Keith Doughty discusses songs, albums and artists that are unappreciated, unknown, and/or unfairly-maligned by the general public. This is Hidden Tracks.
David Bowie - "African Night Flight"
One of these days, one of these days
Gotta get a word through one of these days
Did David Bowie accidentally invent rap music? Of course not. Don’t be silly. Yet the thought just might enter your mind when listening to “African Night Flight” off of Bowie’s 1979 album, Lodger. The song starts out with various non-melodic instruments and sound effects working together to create a frantic rhythm. Brian Eno, who co-wrote the song, is there to provide prepared piano and “cricket menace” (“little crickety sounds that Brian produced from a combination of my drum machine and his ‘briefcase’ synth,” Bowie said in 2001). The result reminds me more of a modern day rap “beat” than the backdrop of a 1970s rock song. And then Bowie comes in.
No he’s not rapping, but he’s not singing either. It’s more like he’s chanting, but quickly, rhythmically, and with musical accompaniment. His phrasing, pitch, delivery is frenzied and ever changing, yet it somehow goes perfectly with the background instrumentation. Bowie does some slightly more traditional singing during the bridge (“his burning eye will see me through”) and the African-style refrain (“asanti habari habari/asanti nabana nabana”) but during the majority of the song he is chanting/rapping. Likewise, there is some slightly more traditional instrumentation (namely bass and guitar) during and after the bridge, but the core instrumentation remains the initial chaotic beat.
There’s actually some meaning to the seemingly random lyrics. They were inspired by a couple trips Bowie made to Kenya in 1978 and 1979. While there, he encountered a group of German WWII veteran pilots. These former Luftwaffe members had been living in Kenya since the war, splitting their time between heavy drinking in bars and flying their Cessna planes on various missions of dubious legality (including drug smuggling). For whatever reason, Bowie became fascinated by these pilots and he incorporated this fascination into the song’s lyrics.
“African Night Flight” is the strangest song on an already unconventional album. It’s a divisive song, one that splits even the most fervent Bowie fanatics. Some people don’t like it because they find it abrasive and hard to listen to. There’s some truth to that; it certainly is a bit abrasive. But I personally love the unique, hard-to-define quality of the song. Even for David Bowie, a man who is known for being a musical chameleon and who has released some unusual music, this song stands out.
Keith Doughty is a non-profit finance professional who in his spare time dabbles in music, politics, and interesting food. He lives and works in Philadelphia, PA.