Take an early-Eighties band in need of hits, a mid-tempo song about a conflicted missionary on a parched savanna, a catchy-as-hell keyboard hook and one of the most syllable-heavy lines in pop music. What have you got? A bonafide pop classic.
Africa by Toto, released 36 years ago, is a song whose appeal appears to grow with every passing year. Television shows from Stranger Things to South Park have featured the song, it’s been sampled by hip hop artists including Nas and Wiz Khalifa, and covered by everyone from Chris De Burgh to the none-more-hipster Hackney Colliery Band. This week Africa re-entered the pop cultural orbit – or should that be seabed? – when rapper Pitbull covered the song for the Aquaman movie. Within hours of its release, the internet was more divided about Pitbull’s version than the Red Sea when Moses stood before it.
Peter Robinson of music website Popjustice hailed the cover as “an end-of-year-list-destroying masterpiece”. One YouTube viewer wrote: “We’ve peaked as a society.” But many disagreed. “I’ve found the worst song in recorded history… its awfulness is a spectacle to behold,” was a typical comment on Twitter. But the fact that Pitbull’s song has made such a splash (and amassed 150,000 YouTube views in just 14 hours) stands testament to what a cherished and familiar song Africa is.
“We always end our nights with Toto somewhere in the mix,” says Sean Rowley, the founder of Guilty Pleasures, the popular club night that celebrates cheesy classics. “It’s an omnipresent track that connects with all ages. Everyone knows the words and belts it out.”
Dave Fawbert, one of the founders of power ballad club night Ultimate Power, says that Africa is “without fail” one of the biggest tunes of the night. In the club’s 11-year history he can’t remember an event when they haven’t played it. In 2012, the song was listed by NME as having one of music’s all-time most explosive choruses. And now it has been appropriated by a scaly superhero.
The new-found appreciation for the song is partly explained by millennials’ fondness for Eighties “yacht rock”. There’s certainly a heavy dollop of irony in their love of this slick and sincere music. And what of the rampant cultural appropriation in Africa’s video, which features the khaki-clad band – who’d never been to Africa – and a prowling African tribesman with a spear? Not a problem for today’s woke youth, it seems. Besides, it was years before they were born. Not an issue.
Perhaps Aquaman’s producers were tapping into this pan-generational and knowing appeal when they commissioned the song for the film. For years now it’s been impossible to go to a festival, wedding or karaoke bar without hearing Africa somewhere in the mix. So why not put it on the silver screen too?
Popjustice’s Robinson notes that Pitbull has stripped the song to its “total bare minimum” of just verse-chorus-verse-chorus, with no pre-chorus, post-chorus or middle eight. But while this may make the song more immediate for cinema-goers, it belies the complexity that made the original song the much loved masterpiece it became. “I’m so sorry Toto,” wrote YouTube subscriber Pug after he’d heard the new version.
Drill down, experts say, and Toto’s Africa is an expertly crafted and subtly layered piece of music played by virtuoso musicians. “It’s a really remarkable bit of songwriting,” says Prof Joe Bennett, a musicologist based at Berklee College of Music in Boston, USA.
In 1981, the Los Angeles band were desperately in need of hits. Their first two albums were successful but their third record, 1981’s Turn Back, flopped. Columbia Records was on the verge of dropping them. Their next album needed to be something special. Luckily Toto IV was just that, selling 12 million copies and winning them six Grammys. And its standout track was Africa.
Singer David Paich was messing around with a new keyboard and he alighted on what would become the song’s vaguely exotic and dreamlike opening riff. He then hummed a melody. “‘Hang on,” I thought. “I’m a talented songwriter but I’m not this talented,’” Paich told the Guardian earlier this year. Meanwhile drummer Jeff Porcaro worked on the percussion, adding conga drums, a cowbell and a shaker to a mid-tempo beat from a kit. He created a tape loop. As a child, Porcaro was inspired seeing the drummers in the African pavilion of the 1964 New York World Fair. That memory infused his beat.
Lyrically, the song was written from the point of view of a missionary in Africa, torn between his lover flying in presumably to take him home and his love for Africa itself. Unsurprisingly, some bandmates were sceptical of Paich’s song. “‘Dave, man, Africa? We’re from north Hollywood. What the f--- are you writing about? ‘I bless the rains down in Africa?’ Are you Jesus, Dave?’” was the precise reaction of Toto guitarist Steve “Luke” Lukather, according to an interview this year. He promised to run naked down Hollywood Boulevard if it was a hit.
But a hit it was, reaching number one in the US singles chart. Musicologist Bennett says the song stands out on many levels.
Firstly, there’s the structure of the original. Africa starts slowly and builds, with each element layering on top of the one before. There are essentially two keyboard riffs: the main one is immediately followed by a kalimba thumb piano motif (played on a keyboard, naturally). And there’s a pause at the end of each verse, leading to heightened anticipation for the chorus. Musical elements creep in, like acoustic guitar and a subtly more complex bass part. The song is a journey.
“What we’re hearing in Africa is virtuoso musicians playing simple things really well,” says Bennett. “It’s very tastefully played. Lukather is a virtuoso guitarist who could have solo-ed all over that track. Yet there are whole sections with no guitars at all.”
This subtlety comes hand in hand with an emotionally wrought singalong chorus, the higher pitch of which encourages listeners to belt it out. (Its four-chord progression is what’s technically known as the “six-four-one-five” loop – you also can hear it in Beyoncé’s If I Were A Boy, and Coldplay’s Paradise.)
But the main reason that Africa stands out is because of its lyrics and narrative wistfulness. Yes, it’s cheesy and vaguely ridiculous, but the use of imagery is exemplary. We have echoing drums, the moon and stars reflecting off the wings of an incoming lover’s aeroplane, a wise old man, and wild dogs crying out at night. We also have a narrator who’s utterly conflicted, telling Africa that it would take an awful lot – not even “a hundred men or more” – to drag him away from it. Then, of course, there’s the song’s most memorable line. “As sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti,” Paich sings.
The line may be daft: Kilimanjaro is well over 300km from the Serengeti and it is vastly higher than Olympus, making the comparison strange (this hasn’t stopped Toto-obsessed mathematicians from developing equations to establish whether the line could be true, in fact). But, as Bennett points out, the melody doesn’t change as Paich sings this line, meaning you can “hear him pushing and struggling” to fit the words in, adding to his sense of mounting anguish.
As a song, Africa is an impressive package. But the arrangement, the dynamics, the musicianship, the production, the lyrics and the tune that made the original so memorable are missing in the Pitbull cover. It’s a bluntened version of the song. It’s Africa shorn of its complexity. Watered down, if you will.
Does this matter? Not really. If the Aquaman version can prolong the song’s longevity than that’s perhaps not a bad thing.
Besides, Toto have had cinematic connections in the past. Toto’s current singer, Joseph Williams (son of film score composer John), provided the adult singing voice of Simba in Disney’s The Lion King.
It was always likely that Toto’s song would be the mid-tempo gift that kept on giving. And so it has proven this Christmas with the Aquaman soundtrack. Some of the negative comments may be as pointed as Neptune’s trident. But the fuss simply demonstrates this 36 year-old song’s enduring appeal.