“Nostalgia without memory” is the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai‘s phrase for one of the cultural dimensions of globalization. It was happens when someone else’s nostalgia — his example is the vogue in the Phillipine for 1970s and 1980s U.S. popular culture — is repurposed in another setting, it’s referent translated from a remembered past to a desired present.Watching youtube videos of nostalgic Lake Victoria-style benga being played in places like Louisville, Kentucky, when all I can seem to get streaming out of Kenyan radios online is the latest America rap and r&b, induces the sort of vertigo Appadurai is talking about.

The recent upcropping of hybrid African/American styles on the popular music scene in the U.S. — bands like Extra Golden, Occidental Brothers Dance Band International, and, arguable, Vampire Weekend, have led me to wonder whether we are on the precipice of a new wave of nostalgia without memory, perhaps induced by the ecstatic inauguration of a president one generation removed, not from the Jim Crow South, but from sub-Saharan Africa?

Above video, produced in Chicago last September, features Kenyan singer, Samba Mapalanga [myspace] and Minneapolis rapper Fanaka Ndege, backed by musicians including members of the Occidental Brothers.

Suddenly West, Central and even East African sounds like highlife, rumba, soukous and benga, are everywhere, including at the top of the 2008 year’s best list, courtesy of four recent Columbia grads:

Vampire Weekend are human dart-boards for the charge of cultural appropriation, particularly since they make a show of not even bothering to go to the source, getting their African rhythms via Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel, the men who brought “world music” to their parent’s generation. I myself can’t find a clear reason to begrudge their “love and theft” approach from the more fawning, quasi-ethnomusicological approach to twentieth-century African dance music, which seems to veer unsteadily between outright primitivism and sentimental multiculturalism. Both, as we say in academia, seem ‘problematic.’ Which is not to say that I don’t like either: I do. Hence the problem.

American music has always been African-American music. So what’s this fuss about the new hybridity? Part of what nostalgia without memory allows you to do is access another history (in this case decolonizing, “modernizing” Africa) without the forms of responsibility attached to raiding your own cultural larder (minstrelsy, anyone?) And a related concern, very much attached to the multicultural celebration of African music as “world culture” (as opposed to “black noise” is that it at least potentially sidesteps matters of race, racism, and class privilege.

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