Monday, September 5, 2011

The real meaning behind Toto's 'Africa'

    Pop songs are meant to be popular. In every era of music, you could say that there was a formula to making a song that would be a 'hit'. The record companies knew this, and that's why you hear so many similar sounding songs from any given year. If a new style or new 'sound' is becoming popular, replacing the one from last year, there is a mad rush to capitalize on the fad for as long as it lasts, until the next fad comes along. I say this because it seems like this is where non-sensical lyrics come into play most often. They focus on creating the song as quickly as possible, and what's most important for radio play is how the song sounds as a product, not necessarily the words and meaning behind them. In some eras, these fads were started by artists who through their originality changed the taste of the music consuming population. In other eras the fad was a well thought-out plan, a business model for creating 'artists' rather than waiting for someone to come along. One the most notable examples of this latter era would be the late 90's to early 2000's. Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, LFO, etc. This era of music was ushered in by a producer, Lou Pearlman, rather than the artist. In an ironic twist, Lou Pearlman got into the music business thanks in part to his first cousin, Art Garfunkel. Garfunkel (along with Paul Simon) belonged to an era of singer/songwriters that grew organically thanks to the likes of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, etc.
    I say this about pop music not because I believe that Toto's words are meaningless, nor are they of the class of singer/songwriters from the 60's. I'm trying to illustrate that within certain times a lot of popular songs sound similar, and the effect of that is that songs will begin to run together. Songs don't necessarily become hits because of their lyrics, but rather because of their 'feel'. Most of the time, we will decide if we like a song by it's feel in the first 30 seconds. If it passes the feel test, we may listen to the lyrics, or we may not. I've recently been exposed to a lot of songs I thought I knew, but I didn't actually know. I remembered the feeling and groove, but not the lyrics. When I really think about it, I don't think I ever knew the lyrics. I just absorbed the catchy hook.
    'Africa' was released on Toto's 4th album, eponymouly named "Toto IV". It reached number 1 on the Billboard charts in February of 1983, while I was still in utero. I vaguely remember hearing it when I was a child. At the neighborhood pool, the only radio station that offended no one (but also didn't please anyone either) was the adult contemporary station. This was one of the songs that they played. So now, when I hear 'Africa', then get past the awesomeness of it's groove and the unforgettably catchy hook, I listen to the words in the verse for the first time. Do you know the words? Or do you, like me, only remember 'Hurry boy, it's waiting there for you', and 'I bless the rains in Africa'?
    According to David Paich (keyboards and vocals) the song is about "a white boy trying to write a song on Africa, but since he's never been there, he can only tell what he's seen on TV or remembers in the past". I have a different take. I believe it's a very subtle song about making love with someone for the first time. Doing it. Getting it on. Bumping uglies. 

Just for reference, here's the song:

The video could be another post entirely on its own.

But we're looking for the meaning behind the words here, so here we go.

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 toward 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

    This has nothing to do with Africa (the continent). Look at the lyrics again ... see?
    This sounds exactly like the lead-up to a romantic rendevous. To make things easier, for the purposes of this post, the male character in the story of the song, also the narrator, will be known as 'he' or 'him'. The object of his desire, the female, will be known as 'she' or 'her'.
    The 'drums echoing' are the primal, insistent, instinctual beat of his libido; the male equivalent of a biological clock that started ticking long long ago, in the jungles and on the plains of Africa before we were the species that we are today. We can tell that this will be the first (hopefully, in his eyes) sexual encounter between the two. His plan is to seduce her, tonight. He has invited her over, but has not yet told her of his intentions. He has talked to her without exposing his beating drums of desire, which is why all she hears is the echo of some quiet conversation, the conversation they had before she agreed to come over. On her 12:30 flight.
    Before I continue, I have to raise the point that if a wing, or anything else, is moonlit, there is no way for it to reflect stars. The moon is the brightest object in the night sky and by it's very nature obscures or renders obsolete the light from stars, especially when one is talking of reflection. We must agree here that this simply means that it is night. Let us continue.
    Before she gets there, he has to run an errand. He walks down the street towards the corner store, guided by the arched streetlights hanging over the gutters like wings (!) to pick up a six-pack of Bartles & Jaymes, his salvation. Inebriation will  absolve some of the sins which he hopes to commit tonight, if all goes to plan. On the way back from the store, he is excited. He is ready to converse with anyone who might come across his path, including an old man waiting for the bus. The old man appreciates his exuberance, it makes him feel a little nostalgic for his younger days when he was excitedly anticipating the arrival of some young female. He (the narrator) asks this old man if he has any words of wisdom, any tidbits that will help him in his upcoming conquest. The old man laughs mirthfully as he shakes his head. The best advice that he can give is to hurry back. Though the young man is assuming he alone is hearing the echoes of the ancient drum beat, the old man knows that she's been waiting for him to make his move, and probably has been for longer than he knows.

    So now we come to the chorus. If you did not know the title of the song, the only thing that remotely resembles a reference to Africa so far is the sound of the marimbas at the beginning. The chorus will give us Africa in name, but the first two lines resemble the sentiments of a traditional love song.


It's gonna take a lot to drag me away from you
There's nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do
I bless the rains down in Africa 
It's gonna take some time to do the things we never had

    This is the most important part to deducing the intent of the lyrics. There is only one other reference to the continent of Africa other than naming it here. Until the third line of this chorus, there has been nothing to reference a place, and we can tell even from the first line of the song that he is using a metaphorical device. We don't assume that he's hearing the echoes of actual drums, he's referencing an idea. So, what is the metaphor he is trying to express when he proclaims that he blesses 'the rains down in Africa'? What is Africa?

    The Vagina.

     Yes, you heard me right. The Vagina. The immortal originator of all that we are. Where life began for everyone. The hot, sticky jungle that gave life to you and I that goes back all the way to the hot, sticky jungles of Africa, where we became a species. Africa is the motherland, the bounty, the life-giver. "The Dark Heart of Africa" when said aloud stirs semi-erotic images in the brain and erotic ones in the loins. She is the receiver and the reason for the beating of drums. Can it mean anything else? Are we to assume that we're suddenly talking about a piece of land when it's obstensibly been about a man and his feelings for a woman up to this point? I think not. I also think that 'gonna take some time to do the things we never had' is pretty clear, when you look at it this way.

Second verse:

The wild dogs cry out in the night
As they grow restless longing for some solitary company
I know that I must do what's right
Sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti
I seek to cure what's deep inside
Frightened of this thing that I've become

    Here in the second verse we have the other reference to Africa, Kilimanjaro and Serengeti. We'll get to those in just a minute.

    It's here that he is becoming more consumed with desire. Earlier it was likened to the echo of drums, but now he is expressing it in a more primitive way, comparing it to dogs crying out. He's longing for the company of one other, the need for that one taking him further down the evolutionary ladder, to a time before he was man. He knows that he needs this to happen tonight. It is in the other reference to Africa that we must make our second biggest metaphorical leap. He has described a mountain rising out of a barren desert, and compared it to Olympus, the home of the gods, the kingdom of Zeus. If Africa, the Mother-God is the vagina, here we are shown the phallic mountain of Zeus the philandering Father-God. An enormous erection of stone towering over the dark wetness of Darkest Africa. His romantic quest is almost fulfilled, and yet he is now doubting himself right before the moment of truth. Is this what he actually wants, the stark physical act? Is he not the man that he thought he was, striving for the great love of body and soul; is he another wretch weakening resistance with alcohol? Yet again, I think not.

Chorus repeat:

It's gonna take a lot to drag me away from you
There's nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do
I bless the rains down in Africa 
It's gonna take some time to do the things we never had

    It is here that we find the meaning to the first two lines of the chorus. He is not the wretch who will take the body without the soul. Although his entire night has been leading up the penultimate moment, the climax, the coup de grace, the old-fashioned romantic notions bring us (and he) back to why he has been planning this night. There is no one that could take her away from him. He will push back against the multitudes that may come to her. He doesn't just want to feel the sweet rush of rain from Africa, he blesses it. He blesses the giving of that place, her place, and he wants her to know what it means to him.

    Hence this song.