The revival of soul, 50 years after Motown

PARIS (AFP) — As the legendary Motown label turns 50, soul music is back and booming, ever since British diva Amy Winehouse hit world charts two years ago.

"While the Winehouse phenomenon kick-started the commercial resurgence of soul, the roots of the revival are older, dating back to the turn of the millennium," said Sebastian Danchin, an expert on Afro-American culture and author of the "Encyclopaedia of Rhythm & Blues and Soul."

There are several reasons behind soul's return, he told AFP. "Trends are cyclical and there are always retro phenomena."

"But also, and (President Barack) Obama's election is a sign of this, there has been a reawakening in the conscience of the black community of its political, cultural and social values, that were lost in the 20 years following the (Ronald) Reagan's election."

British singer Seal recorded one of the most successful records in recent months with "Soul", an album of cover versions, while the soul style of Winehouse has been copied by many singers. Welsh singer Duffy, the first of these artists, has gone on to international chart and Grammy success.

Similarly, British singer Alice Russell and American Eli "Paperboy" Reed are two white artists who have made their name singing in the style of 1960's black music.

Afro-American Raphael Saadiq has won plaudits for his album "The Way I See It", which draws heavily on the Motown sound, the celebrated label that brought Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Diana Ross to the world. Motown's 50th anniversary this year has been marked by a re-issue of its seminal tracks.

Danchin said the soul revival of the late 90s harks back to a generation of American singers that include Erykah Badu and Jill Scott.

"They are the children of those who left the ghettos in the 1970s and 80s. They went to university and discovered their black roots through soul," he said.

According to Danchin, the new soul generation are treading in the same tracks as historical black music forms, including blues, jazz and original soul. While these movements start off as avant-garde for their time, they are then appropriated by a music industry desperate to conquer the charts.

"Amy Winehouse was produced by people who wanted to create a marketing coup. The positive side is that it reacquainted an audience with this music and played an introductory role for others. This reinvigorated the genre by overcoming the vintage aspect," he said, quoting Raphael Saadiq and compatriots Anthony Hamilton and John Legend.

"That's how it often happens, starting with jazz: the black artists create the original movement, the white successfully bring it to the public, and thus open a door for black musicians," added Vincent Sermet, a history professor whose thesis "Soul music and funk" was published last year.

But the soul revival can also be understood through changing social values. "After the individualistic values of the 1980s and the prevalent use of the word 'I' in rap, we're back to the idea of 'we' with soul," Danchin said.

Obama is the perfect illustration of this theory, given he counted among his many supporters soul legends Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin.

"Obama's discourse is collective, like that of Marvin Gaye in the song "What's Going On?" or Aretha Franklin in "Respect".

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