DAARA J with TINARIWEN as part of All Over The Map: A Feast Of Global Sounds, at Harbourfront Centre's mainstage (235 Queens Quay West), Friday (July 15), 8 pm. Free. 416-973-4000. Rating: NNNNN
According to Daara J, if we look at rap's bigger picture, Run-DMC is about as old-school as that new chopped and screwed Paul Wall joint.
Which makes more sense once you get used to the idea that hiphop music isn't actually in its mid-20s but rather in its high 100s, and to get to its real source you'd need to travel back centuries, and then east, to Africa.
This is supported by the rain forest's worth of studies out there on how the linguistic roots of black English can be traced directly to native African languages like Wolof - which is from Senegal, just as Daara J.
So you can understand why the rising rap trio's Faada Freddy sounds a bit nonchalant when he says over the phone from his Paris hotel room, "Many Africans don't really consider rap music modern music."
Rhythm-based oral traditions like tasso have been a natural part of their culture for a long time.
"Tasso is the ancient form of rap music," Freddy explains. "That's the style of rhapsody the griots in Senegal used to incarnate centuries ago, even before slavery. It expressed poetry in a musical way. All those Afro-Americans who are being credited for rap music, they've been ripped from their native land, which is Africa, the motherland, and they forgot about their past. But somehow it was sleeping inside, and one day it got awakened."
Got awakened and spent years storming through American, and then international, culture at an unstoppable rate until it made its way home again.
Cut to Senegal in the mid-90s. While their parents genuinely thought they'd all be accountants soon, under the influence of locally spawned hiphoppers like Positive Black Soul and MC Solaar, school bros Faada Freddy, Aladji Man and N'Dango D started kicking Wolof freestyles over American instrumentals and, after some scrimping, a lone drum machine.
Miraculously, the result was two solid albums: 1998's Daara J (which translates as "the school of life"), and Xalima the next year. In those early days, admits Freddy, their grip on rap lyrics wasn't the tightest.
"For a long time we'd been listening to French and American music even though we didn't really understand the verses, what the rappers were talking about," he says. "But we were able to catch the vibe and just get involved in it until we could figure out what the rappers were saying. It means that sometimes you can put a culture across just with the feeling, with the vibe."
Last year Daara J released their third LP, Boomerang (Wrasse), and the shit is bananas - B-A-N-A-N-A-S. I went into it with the idea that the record would just be straightforward rap in a foreign language, like Dilated Peoples with African rhymes or something like that.
But when the title track erupted into some crazy Tasmanian-devil-velocity Wolof flows over an acoustic-guitar-assisted Dirty South drum pattern, the promise was instantly made that the album would be pure rap magma.
Promise kept. Cuban, African, French, West Indian and U.S. aspects, guitar tones, vocal harmonies and Havoc- and Prodigy-style melody lines and Big Boi-approved horn sections surround the LP's spinal column of passionate French, English and Wolof lyrics. You may not be able to understand most of it, but it's still 461 times more flavoury than whatever new gold-tooth crunk bullshit CD just came out.
What's most stirring is how well the music translates. This was clearly a very conscious decision on the part of French producers Quentin Bachelet and Adamson Faye, who do all they can to make sure that something bright and catchy is always riffing through the sound. But still, it's pretty incredible that Daara J's members can be saying something completely foreign, but with a brilliantly placed "Yuh! yuh! yuh! yuh!" can get your head bobbing with that determined yet slightly incredulous facial expression you reserve for when you're really feelin' it.
Faada Freddy says the music does more than just transcend language - it's a symbol of cultural exchange. After being colonized by the French and taught English, Boomerang finds Daara J volleying Senegal's mellifluous dialect back to the Western world's side of the net.
"We are showing them now that we know the other people's language - and here is our language. It's beautiful. You can take it because it flows.
"I think in every language you have a history, and somehow when we're speaking Wolof we can really give an image to people about the way Africa itself sounds. A lot of people respond really well when they hear Wolof. I think that as long as the music is nice, people don't really wonder what the message is. But that's why sometimes in our shows we take the time to introduce the whole message and tell them, 'OK, maybe you don't understand Wolof, but this is what this song means.'
"Because people don't understand, you're not gonna take advantage of it and talk rubbish," laughs Faada Freddy. "There's always a message to put through, and every MC has a story to tell."
This group is dealing with heavy issues: envy, freedom, the collective plight of Africans who move from the motherland seeking a romanticized new lifestyle, and rap's return to its homeland. Daara J's mission is to present a side of the African experience not readily seen.
"Most of the time on TV it's only the negative part of Africa that's shown," says Faada Freddy. "A lot of people just imagine that in Africa you have wars, AIDS and only negative things.
"That's why hiphop means a lot to us. It helps us show other people that not only do we have a beautiful culture, but we also have a smiling lifestyle. The sun is shining all the time in Senegal. We have joy inside, and spiritually we're quite strong. It's important that people know who the Africans are."