Toto – Africa

First Hit #1: February 5, 1983

On a world tour of pop, here’s a song about Africa, which both succeeds and fails. As a pop song, it works, it’s got a memorable hook. It’s also got inventive percussion that is at the forefront of African-influenced pop recordings – it’s a sound that’s going to continue throughout the decade, arguably reaching its peak with Paul Simon’s Graceland. It doesn’t sound remotely African, I’d argue, but it is an appreciably different sound that it stays a bit novel and unique. Toto, whatever their faults might be, have made a clever and enjoyable pop song. Provided, of course, you ignore the lyrics.

While it’s a love song, it is called Africa so the group decided that it should have many references to Africa. Fair enough, but when you get a line like “Sure as Kilimanjaro rises above the Serengeti” you’ve reached a point where it becomes a joke. That line is basically impossible to sing without sounding incredibly awkward, and in general the references to Africa don’t really feel well integrated. It’s a song about a man pursuing a woman more than anything else, just with references to Africa on occasion. Every time someone actually references the continent it gets noticeably awkward, as though they aren’t really sure why they wrote a song about Africa in the first place. It’s still an enjoyable song, just one that makes you scratch your head.

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One Response to Toto – Africa

  1. Robert Berman says:

    Musically, one of the high points of the decade. The complex percussion is actually an analog tape loop of about ten different instrumental tracks, repeating the same measure of music throughout the whole song. The opening keyboard riff has a great mixed meter feel; even though it’s in 4/4, it breaks the accents into segments of 3 beats and 5 beats, giving an exotic, tense feeling. The vocal range is so wide (jumping nine steps from the end of the verse to the beginning of the chorus) that one lead vocalist handles the verse and another the chorus. The key change from chorus back to verse is handled with an elegant progression of chords. The chorus repeats the same melody several times, adding another layer of harmony underneath. The result isn’t quite Ladysmith Black Mambazo, but it’s suggestive of African harmonies, just as the marimba (keyboard?) sounds like nothing else we’ve heard in 1982.

    Lyrically, the Africa references are indeed jumbled, not the least because Kilamanjaro does not rise above the Serengeti, being 100 miles from it. Fact check before you publish, people! Also: “There’s nothing that a hundred men or more can ever do” sounds like an odd generalization; surely a hundred men have done all sorts of things. A closer analysis reveals that the “there” is a confusing reference to the predicate of the previous line, so that the message is supposed to be something like, “A hundred men could not pull me away from you.” But the grammar, yeesh. I do like the contrasting images of the first two lines, though. “I heard the drums echoing tonight/ She hears only whispers of some quiet conversation.” Nice way of setting up her arrival by airplane to an unfamiliar locale.

    And the overall song theme is nice. He’s in Africa for some reason, and he’s excited that his woman is coming to visit, and the rainy season either presages her coming or ensures that she’ll have to stay a while. It would have been better to specify what was so great about the rains in Africa.

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