Here’s the song that serves as my main inspiration and reference point for the music I’m making these days: Toto’s Africa. If there ever was a quintessential “safari synthpop” track this has to be it.
Released in 1982, Africa is an odd and unique track. Enter it into a music matching service like Pandora and nothing very similar will come up. The song has two lead singers (one for the verses and one for the choruses), and manages to squarely balance synth-rock and world elements in a way that’s never been matched. I’ve listened to it innumerable times and always wondered why no one every followed up on this genre and why it stands so singularly in the pop landscape. Maybe I’ve just somehow missed a raft of similar tracks out there but I don’t think so. The closest thing I can recall is some of Peter Gabriel’s early 80s work.
I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who doesn’t like the song. It seems to bring a smile to everyone who hears it. People do occasionally grouse that the lyrics are a bit hokey, but I find they have a sincere, cinematic charm. They’re not cool and ironic, but as I once read in a pulp novel “irony indicates a small soul”. A sampling from the first verse:
“I hear the drums echoing tonight
But she hears only whispers of some quiet conversation
She’s coming in 12:30 flight
The moonlit wings reflect the stars that guide me towards salvation
I stopped an old man along the way,
Hoping to find some old forgotten words or ancient melodies
He turned to me as if to say, Hurry boy, It’s waiting there for you…”
The video for the song is also worth watching. It’s essentially Indiana Jones in a more professorial setting.
Dominating the song is the mighty Yamaha CS-80 and its warm brass sound. The Yamaha CS-80 is one of the few synthesizers still on my dream list. With a $9000.00+ price tag and 200lbs+ heft it’s not a dream that’s likely to be realized anytime soon. This is NOT an instrument for the traveling musician. Fortunately, my Dave Smith Instruments Prophet 08 with its 12/24db filter can come very close to the CS-80′s sound.
Yamaha GS 1
The other big gun (and I do mean big, this synth also weighs over 200lbs) was the Yamaha GS 1. This is a digital FM synth and a forerunner to the popular Yamaha DX7. Honestly, I’ve never been much of a fan for FM synthesis. It’s too fussy to program and the tones it generates are too crisp and harsh. For marimba/kalimba-type of sounds I turn to Ableton’s Collision which sounds excellent and is far more approachable to program.
More about the Song
The ubiquitous Wikipedia has a lengthy and interesting entry about the song.