COUNTRY MUSIC AROUND THE WORLD
From his home in Amsterdam, Jamal Khadar’s online radio program, Reimagining Country, is an exploration of his family’s cultural roots — and a way to share how country music’s arms stretch around the world.
Trained as a researcher, Khadar was born in Oxford, England, to his British-Jamaican mother and his father, from Sierra Leone in West Africa. Growing up in the United Kingdom, he heard country music often.
“I remember getting home from school and my mom would always be playing Patsy Cline songs,” which were “heavy love songs,” he said. “They always kind of left an impression on me.”
Now he’s chasing his obsession of exploring country music’s origins and meaning, writing about music and culture for The Guardian and launching the podcast But Is It Funny? with comedian Suchandrika Chakrabarti and critic Brian Logan.
On Reimagining Country, a real education for any music lover, Khadar describes how country songs have made their way into the Jamaican community in the United Kingdom, into Jamaican music itself and many countries across Africa.
It’s a common thread, Khadar’s finding, that connects us all.
“After going on this personal journey myself, I wanted to share it with others so they could also find a personal connection to country,” he said.
From Nashville to Jamaica
On one episode, Khadar plays Patsy Cline’s devastating 1962 version of Lonely Street, and then a reggae version of the song by The Conquerors that followed in 1968. (See videos below.)
Co-written by country singer-songwriter Carl Bellew (who also wrote Stop the World and Let Me Off), Lonely Street had been a pop hit in 1959 for crooner Andy Williams — whose version made the R&B charts, too, believe it or not. Kitty Wells recorded it in the late 1950s, followed by the Everly Brothers, Ray Price, Tammy Wynette and later Emmylou Harris.
The song’s history is but one moment on Khadar's show that explores country music’s incredible reach. “It does kind of show or tell us something about the essence of country music, that it kind of resonates in 1950s Jamaica,” Khadar said.
That era, in fact, was when his grandmother departed Jamaica for the United Kingdom.
“My grandma was into Jim Reeves’ country-gospel stuff. Jim Reeves was the soundtrack of Christmas music… that kind of country-gospel,” Khadar said. “It resonates for someone of her generation in the same way it might have for somebody migrating in 1920s America.”
Admittedly, as his obsession with country music and its meaning has grown, he’s learned what it’s like to feel alone, in the same way Black fans and artists in country music must also feel.
“I know my mom had those kinds of experiences,” he said, when she would share at her choir rehearsals that Cline and other country artists were among her favorites, surprising some of her friends.
It’s that kind of discovery that makes his exploration of country music “a really personal thing for me,” Khadar said, giving him greater understanding of his parents’ complex journeys in some ways.
For him, it’s become an endless source of inspiration—and part of his search for identity, belonging, and self.
“I’ve had such a warm response from people… who identify with what I’m saying,” Khadar said, recalling a Jamaican in New York who’d contacted him to share that he realized his love for country music stems from its relationship to Jamaican music traditions.
Black and country
Khadar’s interest in country music began to blossom a few years back.
“I always had an ear for it,” he said. “To this day, The Beatles just doesn’t sound right to me.”
He absorbed legendary country singer-songwriter country Tom T. Hall’s classic book, The Storyteller’s Nashville, on his arrival and many adventures in Music City. While Khadar has visited family in Minnesota and had work trips to New Orleans and other destinations, he can’t wait to explore Music City and other musical meccas with more depth.
There was another turning point, however.
“That Ken Burns documentary, Country Music, was kind of one of the big opening points for me,” he said. “It definitely just reaffirmed that I love the sound of the music and that I’m connected to it,” he said. (Read SoulCountry editor Alan Richard's interview with Ken Burns, published by the American Airlines magazine.)
The film series “laid out some of the African-American ties to country,” delving into the stories of how mountain bluesman Lesley Riddle would accompany A.P. Carter on his song-hunting trips for The Carter Family through the hollers of Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee.
Burns’ documentary also highlights lost, important figures such as Arnold Schultz, the Black guitarist in Kentucky who influenced bluegrass creator Bill Monroe’s picking style, and Hank Williams’ guitar teacher Rufus “Tee-Tot” Payne.
It also mentions Gus Cannon, whose Cannon’s Jug Band is best known for Walk Right In in the 1920s, which became a folk hit in the 1960s. In his later years, Cannon befriended a young deliveryman in Memphis named Johnny Cash, who’d stop by and play guitars on his front porch.
Many people of color around the world don’t realize their connections to country music and its related genres, including rock ‘n roll. These are sounds that listeners “didn’t really recognize that as their own,” Khadar said.
As Memphis-based music scholar Charles L. Hughes pointed out during an interview on Reimagining Country: In the history of country music (and even in today’s alternative-country and Americana scenes), “Black artists are written as just the influence, and it’s white Americans that (are written as the ones that) kind of made it interesting.”
Khadar is “showing (that) for Black country artists around the world… they’re the ones who co-opted it and made it interesting.”
Still, Khadar admits it’s sometimes difficult to find peers in Europe who share his interests, or at least they don’t recognize it in themselves.
“There is little appreciation of modern country over here. If I try and tell someone in the U.K. about the show, they’re into the history. But when it comes to contemporary stuff, inevitably I will hear something about ‘Lil Nas X back, and that’s where the conversation ends,” he said.
Meanwhile, Khadar finds it fascinating that country music has become a vessel for debate about politics, race and culture in America.
He’s watched with interest as Allison Russell, Mickey Guyton and other roots-music artists of color challenge the norms in American popular music.
“It’s been eye-opening and exciting for me to see all the conversations taking place,” he said, “all of the articles coming out, kind of celebrating the Black women in country and Americana.”
Khadar is also interested in how many country and roots artists are “building their own alternative spaces,” and how some of “that’s happening outside of Nashville.”
“For me as a fan, it’s just been really powerful,” he said. “Listening to Miko Marks’ Long Journey Home is still emotional for me. That sounds like she’s talking about the journey of Black country and Black country fandom. My Mom loves this song, too.”
The music is “touching and relevant to me,” he said. “What I want to see more of, and maybe [the artist-support organization] Black Opry is doing this, that we’re also measuring progress or looking at the story through the lens of fans, as well,” including nonwhite and queer fans and “safe spaces for country fans that didn’t fit into the typical boxes.”
“Fans, they aren’t really passive. They’re active, and they’re a big part in changing the way we see country, as well,” he said. “Fandom is really powerful. Fans can make their own meaning.”
Country calls home
In the first episode of Reimagining Country, Khadar plays a song by musician and storyteller S.E. Rogie, who his father saw in concert as a child back in Sierra Leone.
In a clip that Khadar sent me of Rogie’s appearance on a Dutch TV show from 1989, the musician tells a young white audience wearing new wave-style fashions of the day about his love for American cowboy music and Jimmie Rodgers.
“My greatest fantasy was to be a singing cowboy,” Rogie tells the audience.
Then he sings:
I would love to be a little cowboy
roaming with my guitar all day
with the prettiest women I runnin’
singing my little cowboy song…
Yippee yay, yippee yay-ee-yah…
New episodes of Reimagining Country are focusing on the fascinating nostalgia and wide range of sounds in African country music.
One of the most vivid examples is Dusty & Stones, a hard-country duo from Eswatani, formerly known as Swaziland. On one recent episode, filmmaker Jesse Rudoy discusses his forthcoming documentary that follows Dusty & Stones from southern Africa to Nashville for a recording session.
“A lot of their music fits along those themes (in country music), thinking about how they’ve left their village,” Khadar said. These African country-influenced artists are like “cowboys living in the city and feel kind of lost and disconnected.”
In those performers’ hands, and in their own original writing and songs, “it takes on a completely different meaning,” Khadar said.
In the Southern African examples, cowboy songs and those of Jimmie Rodgers and others seemed rebellious, anti-colonial and independent. During times of revolution and change, “country was used for that,” he said.
On the show’s first episode, Khadar plays a variety of African country-leaning artists, including Christy Igbokwe Essien from Nigeria. Reminding me of the Black country-soul singer Yola from the U.K. (who I’ll hopefully see play in March 2022 in Nashville with Allison Russell and Devon Gilfillian each opening shows for her).
Essien’s recordings have the sound of late-1960s and 1970s country music like that of Dolly Parton, and bleed into some R&B and pop, as well, as records of that era often did.
There’s also a captivating 1983 number by Rennie Cotton Heart, No More Love in This Town, on which a heartfelt, bluesy vocal is coupled with the sound of synthesized flutes or reeds, atop a 1970s pop-soul bassline. I’ve never heard anything quite like it.
Another episode will focus on 1950s Zambian country-pop guitarist and composer Alick Nkhata, whose music resembled early American jazz and the era’s easy listening-pop sounds, with smooth saxophone solos, ragtime-like piano and lovely harmonies of the times.
One reviewer called the sound “Zam-jazz.” More importantly, Nkhata’s music has rich cultural significance in Zambia, reflecting decades of cultural change and reaching back to the roots of musicians and storytellers who long ago would bring news to each village.
“He did a real mix of things” and definitely had jazzy country influences, said Khadar said, “a guy and a guitar and yodeling but in his Bemba language” (from northeastern Zambia, which previously was known as northern Rhodesia), spoken by roughly one-third of the nation’s people.
The traditional society of many Zambians of this region was focused on rural subsistence farmers in small villages — and the farming was led by women.
Khadar is joined on the episode by Nkhata’s nephew, Africa Munyama, whom he’s gotten to know, for “a really personal look at this musician. And it’s exciting, because even if you look at even academic texts on Zambian music, they don’t have some of the details” the show explores.
Tragically, Nkhata was killed on his farm in 1978 by crossfire during battles between Rhodesian forces and rebel forces that continued until Zimbabwe reached independence in 1980. Also a prominent broadcaster at times, Nkhata’s country has memorialized him by naming a prominent road, a music award and more for him.
There’s also an episode on country and roots music in Zimbabwe, including a guitarist who recorded in the 1940s into the 1960s named Josaya Hadebe, whose country-rockabilly sound also incorporated local, indigenous musical traditions.
Playing a traditional solo guitar called an omasiganda, like in early American blues, he would sing about rowdy characters he’d encountered. He also sang about racial dynamics in colonial Africa at times.
In one of his recordings online, a photo of the label affixed to an 78 record label describes an Hadebe tune as “Zimbabwe ‘Cigarette’ Zulu Guitar Jive.”
“The Zimbabwean music is incredible. It’s a mix of kind of what we’d call country-blues guitar music, but there’s this real range of guitar playing styles,” Khadar said.
Musicians would adapt traditional and indigenous instruments to his style. “The way that the music progresses over time is really interesting,” Khadar added. “Sometimes it sounds incredibly country, with violin and guitar and yodeling.”