FFWDing to the Best Part: “Africa,” Toto (1983)

Stop the clock — this song is 30 years old?  Like, this song is five years away from being able to BE PRESIDENT?  Perhaps it feels not-so-old because it remains inescapable. “80s, 90s, and now” radio stations, live-band karaoke, my own iPhone … it’s everywhere.  In fact, the wonderfully odd variety show I attend from time to time does their own version.  I was once there in late February and requested it, at which point the lead singer heckled me: “You’re a white girl in here trying to request ‘Africa’ during Black History Month?” How’s that? Was I somehow guilty of reverse-reverse-reverse racism?

In addition to just being amazing in every way, “Africa” is known for its nebulous lyrics. They are often misheard (“I bet Lorraine’s down in Africa…”) and even when understood, they are pretty indecipherable:

I know that I must do what’s right
Sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti

Is that entire italicized phrase to be taken the same as “sure as shooting,” I suppose?  Also, for the first, say, 28 years this song existed, I thought they were saying Kilimanjaro rises like “a leopress.” (A female leopard?  Ehh?)

Best part? 3:47 – 3:50. The building introduction is good. The harmonies in the chorus are great. But the best part?  When lead vocalist David Paich participates in a battle royale WITH HIMSELF.

  • First, at 3:33, he offers a callback — “I [still] bless the rains.”
  • At 3:37, he repeats it — “[No, seriously] I [really, really, really] bless the rains.”
  • He pauses.
  • And finally, at the aforementioned spot, he has the final one-uppance, jumping about three octaves to exclaim … something.  “Ahhhhhhhhhh, gonna take some time (?),” is my guess.

 

Fun fact: Timothy B. Schmit of the Eagles — another singer known for his higher register — does backing vocals. Also: this is the second-best video to take place in a library. The best, of course, is this:

 

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One thought on “FFWDing to the Best Part: “Africa,” Toto (1983)

  1. For “video set in a library” I’d actually rank another one between Marian and Africa: http://vimeo.com/29807866

    It’s so hard to narrow down a single best part of “Africa”, one of the best recordings in the history of humanity. Is it the opening percussion track, recorded for a couple of bars with a dozen exotic instruments and then physically looped using old fashioned tape technology so that it forms an ostinato throughout the whole song? Is it the surprise 3 beat keyboard riff that makes you think the song is in an altered meter when it’s clearly in 4/4? Is it the verse’s cool myxolydian chord progression? Is it the acoustic piano, weaving in and out amongst the flutey keyboards to exemplify the “organic + artificial” new wave sound? Is it the multiplying cascade of harmonizing vocals which grows as the chorus progresseses? Is it the modulation of vocal range which requires one lead singer for the verse and another for the chorus, even though the key of the song actually modulates down a whole step for the chorus (from B to F#m, the relative minor of A) where most songs would modulate up? Is it the evocative verse lyric, aside from the now-infamous fact that Mount Kilimanjaro is hundreds of miles from the Serengeti? (I used to think the lyric said, “Kilimanjaro rises like an empress,” which would have been cool too.)

    So yes, there are a few things done wrong, including the ambiguous antecedent of “There” in “There’s nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do,” and the little matter of exactly why he blesses the rains down in Africa. Close the loops of your thoughts, guys! But with so many things done right, I find myself unable to skip this song whenever it comes up on my 1982 playlist.

    Power pop band Relient K did a surprisingly faithful cover of “Africa” a couple of years ago, not as awesome as Toto but much closer than I expected, especially since they don’t switch out lead vocalists, and I like their brief vocal breakdown near the end: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eXsaQbzRqOM. Also, acoustic guitar wizard Andy McKee gets most of the song into a solo instrumental: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KHFcg1Bg83w

    I do not understand why a band this awesome-for-a-moment didn’t have another dozen similarly awesome songs. But no, their second-best song is “Human Nature” as performed by Michael Jackson on Thriller, with “Rosanna” a more distant third and the rest of their singles simply being serviceable, non-awesome 80s music.

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