Travel broadens the mind. But vicarious travel can bless you with a hit song that's eternal. Or at least one that's still in heavy rotation forty years on.
That's the message behind one of rock's most unexpected long-term success stories, that of Toto's lovable, but cheesy 1983 single, Africa.
Recalling the initial inspiration for what he calls his “little oddball song,” keyboardist David Paich told The Guardian, “As a kid, I'd always been fascinated by Africa. I loved movies about Dr. Livingstone and missionaries. I went to an all-boys Catholic school and a lot of the teachers had done missionary work in Africa. They told me how they would bless the villagers, their Bibles, their books, their crops and when it rained, they'd bless the rain. That's where the hook line – 'I bless the rains down in Africa' - came from.”
It was the early '80s TV commercials for UNICEF, showing impoverished African children, that put Paich back in the frame of mind to write about his fascination for the Mother Continent. His songwriting instincts knew that a mere travelogue wouldn't be enough. So he added the romantic drama of an old flame into the mix.
“My teachers had said that loneliness and celibacy were the hardest things about life out there,” Paich said. “Some of them never made it into the priesthood because they needed companionship. So I wrote about a person flying in to meet a lonely missionary. It's a romanticised love story about Africa, based on how I'd always imagined it.”
For musical colour, Paich used his Yamaha synthesiser to replicate a kalimba, a metal-and-wood thumb piano that's indigenous to Zimbabwe. Acting as a kind of imprint for all things African, it's the sound behind the catchy, percussive riff in the intro and turnarounds. “It was a fertile time to make music with new sounds, and that kind of defined the song,” Paich said.
Despite feeling that his new tune was touched by magic and God, Paich initially found that most of his bandmates didn't share his enthusiasm. He told Grantland, “When someone writes a song that doesn't really fit into the Toto mold, the joke is, everybody says, 'Save that for your solo album.' So the band kind of indulged me and let me start working on this track for it. This one barely made it; it just got on the end of the album. It's the one that didn't get away.”
Toto's late drum wizard Jeff Porcaro saw the song's potential and responded to the groove. Inspired by his memories of hearing the “trance-inducing” beats of African pavilion drummers at the 1964 World's Fair, and National Geographic TV specials, Porcaro constructed an intricate network of drums, congas and, with his help from his jazz musician dad Joe, tape loops consisting of bottle caps and marimbas. That attention to percussive detail earned Porcaro a co-writing credit on the song.
Africa was released in October 1982, as the third single from Toto IV, accompanied by a video that almost certainly wouldn't get past the storyboard stage today. Four months later, it was number one in the U.S. and Canada (it rose to #3 in the U.K., and made the Top 10 in several other countries). A staple of oldies radio for many years, the song began its pop culture resurgence in the early 2000s, when it was included in the video game for Grand Theft Auto, then started popping up in TV shows like Family Guy, Chuck and South Park.
In 2013, CBS television used the song behind coverage of Nelson Mandela's funeral, though not without controversy (Paich released a statement saying that, “We Honour Nelson Mandela,” but suggesting the network should've used actual South African music). That same year, author Thomas Pynchon referenced the song in his novel Bleeding Edge.
In 2018, Weezer covered it (in response, Toto covered Hash Pipe), and by then, it had become a ubiquitous meme, basically as shorthand for the ultimate guilty pleasure. There were naturally also many puns related to The Wizard of Oz's dog Toto. It's the band's most-popular song on Spotify, with over a billion streams.
In 2022, Paich spoke of the song's legacy to Misplaced Straws: “It's really just been miraculous. The longevity has been unbelievable. It's one of those X-variables where you go, I understand Rosanna being a hit and I understand I Won't Hold You Back, but Africa was kind of an 11th-hour song for me and the band, and we kind of were like, 'Well, this is the little extra song now we have the album together. So it was a pleasant surprise for everybody.'”