Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 13 December 2019

'The Lion King: The Gift' represents the vibrant African music scene today

The Beyonce-curated collection is both superb and timely

Beyonce at the European Premiere of Disney's 'The Lion King' on July 14, 2019 in London, England. Getty Images 
Beyonce at the European Premiere of Disney's 'The Lion King' on July 14, 2019 in London, England. Getty Images 

When I interviewed Nigerian pop stars P-Square in 2015, the duo made a bold declaration: pop music was coming home.

“Our time is now and people seem to be loving listening to African music,” said singer Peter Okoye. “As Africans, it’s our time to shine and I think we are taking over. Our sounds are original, new and fresh in the ears.”

That prediction is coming true. Over the last three years, we have seen the music industry steadily taking its cues from Africa. This ranges from the myriad African rhythms used in the tracks by North American super-producer Diplo and the international rise of Afrobeat stars such as Davido and Mr Eazi, to the Oscar winning soundtrack to the blockbuster Afro-centric superhero film Black Panther.

'The Lion King: The Gift' album artwork. Courtesy Parkwood Entertainment 
'The Lion King: The Gift' album artwork. Courtesy Parkwood Entertainment 

To ensure the authenticity of the latter, Swedish composer Ludwig Goransson collaborated with likes of legendary Senegalese singer Baaba Maal and trawled through sonic archives of South Africa's International Library of African Music.

The continent’s rich and diverse music industry is now set to receive its biggest boost yet, courtesy of Beyonce’s latest project.

Described as her love letter to Africa, The Lion King: The Gift had the pop star curating a compilation of original songs inspired by the recently released live action remake of Disney's 1994 animated classic The Lion King.

The fact that the project is described as an ‘alternative soundtrack’ to the film is telling. When the original animated film came out, the music available from Africa was limited in both availability and genres. For the common consumer at the time, Paul Simon’s 1986 album Graceland (whose fame arguably invented the ‘world music’ label) and the rich voices of South African folk group Lady Smith Black Mambazo were the main points of reference for music from the motherland.

And that fed into the original’s The Lion King’s soundtrack, which showed an extremely skewed view of African music, which was either one of rich chanting or the breezy carefree pop of Hakuna Matata. While the title is a Swahili phrase for 'No Worries', the latter song’s African pedigree is disputed, as its rhythms is closer to the rumba from Cuba.

Fortunately, technology has brought the world together. Through music streaming services, we can now access the latest sounds coming from Africa while appreciating the long forgotten masters from the past.

When you factor all these things together, The Gift becomes a necessity. While the new film’s original soundtrack is crowd pleaser, complete with new version of Hakuna Matata, The Gift serves as a more accurate representation of modern day Africa and its vibrant cultural scenes.

Operating with a big cheque book that only Beyonce can command, she flew in a host of producers and artists from various African nations to create a playlist that serves as a superb introduction into what is really happening in the African music scene today.

While Beyonce’s helms a number of the songs, her role in The Gift is more of a facilitator than the star. And buoyed by the opportunity, her collaborators don’t skip a beat.

Nigerian singer Alade joins compatriot Mr Eazy in Don’t Jealous Me, in one of the slew of smooth Afrobeat tunes radiating the album.

Cameroon's Salatiel showcases his sweet croon in the Water, an assertive RnB club jam featuring both Beyonce and Pharrell Williams.

The Ghanaian music genre Highlife, a sound charactersied by its leisurely tempo and languid melodies, gets a good airing here with the Beyonce-sung Find Your Way Back and the more assertive tempo of Keys to the Kingdom with Nigerian singer Tiwa Savage.

Another highlight is My Power. Featuring South African singer and dancer Moonchild Sanelly, the track's pulsating club friendly vibe comes from its gqom rhythms, a South African sub-genre renowned for its sparse sounds and skeletal drumming.

Interspersed with spoken word interludes taken from the new Lion King, it all works together to create an arresting collection of songs that can be heard in any order. Like Okoye told me all those years ago, it is original, new and fresh in the ears.

Updated: July 21, 2019 05:33 PM