Heavy Metal Africa (Book Review)
Released: 2016, Word Association Publishers
It is interesting to learn how a project like this comes to fruition. Edward Banchs, an American university student had always harboured a fascination with Africa since he was a little boy. Growing up in the 80’s Metal was his music of choice. As he continued his Masters degree in African Studies in London over time his love of Metal and intrigue of Africa merged. After a journey to Zimbabwe in 2007 the idea took hold and now, years later he has published his first work HEAVY METAL AFRICA.
The book is your standard paperback, about 380 pages long, littered with black and white photos, mostly snapshots of his tours in Africa, that puts faces to the names in the narration to life. In 2014, on his third trip to the continent the sole purpose was to gather the raw material to write this book, this is the story of his adventure. Starting in South Africa he then visits Botswana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Reunion Island (look it up on the map!) and after an aborted attempt to get to Angola his journey ended with a side trip back to Zimbabwe. The whole trip was self-financed and was only able to happen due to the generosity of the local Metal community. Banchs comes across as a likeable fellow, tolerant and easy-going putting himself in circumstances many people would shy away from, but that is the power of Metal!
Banchs is a political scientist and anthropologist as much as a Metalhead and HEAVY METAL AFRICA was as much as a historical and political primer as it was an examination of the African Metal scene. I found his story to be extremely interesting. I, like many (most?) North Americans, am painfully ignorant (in the purest sense of the term) of the forgotten continent and I learned a lot. Each chapter is about his experiences in that nation and he had some adventures (like getting malaria, detained and more) but by and large, his journey was about hanging out with Metalheads, going to rehearsals, interviewing them, and drinking of course! The interviews seemed to have a central idea or theme in that providing perspective how a Metal band could survive under their particular national economic environment and political regime. Some bands thrived in favourable environments and some were hidden deep in the underground, living in fear of reprisal from government thugs who consider Metal to be Satan’s music.
Among, many, many interesting points, it was curious that some bands did not want to incorporate local or indigenous music into the Metal because they felt that is was a Western music that would ruin it or that it would sound too weird. Meanwhile, other bands deliberately tried to integrate African music and Metal together. Virtually all the bands struggled with basic issues of access to music, instruments, gear, venues etc, let alone poverty, in which Metal across the continent is largely an upper middle-class pursuit. Some nations were a bit more tolerant and maybe young artists could make a band, watch MTV on satellite or import some records or hear a pirate radio station, but by and large it is a tough uphill battle. Many of the bands seemed to have lyrics steeped in realism, words and protests driven by their circumstances, rather than the escapism and fantasy that often permeates much of Metal in Europe and North America.
If I had one criticism Banchs should have included an extensive index and bibliography of each band he talked to. There were so many bands that sounded interesting but how are we to learn about them? Why not list all the bands he interviewed with the names of the performers (when safe to do so) their albums, a brief biogrpahy and most importantly contact information? It was a missed opportunity to spread the word on these underground bands that all seemingly desperately need the global exposure. Now readers if they want to follow up have to do lots of legwork looking up individually each band that gets a brief mention here or there. That minor complaint aside this really was a superb book.
HEAVY METAL AFRICA is a ground-breaking and important work. Highly readable and entertaining it balances the fine line of academia and being ‘Metal’ enough that all interested parties will be pleased. Check out this book and investigate out some of the bands mentioned, and do your part to support our brothers and sisters of Metal in the forgotten continent.