Can you hear the drums echoing tonight (and just about every night)? If you can, then you are going to be pretty excited about this blog post. The Internet has been enamored with the song Africa by Toto, and songs are continually interpreted by people in light of their own personal experiences. However, as a lover of literature, I refuse to take a postmodern approach to interpreting what this epic song really means. The song means what it meant to the authors of the song, which in this case would be David Paich and Jeff Porcaro. We may apply different layers of meaning on top of that, but the ultimate meaning of the song itself comes from what the songwriters truly intended it to mean. Therefore, I am going to try to take great care to do that through what they have said, the presentation of the music video and, of course, the lyrics themselves.
What the Writers Said
First, we have to consider what the writers themselves have said about the song. Using the Wayback Machine, you can get to an old version of Toto’s website where Porcaro is quite candid about the theme of the song and says that it is about, “a white boy is trying to write a song on Africa, but since he's never been there, he can only tell what he's seen on TV or remembers in the past.”
Similarly, in a separate interview with Rock Cellar Magazine, Paich explained a bit of his inspiration for writing this megahit. "I came up with that song based on some ideas I had when I was a kid. I had always watched these UNICEF commercials on TV and they affected me very emotionally. These images of young children starving – sick, diseased, homeless – and the hunger issues that plagued South Africa really moved me."
He went on to explain how he came up with probably the most well-known lyric of this song. "When I got older and was going to an all-boys Catholic prep school, there were a lot of brothers who had done missionary work over in Africa. And when they came back, we’d all go out to the football field, and people would hold up books and various things for the priest – who had also come back from Africa – so he could bless them.
So I asked him, 'What kinds of things did you bless over in Africa?' And he said, 'We blessed the crops, we blessed the people and the villages, and we blessed the rains.' And that was the first time I’d heard of someone who had 'blessed the rains.' The rest of the song was just a story I put together from bits and pieces I collected here and there, from reading books and National Geographic articles, and seeing pictures of Africa. It all had a major influence on me."
Interestingly, Porcaro shares a memory from his childhood that inspired the drum track, much like he says this song is about memories of someone who doesn’t really know about Africa but still wants to compose a song. “I was about 11 when the New York’s World Fair took place, and I went to the African pavilion with my family. I saw the real thing; I don't know what tribe, but there were these drummers playing, and my mind was blown. The thing that blew my mind was everybody was playing one part. As a little kid in Connecticut, I would see these Puerto Rican and Cuban cats jamming in the park. It was the first time I witnessed someone playing one beat and not straying from it, like a religious experience, where it gets loud, and everyone goes into a trance.”
At the same time, on a recent podcast with KROQFM, Porcaro and fellow band member Steve Lukather describe some of their lyrics as “goofy” and “just something to put there.” They are specifically speaking about the line referencing the Serengeti, but they do not provide more details about other lines that may have been more or less filling space. Consequently, we have to remember that, when trying to uncover the meaning of this song that seems rather cryptic, there very well may not always be some kind of deeper, obscure meaning. This is not like Nicolas Cage in National Treasure where every little rock seems to be intentionally put in place as a sign toward some historically signreward. It very well could be that we just have to take certain parts of this song at face value and consider that perhaps they are just lyrics that fit a particular rhythm or rhyme scheme.
The Music Video
Secondly, we have to advance to a discussion of the music video. As the band was obviously center stage for the production, the imagery used in that video will help direct us towards the vision they had of what that song meant. First, we are greeted with a library. There are two separate people. Both of them seem to be studying, but they really do not interact with each other at all. The man seems to be looking at books that are about Africa. The female is also studying in the library, but as the camera zooms out, it is obvious that she is in something more like a jungle and is under attack. A spear is thrown into her part of the library, and the impact of the projectile hitting the shelf causes the oil lamp to tip over and start burning books.
The fire in her part of the library carries over to his library which is significant. He has one missing piece of a book. It appears to be ripped off the corner of a page, and he is trying to find where it fits in his stack of books. As soon as the fire begins to envelop his half of the library, the missing page is shown, and it begins to burn before he ever finds where that missing piece belongs. He only discovers where it fits once it is on fire.
It is important to square away a few important issues. First, I do not believe that this woman is actually in Africa. She is squarely in his imagination, not actually in the same library, and is part of a dream about Africa. Why do I believe this?
First, based on Porcaro’s previous statement, the song is about a guy who is trying to write a song about a place he has never been, so he is using only popular notions. Paich's memories are also those of a child who never been to Africa. Obviously, all of Africa is not a jungle. People do not actually attack with spears very often anymore in Africa or elsewhere. A library would traditionally have a door rather than some vines covering it in Africa just like it would in the United States. However, he has these ideas about what Africa is, and the woman is right in the middle of it. Therefore, this is not some type of love song, as other people have hypothesized, about a guy and girl. It is not the man dreaming about her and wishing she would come to Africa. Based on the imagery, it seems that she is actually the one in Africa, but it is a largely stereotypical Africa in his imagination based on a lack of knowledge by the man who is obviously the protagonist of this music video.
Second, after everything burns in the video, we are given an image of the man by himself sitting on a book entitled Africa which will be revisited more significantly later. In every other shot, the entire band is there, but when that man has been literally burned down by the reality that his vision of the continent is incorrect, he is simply left with the book. The girl has disappeared as well as the entire imaginary world. That false conception and personification of Africa is shown to be clearly wrong.
Finally, and this will be explored in more detail later on in the discussion of the lyrics, there is a differentiation between what he hears and what she hears. He is hearing drums, but she only hears conversation. He is hearing what he is ignorantly associating with Africa, but, in reality, there would not be much more than quiet conversation in a library on the continent itself. This reinforces the idea that she is more like what Africa truly is, and his conception of what he thinks Africa is ends up being superimposed on top of her until it is set ablaze.
If she along with the entire image of the African library is only a product of his imagination though, the fire is naturally the confusing part because it consumes both what I contend is the imaginary world she inhabits as well as the literal book that the man is searching to find the damaged image in and ultimately throws the missing corner on top of to burn as well. Why is it that the fire seems to be able to go from the imagination to reality?
Earlier I wrote that we have to potentially suspend reality a little bit in terms of the lyrics. As the songwriters said, some lyrics do not really have a deeper meaning. Some of them are just going to be there to make the song work musically. The same applies in the imagery of the video in this particular case. This man has this stereotypical image of what Africa is, and he really wants to make it fit. He has a corner if you will. He knows a little bit about Africa, but he does not know the full picture at all. His hunt to complete the image in the book is a visual representation of what happens when the fire burns his image. Therefore, it does seem a little bit strange to have a fire going from what I am contending is imagination into reality, it is symbolic of the fact that he does not have to search anymore and try to fit his preconceived notions into a larger picture. Rather, he can, and makes the decision to, learn something real. Therefore, that mission to make everything fit based on the little that he had went up in flames as well.
Of course, all of this discussion about the songwriter’s background and imagery in the music video is all well and good, it all has to square away with the lyrics.
“I hear the drums echoing tonight
But she hears only whispers of some quiet conversation.”
I alluded to this earlier, but this introductory line establishes the contrast shown in the video. Our protagonist hears drums echoing. He hears them because that is what he expects to hear in Africa. He has some knowledge about tribal drums, so he thinks that he would hear them if he was in Africa. The woman is, in fact, in a library, so the only things that are really around her are people whispering and books. She is the reality of Africa embedded in his false imagination of what Africa is.
“She's coming in 12:30 flight
The moonlit wings reflect the stars that guide me
This is the main line where most people come to conclude that this is some type of love song about a woman flying into Africa to be with a guy who has fallen in love with the continent. However, that is not consistent with the writers' statements above, so we have to reframe this understanding.
She is not literally flying in an airplane. There is nothing about the video that would indicate travel is at all involved. However, there is an indication that our main man is studying late into the night. We know that because the lamps are lit in the library, and when the camera zooms out to the external view from the jungle outside, there is no sunlight. Therefore, although there is imagery of an airplane, the fact that this woman, the personification of Africa in his mind, is flying in and simultaneously guiding him towards salvation means that his search is almost over. Again, to return to Porcaro’s explanation and Paich's thoughts of what this song means, this guy wants to write a song about Africa, but he doesn’t know anything about it. Based on the imagery, once this girl, Africa personified, arrives, he will have his salvation. He will be able to achieve the task he set out to do.
“I stopped an old man along the way,
Hoping to find some long forgotten words or ancient melodies.”
Remaining with the theme of studying, he has been reading old books as evidenced by the stacks around him on the desk. This “old man” is a clear indication that he is trying to start his research in the right place. He wants to learn about Africa, so he has turned to the wisdom of the elders to help enlighten him. He thinks that there might be some important knowledge that he can use to help him achieve this mission of writing this song.
“He turned to me as if to say,
‘Hurry boy, it's waiting there for you.’”
This passage is a stark reminder that our protagonist realizes that there is only so much he can learn about Africa in the books. Although this seems to be an unsatisfactory resolution to his mission, the ancients are telling him that there is a lot about any place that you can’t learn just by reading about it. Therefore, if you want to know anything about Africa for real, head right over there because it is waiting for you to learn about it and understand it.
“It's gonna take a lot to drag me away from you
There's nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do.”
There is a great deal of resistance evident in this passage. Our main actor really wants to write this song. This is very similar to Paich's memories of watching UNICEF commercials. For whatever reason, he is burdened for writing a song about Africa. He is going to make this happen and ultimately triumph. People cannot talk him out of it. He has an attachment to the continent. Albeit, at this point, his attachment is based on his inaccurate ideas, but I think this attachment is not unbelievable for any of you creatives out there. When we come upon a story that we want to write, we are going to write it. It may not come to us right away, and we might not know exactly what to write. However, we have this idea, and we get attached to it even if other people tell us we are crazy.
“I bless the rains down in Africa
Gonna take some time to do the things we never had.”
He wants to write a song about Africa, and he wants to bless it. He wants to do it justice. After all, blessing is a very positive thing, but he never had these experiences with Africa. Therefore, because they are not together or on the same page, it is going to take him some time to figure out how to do this the right way. He is researching to find this salvation as was mentioned in the first verse. He wants to find the truth about Africa and communicate it in song, but it is not an easy thing because he really doesn’t know very much about what he wants to say beyond stereotypes.
“The wild dogs cry out in the night
As they grow restless longing for some solitary company.”
Again, we are back to the preconceived notions just like at the beginning of the first verse. Our guy is not in Africa, but he expects to be out on the savanna somewhere where he would hear wild dogs. He still is clinging to this notion of what he expects. At this point in the video, he is still searching through the books. The mission continues, but he can’t shake this inaccurate understanding yet.
“I know that I must do what's right
As sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serangeti.”
Based on the podcast interview linked to above, we know that the second line regarding Kilimanjaro and the Serengeti was largely a filler. That being said, it is obvious that the mountain rises high above the desert, so it is reaffirming the fact that he must do what’s right. If there was any question as to whether or not he should do something wrong, that question is put to rest as sure as the mountain is higher.
Why must he do something right in this situation though? We do not see the immediate temptation to do anything wrong in this case. However, remember back to what we have been building here based on Porcaro’s explanation. It would be wrong to write a song about Africa that does not communicate the heart of what Africa really is. Our protagonist is trying to find salvation by writing this song. However, he has not been able to do that even though he is studying late into the night trying to figure it out. The temptation is consequently to throw it all away or even write something that is unsatisfactory. Surely, we can all relate to the frustration of working really hard but still falling into the same traps. He can’t shake these inaccurate images that continue to plague his imagination as he is trying to get that song down on the paper.
This line reaffirms its commitment to making this happen even though he is still on the journey to making it so.
“I seek to cure what's deep inside,
Frightened of this thing that I've become.”
This is the high point of his frustration. He does not like what he has become and is seeking a cure for his inaccurate understanding. It is not possible to write something about something you know nothing about if you actually want to do a good job. As the chorus emphasizes, he is trying to bless the rains down in Africa. He is trying to bring something positive to this world, and this intellectual roadblock is a major problem. He wants to break free of these inaccurate stereotypes and wrong images that do not convey what he is trying to convey about the continent he has some love towards, but he can’t do it, and that scares him. At this point, he is wondering if he will ever be able to finish that which he feels called to start.
Repeating the Chorus and Instrumental Interlude
Without going through the words again, the message at this point of the song reaffirms the commitment to stand against this potential falling away. He is determined to write, and he is motivated to make it something beautiful. Nevertheless, he realizes that he has to continue going deeper because there is no relationship at this point with the subject is trying to write about.
During the instrumental Interlude, we see him returning to the bookshelf. Remember, previously, looking at the books was a sign that he was trying to find some ancient wisdom from the “old man.” Those books were obviously insufficient, so he had to return and find something new
“Hurry boy, she's waiting there for you.”
This is the climax of the video and of the song. It is a repeat of the advice provided by the “old man” in the first verse, but this time our main character finds a book with a clear and bold title of Africa. This book does not appear to be very much different than any of the other books he has been looking through, but it is clearly meant to stand out. As the viewers, we are meant to see the title because of the large font choice.
At the same time as he pulls the book off of the shelf, the spear comes flying into the woman’s library in his imagination. The subject matter of this book is clearly relevant to his understanding of the song he is trying to write. In fact, we never see the woman again after this image. Therefore, it acts like the spear flying into his imagination and setting off a fire that consumes what he thought he knew about Africa. The book provides the relevant knowledge, and, harkening back to the “old man” who gave the advice originally, it has changed something in the mind of our main character. Whatever he thought he knew has been revolutionized by the understanding gained from this particular book with a very obvious title.
This episode still leaves a slight degree of tension, however. The “old man” had previously advised that Africa was waiting there for him implying that in order to understand anything truly about his subject matter, he had to go experience it firsthand. It seems odd and potentially contradictory to have this massive change in our protagonist stem from a book when he has not yet had that experience. Luckily though, it is not the end of the song yet.
Final, Extended Repeat of the Chorus
Now we hit the resolution that brings the entire song full circle. While the song is playing, we see the library burning in the background including the book with the missing piece that the guy has been trying to find the entire time. We see it light up along with the missing corner that he had wanted to place. All of that prior exploration was for nothing because of the revelation he gained through this final book.
There is also an important shot of the man sitting on the book cover by himself. Every other shot had been with the band. Again, this reemphasizes how much of an impact this had on our main character. Having him in the shot alone demonstrates the importance of its influence on his perspective.
We have to wonder what was in that book, however because, as was mentioned in the last section, it is still just a book, and the entire point of the original advice in the first verse was that there are some things you can only learn through first-hand experience. If you actually want to write a song about Africa with any kind of authenticity, you have to hurry up because it is waiting for you. That is the advice of the ancients.
There is a subtle line change the final time through the chorus that illustrates what he finally learned from this book. It is simply an echo behind the main lyric (and is not even listed on a majority of lyrics websites because it is simply an echo rather than part of the main song or misheard as "Ah"), but it is highly significant and helps us bring this song to its conclusion and make sense of the entire thing as a package.
“I’m gonna take some time.”
This line echoes behind the traditional chorus that leaves out the “I’m,” but our protagonist seems to realize that he now needs to take this time. He needs to listen to the advice and actually go to experience that which he wants to write about. This echo that is easy to overlook and points directly to the intention of our main character to actually do what he has to do. He is going to go and take the time necessary to learn about Africa to therefore write his song that he wants to write.
Something in that particular book, and we do not know what specifically, finally opened his eyes to realize that he had to make it happen. He had to go and do the hard work of gaining experience in order to actually compose a song that was true to what he was trying to do. If he wanted to actually write a song that would bless Africa, the only way to overcome his frustration that we feel through the first two verses of the song was to strip away everything he thought he knew and be open to the experience.
This explanation is the only potential way to bring together the previously made, public statements of the songwriters, the imagery present in the music video as well as the lyrics of the song itself. Without this kind of tripartite approach, we are going to come away with wrong conclusions. Authorial intent matters. We live in a postmodern society where it is popular to find your own truth and apply it to anything you want, but the only way to actually understand what was communicated by this song is to look back at those who actually started the communicating. They knew what they meant when they wrote the song, and that is what this song means. This does not mean that we might draw something different from it based on our own life experiences or connect to it in a different way. Of course we can do that, but it does not change anything about the song. It only proves that it is able to evoke certain responses from people like you and me. There's nothing wrong with that. This is the only way to comprehensively understand and answer the question about what Toto meant as they sang Africa, quite possibly one of the best songs of all time.