Five years ago, Walshy Fire, the Jamaican producer known for the global-club-mishmashes he makes with the group Major Lazer, funded his own solo tour of Africa. In Kenya at one point, “the driver had fallen asleep and nobody could find him,” Walshy Fire recalls. “When they finally saw him, the first thing they said was, ‘you’re kimbo.’ I know that word in Jamaica to mean lazy — you’re asleep and spread out. It means the exact same thing in Kenya.”
“Those similarities made me begin to really think of how I could make people from both sides of the ocean” — especially those without pop star travel budgets — “see the same things that I was seeing,” the producer continues. After mulling, he settled on the concept for Abeng, his debut solo album, which consists entirely of collaborations between singers based in the Caribbean (Machel Montano, Alkaline) and their counterparts across the Atlantic (Runtown, Mr. Eazi).
Abeng arrives during a boom time for these partnerships: The last three years have brought music from Vybz Kartel and Wizkid, Popcaan and Davido, Devin Di Dakta and Niniola, Kranium and Wizkid, Konshens and DJ Tunez, Popcaan and Runtown, and the Haitian artist Michael Brun and Mr. Eazi. It’s never been easier to send files back and forth, so distance is no longer an obstacle to collaboration, and the accessibility of a platform like YouTube means that both artists’ fans can stream a track with minimal expense. As the Nigerian hitmaker Runtown puts it: “Do a dual hit: Blow in Africa, still blow in the Caribbean.”
But over three years ago, when Walshy Fire commenced work on Abeng, these collaborations were far more rare. “My world was really reggae-dancehall,” he says, “and I don’t remember too many Africans doing collaborations in the dancehall space. When I first thought about the album, there weren’t any that I knew of.”
The absence struck him as odd, especially considering the musical similarities between several genres in the Caribbean and across Africa. “Everything sounds African,” Walshy Fire says. “Calypso and soca music and mento, those three sound so much like high life [from Ghana]. Did we ever really separate? We just gave it a different name and used whatever local instruments we could find.”
Perhaps that’s why Walshy Fire had little trouble adjusting his production style — usually electronic dancehall hybrids made with a global audience in mind — to make room for the gently propulsive, pleasantly syncopated afrobeats sound popular in West Africa. Of the 11 tracks on Abeng, Walshy Fire says only one represented a musical challenge: “Call Me,” which opens the album, setting pinprick guitar and entreaties from Mr. Eazi and Kranium against a skeletal rhythm. “It started to go a little away from Africa and we had to pull it back in,” Walshy Fire says. “In the end, we stripped it way down to keep the African-ness. That was the only one we battled over for a long time.”
Releasing a solo debut outside of a well-known group is always a daunting task — even in a climate rife with intercontinental musical cross-pollination. “I hope everyone keeps an open mind,” Walshy Fire says. “A lot of people are stuck in their corner: ‘I like dancehall.’ ‘Nah, I like afrobeats.’ Once I can get people to listen with an open mind, I think the reaction will be what I want it to be: Joy.”
That’s one possible reaction to Abeng. The other involves buying a plane ticket. “Everyone should do more of these collaborations,” says Runtown, the Nigerian hitmaker who added vocals to a pair of Walshy Fire’s tracks. “I’m actually trying to go to Jamaica soon.”