Why the hell am I playing Africa at a Wedding?


Full disclaimer – I love Toto, and I love the song Africa, ever since it was released 35 years ago. But I am very intrigued and fascinated by how this song has grown in popularity to the point that it was in the Top 20 of the Pop Digital Sales Chart this Summer. Why Africa? Why Toto? Why now? [You can read the story of how the song, Africa, was created here.]

My initial feeling is who cares; people like it and so do I. People in the US have finally come around on Toto and have begun to appreciate their work, wanting to see them live – welcome to the party – even though they haven’t stopped working in during their 40 years together and have been loved for decades by the Europeans.

Africa was recently covered by Weezer, in what I feel is a weak version, but it did reach #1 on the alternative charts. But you can’t tell me that 2018 Weezer has enough cred to make Toto seem cool. If anything, their cover made more people want to hear the original.

But let’s try to tackle my original question – why the hell am I playing Africa at a wedding? Most folks have roughly 2-3 hours tops to have any danceable songs they want to be played. Yet I can segue from Timberlake or Lil Jon right into that opening samba shuffle of Jeff Porcaro’s and people lose their minds. Friends and family gather into a tight little pod, gently sway, and as Jeff hits that drum fill before the chorus, they all raise their hands and scream to the heavens, “gonna take a lot to drag me away from you….” or whatever their version may be. It’s pretty cool to watch, a communal experience inside of one of life’s most important personal events. And isn’t that what’s cool about music, its ability to bring us together and make us feel happy? Maybe that sounds cliche or a bit overwrought, but as popular music rarely connects all age groups, genders, races, economic groups, etc., it can be exceptionally comforting to know that in 2018 an almost-40-year-old song has the power to do that.

So how could I ever imagine that a song that I first enjoyed as an eleven-year-old would give me a new joy as a forty-plus-year-old? Maybe trying to answer the question of why its popular is just wasting the energy I could instead spend on pulling out my copy of Toto IV and playing the last song on Side 2.


The Story Behind Toto’s 99


The first single from Toto’s second album, Hydra, in 1979, was the band’s second Top 40 hit when it peaked at #26 in early 1980. Written by David Paich, this soft yet funky keyboard-driven jam featured lead vocals by Steve Lukather and a very jazzy solo on the outro by him.

Many have wondered what the title refers to. Rumors abounded that someone in the band had been dating Barbara Feldon – Agent 99 on Get Smart – and it was written about her. That turned out to be not true. [Coincidentally, Barbara Feldon released a 45 in 1966 called 99.] Some say that 99 is about a girl who’s almost perfect but is not quite 100. Again, false. And it’s not about Wayne Gretzky either. Or the number of beer bottles on the wall.

David Paich actually wrote the song as a tribute to George Lucas’ first film, THX-1138This film takes place many centuries in the future where people live in a totalitarian state and are referred to by a number. Thus it’s a fantasy love song to an imagined someone in that world with the number 99. Why 99?  It probably just sounds right. (Two more Top 40 songs in the 1980s would have 99 in the title – Prince’s 1999 and Nena’s 99 Luftballons.)

Toto didn’t play the song live for many years, mainly because Luke didn’t like it much. As it peaked in the Winter of 79-80, I personally enjoyed hearing it on the radio. When I heard it come through the car speakers, I felt the music breathe a fantasy world into my head while I stared out through frosted windows at the cold, dreary skies and leafless trees.

The song’s video reflects the film that inspired it by everyone wearing white jumpsuits with the lens a tinge out of focus. I think most videos back then were made for $20 and took 30 minutes to film. Check it out for yourself: