Tempest in a Melting Pot

WOULD THAT I were culturally knowledgeable enough to identify what "exotic" architecture is meant to be evoked by the various gaudy murals and stucco arches of the Blue Nile. Junk culturist that I am, I am reminded of the Star Wars cantina--no foam-and-latex aliens, but the same aura of cultivated "foreignness" and seedy B-movie cosmopolitanism. Birthed as a Mexican restaurant and now exuding a "North African" vibe, the joint obviously boasts a pliably generic otherworldliness.

Fitting, then, that Friday evenings at the Blue Nile have become actual cosmopolitan events, home to those few Twin Cities bands that play the various musics of Sub-Saharan Africa to sizable followings. And it's even more fitting that the Friday I pass beneath those wide, oval arches, one such band is celebrating that quintessentially American event, the CD-release party.

I'm here at the behest of someone whose e-mails identify him only as Wanaku-The Tribal Monk, who has, for several weeks now, been dispatching colorfully spelled and ornately fonted missives trumpeting the release of a disc called Sunplug'd. Subtitled suwit afrikan kontry muziki, the disc sports splashy cover art, an impression of folkiness that the music quickly dispels. Songs like "Give 'Em a Chance" may roll with a gentle acoustic lilt, but they're far from soft-headed. Mixing mysterious phrases like "Work work/Na yi go make ya head e papley" in with simple exhortations to "Do Good," the Monk and his crew of local all-stars integrate a variety of distinct African styles into a single sound.

Copies of this disc are available at the Blue Nile from a heavyset middle-aged woman, resplendent in an elaborate headdress and a gold checked robe. She bustles past me as I strain to get a better look at the flyers she's distributing. Her eyes stop on mine, focusing suspiciously. "You look like a journalist!" she smiles. (Can't I go anywhere incognito?) I'm presented with a map to a "piknik" out at a state park in Maplewood the next afternoon, where the Tribal Monk's band will play yet again.

As the band tunes over a soukous number drizzling down from the sound system, the audience, composed largely of African immigrants, settles into its seats. At a table to my left, a well-dressed older fellow turns to the younger man beside him. "You are Nigerian?" he asks.

The young man, in a sleeveless "Just Do It" T-shirt and white cap, politely needles his elder. "I am an American."

As if on cue, the Monk announces to the audience, "We will take you back to Africa." The band, which features three guitars and a violin, offers an appealing take on West African highlife, undercut slyly at times with the rumba feel of Congolese soukous. Gradually, the floor fills with couples engaging in some elegant and contained two-stepping as the Monk reassures us all, "Don't you worry about tomorrow," his voice more reminiscent of the beloved Jimmy Cliff than any West African singer that comes to mind.

Then, the lyrics take on a more yearning bent. "Don't divide Afrika," Wanaku sings. "Don't divide my country." For black Americans, Africa is as much a site of longing as Ireland is to the pink-faced, but to hear an actual exile sing longingly for his home continent is another matter entirely. And the Monk, known legally in this country as Kenn Komtanghi, is indeed an exile, a political refugee from British Cameroon. A three-month stay in the U.S. back in the early Nineties turned into a permanent relocation when his sister back home told him some men had been dropping by the house to inquire as to his whereabouts.

This evening, far from that sort of danger, Wanaku and his musical fellows begin to dissolve their particular regional styles into a larger "African" one. Organizing a band that includes a Tanzanian keyboardist, a Czech guitarist who previously studied in Gabon, a woman on violin who has served in the Peace Corps in Cameroon, and an American drummer, is not the easiest of tasks. As Komtanghi would tell me later, each culture speaks "a different idiom," and, in such collaborations, the musicians are confronted with "a kind of musical slang they don't always pick up on." But the results, tinged by reggae--the Esperanto of the African diaspora--are less a fusion than a new creation altogether.

Between sets, I can hear the cross-generational debate continue at the next table. "Don't tell me you are 'American,'" the older gentlemen softly chides. But, partly owing to events--like this concert--that bring immigrants from across the home continent together, neither man is simply Nigerian, either. Both are becoming African. And by recreating their culture in this way, they are also, whether they like it or not, becoming American.


Wanaku-The Tribal Monk performs Tuesday, September 19 at Mars Music in Har Mar Mall; (651) 633-4144. African Musical Experience takes place every Friday at the Blue Nile;
(612) 338-3000.