THERE WAS A TIME when African immigrants were not really immigrants at all. They were optimistic visitors with dreams of returning to their undeveloped countries with the skills they had acquired in the overdeveloped United States. At that time, in the '70s, I used to visit small Seattle from big Washington, D.C., where my parents studied and dreamed. Here, the world of the African intellectual artist was definitely positive, and at parties, weddings, restaurants, and nightclubs I could feel the energy. Dumisani Maraire had brought traditional Zimbabwean music to the Pacific Northwest in the '60s, and one could read in his success a utopia in formation--a future global society where cultural practices are exchanged rather than stolen, and the West finally meets Africa on equal terms.

Now things aren't so great in Africa. As a result, there is a new kind of African immigrant: one who has abandoned the dream of returning and invested everything in the American dream. I bring all this up because it is how I understand and respond to the new CD Safarini, which will be performed at the Northwest Folklife Festival.

Because this music is from the older, transient African immigrants ("Safarini" means "in transition"), I experience a multiple melancholy when listening to these songs. The melancholy I experience is geographical (I feel the sadness of being far away from home), and also chronological (this music came from an age when everyone had plans to go back home and be part of their new, black-ruled nation).

In the case of the Zimbabwean songs, the final melancholy I sense is an aesthetic one. Proper mbira (thumb piano) music always has a sad air about it. It is not music for nightclubs, like Afro-pop, but is for serious and solemn moments. This is the musical tradition Dumisani Maraire (who sadly passed away last year in Harare) and Lora Chiorah-Dye and Sukutai are part of; it is a spiritual and philosophical music that confronts the "accursed questions"--the meanings of suffering, fate, and death.

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