35 years after its release, Toto’s “Africa” is more popular than ever | Spanlish

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Monday, August 14, 2017

35 years after its release, Toto’s “Africa” is more popular than ever

Toto

The band Toto accepting a Grammy Award, Feb. 23, 1983. (Credit: AP)

On August 1, someone very quietly registered the domain name ibless.therains.downin.africa. Head over to this seemingly complicated URL, and you’ll find something brilliantly simple: the video for Toto’s “Africa,” playing on an endless loop.

This website is hardly the first entity to amplify the greatness of “Africa.” Especially in the last few years, the song has become a go-to pop culture reference. There’s a Twitter bot, @africabytotobot, that tweets the lyrics to the song, line by line, day after day. In the first episode of “Stranger Things,” the song swells in the foreground to soundtrack a heavy makeout session between Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Steve (Joe Keery), while a fall 2016 “South Park” episode had the nostalgia-leaning “member berries” perform the song. A duo named Bacall & Malo even took a reggae-tinged, electronic cover-interpolation of the song to No. 11 on the Swedish pop charts in 2016.

And then there was the time Kristen Bell and Dax Shepard went on vacation to (where else?) Africa, and used the song as the soundtrack to their compilation video from the trip. The couple showed off some rather impressive air drumming and interpretive dance moves throughout — but the homage to the song was 100 percent sincere. “This was our last trip before having kids,” Shepard wrote on YouTube. “Our sole objective was to rage hard and honor Toto properly.”

That latter point is crucial: The ’80s have plenty of loathed songs, chief among them Starship’s “We Built This City,” which has been called “the worst song of all time.” But people have a sincere, unironic love for Toto’s 1982 single “Africa.”

Chalk this affection up partly to familiarity: During the week of August 3-9, “Africa” received a whopping 1,376 spins on 233 radio stations monitored by Nielsen BDSradio. The song is also malleable, transferrable to raging metalcore (Affiance), easygoing bluegrass (Brad Davis’ version on “Pickin’ on the Biggest Hits of the 1980s: Volume 2″) and earnest emo-pop (Relient K) alike. Like fellow ’80s radio staple Billy Squier, hip-hop samples have also kept “Africa” in the public eye. Since the late ’90s, Nas, Xzibit, Ja RuleWiz Khalifa, Jason Derulo and JoJo have all used elements of “Africa” in their work.

This kind of strategic placement also works for television. “Africa” has appeared in commercials for beer and chicken. (In a somewhat disturbing and incongruous gesture, the latter clip features chickens clucking the song in perfect harmony.) The song has also been used as a humorous device: Justin Timberlake and Jimmy Fallon used their inability to stop singing “Africa” as the focal point of a 2013 skit in which they portrayed awkward ’80s campers.

Still, the origins of “Africa” are anything but flip. The song was co-written by Toto keyboardist David Paich and the band’s late drummer, Jeff Porcaro, who died in 1992. In a 2013 interview with Rock Cellar, Paich recalled the song’s singularity, and the way it presaged the eclectic world music genre.

“When it came to describing genres of music, we’d come around from classical and jazz to country and rock and roll, but I think ‘world music’ hadn’t been really a category yet,” he says.

“‘Africa’ was one of the entries into that genre, because it was the only way to describe that song, really. Here was a pop band that were taking influences that came from South Africa and Bali and different places like that.” Paich went on to note Toto was “headed in the same direction, in the same spirit that Peter Gabriel is known for: combining Middle Eastern and Indian and South African music, to get his songs across.”

Porcaro came by these influences honestly. “When he was 11 he went to the New York World’s Fair and visited the African pavilion and saw these drummers playing,” Paich recalled to Rock Cellar. “And it was kind of mind-blowing for him. When I asked Jeff to co-write ‘Africa’ with me, I said I wanted the basis for it to be this percussion drum-loop kind of a thing. And now I realize how Jeff would have been influenced by the African drumming he saw as a kid.”

This rhythmic base is one reason why the song is so engaging. Without flash or fanfare, “Africa” incorporates congas, marimbas, the gong and other percussion flourishes, giving the song a textured velocity. Underneath it all is a hypnotic groove, resembling a constant, gentle push — one that keeps the song pulsating forward. When listening to “Africa,” it’s impossible to stay still; the song’s innate movement is infectious.

This bustling rhythmic base emerged during the recording process. “We actually did a loop in the studio, old-fashioned style, like the Beatles did, and had the tape going around the room and the mic stands, with Al Schmitt, the award-winning engineer,” Paich recalled to Grantland in 2015. “We put things on one at a time — started with [drummer] Jeff Porcaro, [percussionist] Lenny Castro did this great percussion loop, and then added everybody one at a time.”

Among these additions was Timothy B. Schmit; the Eagles member contributed his brand of keening vocals to the song’s cascading harmonies. “Africa” is appealing because of this element, especially because listeners aren’t necessarily expecting such robust vocal layering.

After all, at first “Africa” is subdued, driven by Paich’s solemn and conspiratorial narration. Then, as the chorus kicks in, so do blooms of wistful, multi-part harmonies. The melancholic tone is irresistible; involuntarily, the chorus beckons listeners to sing along, regardless of whether they are as skilled as the members of Toto. This makes “Africa” an ideal karaoke song, either solo or with a group.

As these harmonies imply, “Africa” is a lot more poignant than it might seem on first blush. In fact, there’s a rather desperate and anguished tone to lyrics such as “It’s gonna take a lot to drag me away from you/There’s nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do.” In a 2015 Grantland interview, Paich elaborated on the song’s lyrical origins.

“I went to an all-boys Catholic school, and there were a lot of brothers that were teaching us there, and they were going to Africa and coming back,” he says. “A lot of them were deciding whether to go into the priesthood, or whether to get married or not, and there were a lot of issues — like, celibacy was obviously a big issue.

“I had all these things rattling about in my brain when I was writing the song. All these thoughts about priests and young social workers that have gone over there, devoting their lives to helping people, and having to choose what kind of life they’re going to have — whether to keep doing this, what I’m doing here, or can I have a life, get married, have kids, and do that kind of thing. So it was a life choice mixed in with a geographical fascination there.”

Within the song itself, Toto largely stuck to broad watercolor strokes to describe Africa. Rather than get specific, evocative imagery such as “drums echoing tonight” and “moonlit wings” created a lonely effect.

However, much like how Journey invented “South Detroit” for “Don’t Stop Believin’,” certain “Africa” lyrics take geographic license. “I know that I must do what’s right/As sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti,” sounds majestic . . . except for the fact that it would be a stretch to see Kilimanjaro from the Seregenti.

Still, such factual quirks hardly mattered. Released in 1982 as part of the band’s “Toto IV” record, the song hit No. 1 on the Billboard chart in February 1983. “I never thought that song would be a hit,” gregarious guitarist Steve Lukather recently told Syracuse.com. “What are a bunch of guys in North Hollywood doing, singing about Africa? I dug the track, but I said, ‘Dave [David Paich]… these lyrics, come on.’ But it turned out to be an evergreen song. People dig this tune.”



Source: 35 years after its release, Toto’s “Africa” is more popular than ever

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