Thursday, July 2, 2009

Toto, "Africa"

Song: "Africa"
Artist: Toto
Album: Toto IV
Written by: David Paich/Jeff Porcaro
Year: 1982
Key: F#m
Classification: SF1
Lyrical content: tonight she comes; I've been to paradise, but I've never been to Tanzania
Where used: chorus

"Africa" is an excellent example of a song that's so catchy, so fundamentally right musically, that nobody ever stops to consider how little sense it makes. By the band's admission, the lyrics are essentially the result of creating a metaphor for nervous romantic anticipation out of half-remembered guesses about a place they knew little about. The video is hilarious, not because of the fact that musicians with faces for studio work somehow became marquee names in their own right (hey, it was early 1983, approximately one month before Duran Duran showed up to end the careers of guys who insisted on looking like this) but because they're working overtime to accost you with such quote-unquote exotic trappings as tribal drums, masks and one geographically confused gong, hoping that it'll distract you from the fact that the song is so middle-of-the-road that you can practically see the double yellow line underneath it.

Then again, ubiquity can be a powerful thing: after hearing this enough times, with the word "Africa" being thrown at you at key moments, that marimba part (or keyboard approximation of same) starts sounding like the Serengeti and the flute/kalimba solo (this was the early 1980s, so again: keyboard) invokes the technicolor safari utopia of The Lion King a dozen years before the movie existed. These things aren't the products of the band successfully finding a sound to suit its nominal topic or coopting the music of the continent in question for their own purposes, though Lord knows they thought that that's what they were doing; they're the result of Toto pushing through their own agenda -- this is what Africa sounds like, as a concept -- through sheer persistence. With the help of the army of DJs who nudged it to the top of the charts, of course.

The SFCP component of "Africa" is so close to the archetypal usage (used in the chorus for bittersweet anthemic uplift, and it's even in F#m, which for no particular reason I tend to treat as the default SFCP key) that it's a wonder that it took me as long as I did to realize that it incorporated the progression. There it is, though, elevating the song at precisely the right moment, providing both surprise (the verse is in the key of B, so that shift is a neat little jolt right there) and comfort all at once. Part of the power of the four specific chords that make up the SFCP can be heard in the first part of the chorus, where (if the video's an accurate portrayal of everybody's contributions to the song) Bobby Kimball sings only two notes: a high A that's repeated as the chords move through F#m, D and A, followed by a single G# as the band moves to the E chord. That's a total range of a half-step, and it's probably the simplest, most efficient melody that anyone could possibly sing over the SFCP.

Full song: Toto, "Africa"
Listen to the SFCP clip for this song


  1. Loved that song! It was one of three on a cassette that put me to sleep in jr high - Africa, then Hold Me Till the Morning Comes (Paul Anka), then Making Love Out of Nothing At All (Air Supply). Loved all of them, but boy could they put me to sleep. :-) Never did understand all the lyrics to Africa at the time - thought they were talking about Mars at one point, which just confused things even more... LOL! Ah, the days before the internet and lyric sites.

  2. I love this blog! 'Africa' is one of a trio of phenomenal songs from Toto, along with 'Rosanna' and 'Hold the Line'.

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