“Music is a river that connects us all as humans. Each and all of us responds to music and it connects us in a way like nothing else. It’s a great medium for unity.”
Those are the words of Alhaji N'jai, who along with Linda Vakunta, hosts the PanAfrica Radio Show every Saturday from 2-4 p.m. on WORT Radio 89.9 FM. The duo’s entertaining 2-hour program has risen in popularity over the last few years as more and more people have begun to discover the hidden jewel that is African music.
“In Africa, we have almost 2,000 ethnic groups and languages. There’s so much music on the continent,” N’Jai tells The Madison Times in an interview at WORT Radio Studio in downtown Madison. “Only 5 or 10 percent [of African music] gets popular to the outside world. Some of the music is dying because of a lot of varied factors — the music is not recorded or the language is dying because of war, poverty, famine, etc. Part of what we want to do is to connect people to diverse and obscure African music and to keep the music alive.
“Being in a community station like this, you are doing things for the community but it’s also connecting us back to our culture [and] our music,” he adds. “We enjoy the huge amount of education it is bringing. Music connects us all in ways we don’t even know. We are always digging up music but then we find a little story behind it and we are like, ‘Wow! I didn’t know this.’ It’s educational for us and the audience.”
The show has made a tremendous impact on the local community. “We’ve had sick people call us and tell us, ‘Oh, this music is making us forget our pain for two hours,’” smiles Vakunta who has been hosting the show for four years. “Or we’ve had people come up to us at festivals and events and say, ‘You’re music really gets me going! I love it!’ The larger impact that we have on the community is really powerful and that’s what keeps me coming back to the radio.”
N'jai comes from a very musical and cultural background growing up in West Africa .
“Coming from Senegal, Guinea, and Sierra Leone myself, I was also exposed to many different styles,” N’Jai says. “We really consciously make sure we are balanced in the music. We do go by countries sometimes and will concentrate a show on one or two countries. We do the Tour of Africa. We not only look at Africa but the entire Diaspora. We look at Caribbean, we look at South America, and we look at the U.S.
“Coming to the U.S., I’ve discovered a lot of blues, jazz, and Afro-Cuban music. It’s always fascinating to me,” N’Jai adds. “We have so much music. We always are wondering how we can just stream the show 24/7 in some Pandora [Internet Radio] way.”
Vakunta is originally from Cameroon in west-central Africa where she, too, was raised around diverse music.
“Growing up in Cameroon, I really got exposure to many genres and music from different countries,” she says. “At the time, I didn’t know they were from different countries, but through doing the show I found out so much. That experience as a child transfers to when we do the show. I’m always trying to bring in songs from as many different countries as I can. There are great songs from so many different countries. It’s just always being conscious of all the great music.”
Vakunta came to the United States at age 15, so she didn’t get as much education about Africa as she wanted. But through her radio show, she is learning about the continent constantly. “Music is one way to dig back into history and learn more about my country and other countries, as well,” Vakunta says. “ I’ve discovered so much about African culture and have read books that I never would have read.”
By day, Njai is a scientist at Proctor & Gamble with an Appointment at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Vakunta is a certified rehabilitation counselor and a Ph.D. student in Nelson Institutes (Environment and Resource) at the UW-Madison. While their day jobs and schooling keep them plenty busy, their PanAfrica Show keeps them out and about in the community as they collaborate with other organizations on projects and work as emcees at cultural events and shows including opening up for a Madagascan artists at La Fete de Marquette, for Haitian artists, and for Grammy Award-winning artist Angélique Kidjo. “Doing these shows keeps us aware of the diversity of African music. Also, the people in the community keep us accountable for representing all of the music of Africa,” Vakunta says.
“We’ve really discovered that it’s been magical that the community is connecting to the music and us in a way that we didn’t even realize when we started the show,” N'jai says. “We’ll go to festivals or events in the community and we’ll find a small community of people who really dig the music and will come up to us and are really excited.”
The trouble for this duo is bringing in all of that feedback from the community and all of the diversity that is African music …. back into a two-hour show.
“There’s so much music out there that two hours doesn’t do it justice,” Vakunta says. “People have so many different tastes. Two hours is just not enough.”
“We come in[to] every show and we’re looking at like 300 tracks and we have to narrow it down to 20-something tracks,” N’Jai adds. “What we try to do at this show that is very different from other African shows is that we mix the music with the history, culture, and stories behind the music.”
In that way, the PanAfrica Radio Show goes well beyond the popular into the fringes and to the obscure of African music. “We sometimes consciously move from the popular to songs that the listeners don’t even know or [where] there aren’t records available,” N’Jai says. “We’re constantly looking. We’re constantly searching. We love the obscure African music. We want to really make sure that we bring the music that existed before the World Music Era popularity of the ‘90s. Some of the greatest artists came in the ‘60s and ‘70s and are relatively unknown.”
“It’s a teaching experience for the younger folks,” says Vakunta. “We’re now getting a larger wave of young listeners for our Facebook which we really didn’t have before. Plus, there are older folks who don’t have the cassettes or vinyls that they had back home and we’re bringing that history back to them. I remember we played a song from Kenya from the 1950s and this woman called and she was so happy and she said she was so surprised to hear this Kikuyu song here in Madison! It’s definitely a teaching platform and it’s also a historical reminder for many people.”
It’s also a reminder that African music is a powerful source and has been a powerful influence on multiple genres of music throughout the world, but especially on American music.
“You can hear elements of African music everywhere — Michael Jackson can sing ‘Mamase mamasa mama makossa’ [in ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Something]…. but do we know that it came from Cameroon? Shakira did Waka Waka Africa. Do we know where that came from?” Vakunta asks. “All the time, hip-hop choreographers all go to Africa and check out the dance styles. But there isn’t a strong medium to show where the roots of American music came from.
“We move so fast and music is always evolving,” Vakunta adds. “We just want to go to the next thing, but then we forget about where those elements of the next thing came from. Now we’re going to hip-hop…. Forgetting that hip-hop had its origins in Senegal or some other places. And if you go back to Senegal you will hear the real thing that is still happening now. It’s a reminder to not move to fast and forget the roots. Stay true to the roots.”
The PanAfrica Radio Show hosts state that their goals are to continue to expand the listenership and the popularity of their show, but, more importantly, they want to continue to educate more people about African music.
“I would like to see more younger people listening to this historical stuff. I’m young myself, and I think I’ve learned so much,” Vakunta says. “It’s a way for us to appreciate each other. You really appreciate someone by knowing even just a little bit about them. It’s a way to foster connection, love, peace, and happiness. I would love to see that.
“Beyond this, we’re really looking to get back to Africa and really awaken some of this music,” she adds. “We are working on various projects to connect African musicians of the old era and the new ones to give life to their music. We call our show PanAfrica, but our main goal is to have a music genome… an Africa genome where you can take something like hip-hop and dissect it to where it is coming from.”
Africa is a vast continent and its regions and nations have distinct musical traditions. There are several factors that have influenced the tribal music of Africa including language, the environment, a variety of cultures, politics, and population movement, all of which are intermingled. N’Jai says he would love to develop a website with a clickable data base where you could actually click on countries and take a musical tour.
“Doing this show has been a great opportunity to connect with a lot of musicians in Africa and in the diaspora. That’s where our future will be… connecting with these musicians,” N’Jai says. “People know of African music but the problem is that it hasn’t been marketed in a way that could reach a bigger audience.
“[American rapper] Nas said that, ‘Hip-hop is dead,’” N’Jai continues. “But the main reason is that they’ve exhausted what they know in terms of the sound and the musical frame. Here is a continent in Africa where we’ve only touched maybe 10 percent of what you could explore in terms of music and sound. In every village that you go to within a distance of a few square miles it changes dramatically in styles and cultures. That’s the other layer that could be groundbreaking for any artist who dares to venture out. You see ‘Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes’ by that guy [Paul Simon, whose album “Graceland” employed African bands, rhythms and melodies]. He ventured out to Africa. There’s just so much out there waiting to be found.”
Join Alhaji N'jai and Linda Vakunta as they host the PanAfrica Radio Show every Saturday from 2-4 p.m. on WORT Radio 89.9 FM. Check them out online at www.panafricamusicshow.com.