as a result, all of these people in Zimbabwe know who their ancestors are, going way back, which I don’t know that about my … I know of a few generations back, but I think a lot of us Americans don’t-
Banning Eyre: Know.
Rosemary Pritzker: …have that connection to our ancestry.
Banning Eyre: Right.
Rosemary Pritzker: We can go to ancestry.com, but it’s not the same thing, like taking on the spirit of the …
Banning Eyre: It’s not actually everyone in Zimbabwe who knows that because this is, again, part of Thomas’s big crusade, is that so much … because of the very harsh nature of the Rhodesian regime and its insistence on interfering with culture, that music remained stigmatized for a lot of Zimbabweans. A lot of the urbanized Zimbabweans have this very ambivalent relationship with that culture. It’s something that you do when you go home to the village at Christmas, but in the city, you wouldn’t want to be associated with it. It’s a whole cultural divide. That thing about ancestry, that’s actually even more true in the other music I’ve spent a lot of time with, which is the griot music of West Africa, like Molly where, again, it’s a very elaborate, beautiful musical tradition.
Banning Eyre: The whole content of the lyrics in this case, it’s not about possession or anything mystical, but it is very specifically about recounting history, and talking about ancestors. A good griot has to know the stories of all the major families so that if they’re at a wedding, and up … there’s a person who’s assigned to know each family that comes in. Okay, so the OK, so the Jalo’s have just arrived. Then the griots know, “What are all the stories I have to tell? How can I relate that to the present?” There’s this whole lyrical improvisation aspect, but as a result of that, I was just so amazed when I lived in Mali in the mid-90s, that little kids just knew all this history. It’s not true here, but it’s also not true in a lot of parts of Africa, even in Zimbabwe.
Banning Eyre: It’s just an amazing power of music to keep people connected with their history and their identity. That makes them, despite abject poverty and horrible problems, incredibly proud and secure, and confident people.
Rosemary Pritzker: Well, imagine it … think about the difference between us in our culture in school, having to learn our history, practically shoved down our throats just so we can answer test questions, compared to, in certain African cultures, I’m not going to say it’s all of Africa because there’s so many different cultures, but where it’s something that they learn from the culture. That’s gonna stick with you so much more because it has soul.
Banning Eyre: Yeah.
Sean Barlow: Also, remember that in terms of Mali … we spent a lot of time in Mali by the way. We just love, love, love, love Mali. Some amazing artists, amazing people, amazing stories. Anyways, the resource, it goes back to the 13th century and people … the artists who are the keepers of the history, they can tell stories from the founding of the of the Empire of Mali, who was Sundiata Keita. That’s pretty amazing. Banning can Sundiata Keita, wherever he goes in a Malian context and that is the story … that is the song of Sundiata. Anybody can play that song. There’s another song, Massanam Sisai who is … about a businessman who was a great patron of the arts. That guy really spent his money well because his …
Banning Eyre: It’s long gone, but …
Sean Barlow: …that song is played all the time. It’s on constant heavy-duty play.
Banning Eyre: Yeah.
Sean Barlow: That’s something that, like you say, is very special.
Rosemary Pritzker: There’s a passage in Banning’s book in which he says, “No workday is too long. No rain too cold, nor sun too hot. No elder too mean, as long as everything ends with the dancing and songs, laughter and moonlight, and the all-encompassing embrace of a big family.”
Banning Eyre: Couldn’t have said it better myself.
Rosemary Pritzker: You did say it better. Well, but …
Rosemary Pritzker: I asked if there are any stories that illustrate that.
Banning Eyre: In 2001, we did a tour of Madagascar. We traveled with Onch of the band, Taraka and Taraka Samy before that. She had arranged this cultural trek. We were working with a tour company that was really not used to people coming for culture. They were all about, you take the people, you put them in the four-wheel drive and take them to the beach, and to see the lemurs. She had arranged this very circuitous route that involved lots of trips down long dirt roads, and in one case, we went to this village that was famous for making these instruments, these ukulele-like instruments called kabosy. It was a full moon night, and we were going down these roads and these drivers were getting really … we’re like, “What the hell are we doing?” They were really starting to get bulky. We got to this village and we all got out, and suddenly we were just totally surrounded by the village and all these people are playing these instruments, and dancing, old women and little children. It was just the sweetest thing. No one wanted to leave. Even the drivers after that, they were like, “Okay, now we get what this is all about.” I don’t know, that’s one that just popped into my mind.
Rosemary Pritzker: Yeah.
Banning Eyre: It’s a paradox though because most of the … much of the time their lives are so hard and they have to deal with so much difficulty. The fact that they could be as open-hearted … It’s not true everywhere. You can have bad experiences, but in general, very warm people and very curious, and open, and welcoming. Also, they have very strong family structures so that there’s a real … if you know a musician or some head of family accepts you as a friend, then the whole family just completely is drawn to you, and you’re in. I think for Peace Corps people, particularly who live with families in that … and we’ve had experiences like this, too; it changes you. It really opens your heart.
Sean Barlow: Another one that I think of is what … we did this … as Banning was saying, Afropop lover’s tours to the Senegal, to Mali, one to Madagascar and four to Cuba. Anyway, the one that I remember was, we called it Mali Magic 2000, January 2000. We had about 15 or 20 or so travelers, along with Bonnie Raitt. She just fit in beautifully, and Habib Koité, by the way. Do you know Habib Koité?
Rosemary Pritzker: I heard him play in Boulder.
Sean Barlow: Okay.
Rosemary Pritzker: I love him.
Sean Barlow: Habib Koité was traveling with us; also, Ali Farka Toure flew with us to Timbuktu. Ali comes in to the town and he chooses four sheep. “I’m buying those sheep. Slaughter them. We’re eating them tonight.” We just had this amazing feast. We went up to the festival in the desert you might have heard of, which was in 2003, north of Timbuktu. Our friends there were performing and they let us … people lounged about in tents between the performances. They let us come in and record acoustic, basically acoustic sessions because they knew us and because they trusted us. Then they introduced us to the friends that we didn’t know, the musician friends that we didn’t know. Just endless examples like that, where … Basically, music is just … is such the connector. Foreigners go to Africa to do development, to build things, to tell them how to do things and that’s all well and good, and Africa needs help, certainly, but we come there because we love their music. It’s just a natural connection. “Great, well, let’s … sure, let’s have a concert.”
Rosemary Pritzker: Isn’t that a great way to actually help their culture by changing people’s misconceptions about what Africa is?
Sean Barlow: Yeah. Absolutely.
Banning Eyre: Definitely. It’s always been important to us. That festival in the desert in 2003, that was particularly … that was definitely one of the highs of all time because the festival itself was really put on by and for the Tuareg nomads. It was organized around a gathering that they already have. They’re very widely dispersed people living in the desert. These moments when they can all come together are incredibly important. This is where the courtships began and so many things; you’re seeing old people, friends and family. We, as white Americans and Europeans, we’re in a minority. We were like 300 of 2000 people there. All the rest of them were Malian, most of them Tuareg’s on their camels. It was just great to be interacting in that environment. Everyone was, again, really friendly and really curious, and really open, but it was definitely their thing. It was a very special moment. It’s particularly poignant, given how much things have deteriorated there since, but that’s another story.
Sean Barlow: We made … that was the first and last place we ever made a movie.
Banning Eyre: Yes.
Sean Barlow: That’s the-
Banning Eyre: A real move.
Sean Barlow: … Vessel in the Desert: The Tent Sessions.
Banning Eyre: Yes, you can find some of it on YouTube.
Rosemary Pritzker: I just wanted to thank you guys for stoking the flames of my already existing passion for African music and everything about Africa, and the amount of things that it’s opened up and brought into my life. I just I wanted to ask you guys, what gifts has Afropop brought into your lives?
Sean Barlow: My god.
Banning Eyre: So many. For me, I think it’s really been … the greatest gift has been the ability to step beyond the role of being a journalist, and to become a participant. For me, it’s been playing the music and the opportunity to actually learn the music well enough that I can be accepted as a musician. When that happens … I’ve had the amazing privilege of being on the stage playing with Thomas Mapfumo, the Rail Band, Sally Sidibe, Wendo Kolosoy of Congo. That’s just such a high. The thing is that once you have that experience, people treat you differently. Suddenly you’re … you develop a different friendship with people than if you’re just interviewing them or filming them, or photographing them. You become really connected. I think that really … those two things, the participation through playing music and the friendships that result from that, those are the greatest gifts for me.
Rosemary Pritzker: That’s good.
Sean Barlow: Well, first of all, fantastic music and to actually be able to go into a musical scene, and in a very essential, real, auditory and social way, there’s nothing like it. I think of Kinshasa, like we talked about; I think of Mali, my god, Harare, Zimbabwe. When you travel, it’s almost like your life becomes triple speed. There’s so much stimulation. You’re absorbing so much. You’re meeting people and talk … It’s like your life is supercharged and that’s a real gift right there. The people that we’ve met, the wonderful artists that we’ve met, many whom had become friends, and they oftentimes will see us more in New York then we will see them in Africa because they got the gig. I think I could die right now and feel like I have lived a fulfilled life. Or I could … sometimes I’m taking off in a plane and said this plane could crash and I’d be okay.
Rosemary Pritzker: Wow.
Sean Barlow: I’m sorry, some people would miss me.
Banning Eyre: Yeah, that’s true.
Sean Barlow: I have …
Banning Eyre: I have feel that way, too. I think that sometimes.
Sean Barlow: In a sense … I grew up Catholic and …
Banning Eyre: That’s the concentration on death.
Sean Barlow: Thank you. No, but, Catholics, the ethic is you do something good for your community. The idea that you could die and feel good about your life, that’s something special.
Rosemary Pritzker: Before we parted ways, we played a song together. This is Banning on guitar, me singing and Sean playing shakers. The song is called Jikende. It’s a drumming dance song from the Shona tribe of Zimbabwe. Banning and I each learned it at different times from our teacher and dear friend, Chartwell Dutiro, a master mbira player who traveled the world as a part of Thomas Mapfumo’s band. To learn more about Sean and Banning’s work, visit Afropop.org, and find the Afropop Worldwide podcast in iTunes. The link is in the show notes.
Rosemary Pritzker: (singing)
Rosemary Pritzker: Thank you for listening to A Show of Hearts. If you enjoyed what you heard, please subscribe in iTunes and share it with your favorite people. Visit our website, ashowofhearts.com, where you can sign up for emails and explore all our episodes in depth. Follow us on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter: @ashowofhearts. Remember to choose courage even when it’s scary, and join me in igniting the world with our hearts.
Rosemary Pritzker: (singing)
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