The first two bars of the verse use fairly classic pop chords: I, iii7, vi7 and I/V. The third bar is where the harmonic superpowers of David Paich come into action. The A/E is the 2nd inversion of a ♭VII chord in the key of B. In jazz harmony, we can use this chord as a substitute for the V chord – so it’s not very unusual. But in this case, Paich uses it to serve as a pivot chord to a new key center.
There are generally three ways to change the center of keys in the middle of a piece: You can transition using a note that works in both keys; you can pivot using a chord that both keys share; or you can do a direct transpose. A famous example of direct transposition is Beyoncé’s “Love On Top”, where the center of the key simply modulates upward, and all chord relations move in parallel. The effect is not subtle; indeed, it is a fun gadget designed to draw attention to itself. “Main Title” by John Williams of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi introduces the technique of transposing common notes with chromatic median relations. (For more information on this, see my previous article on Nirvana’s “In Bloom”.) For the common chord technique: we can hear an excellent example in the “Penny Lane“, where Paul McCartney’s use of the IV chord in the key of B (E major) doubles as the V chord in A major (the new center of key), allowing him to pivot effortlessly from verse to David Paich performs this same transposition from verse to chorus in “Africa”, but his method is even more clever than McCartney’s.
When Paich deploys the A/E in bar 3 of the verse, he is engaging in what we call “modal swapping”. More precisely, it borrows the VII chord from the [parallel] Scale B-natural-minor. This creates a slightly unstable feel – partly because Paich doesn’t play the chord in root position, but also because the center of the key is ambiguous. Where is the house ? Have we switched to Mixolydian B mode? Or is it E major (Ionian)? Are we back to A Lydian? I think the answer is that we’re in all three modes simultaneously (which isn’t particularly tricky, since they effectively share the same key signature). However, since the location of the tonic (I chord) is undefined, this harmonic multiverse can seem disorienting – but that’s not due to the way Paich constructed the bass line: it descends in steps from G# to F# to E, then back to F#, G#, and A, gluing the murky harmony into one cohesive motion. (See Picture 7 above). This technique is reminiscent of the kind of things Elton John and Phil Collins/Tony Banks were doing in the 1970s, and maybe that’s where Paich got his inspiration. In addition, Paich composed the melody in such a way that it works perfectly in the center of the original key (B major), but also equally well with the new modal possibilities. At the end of each verse, as the chords complete their rise from EMaj7/G# to A Major, the feeling is both triumph and relief (we have arrived home).
In “Africa” we hear a truly adventurous composition (with unexpected twists) that still manages to feel approachable. Paich concealed plenty of harmonic sophistication and a clever leading voice behind a soft facade of melodious hooks. This is a master level songcraft.
What’s in a pocket?
Back to the drums: Jeff Porcaro, who died tragically in 1992, had an amazing ability to create assertive yet relaxed grooves. You could spend years studying the thousands of records he played on to try and crack the code – and I tried. A crucial element of Jeff’s pocket groove involves the way he throttled the tempo from moment to moment in a given bar of music, while keeping a constant pulse on the bar line.
When a drummer “thrusts” it means that they are playing slightly forward to keep the pulse going. “Pulling” means that they play very slightly behind, or behind, to create tension. (Note: this is not exactly the same as “rush” and “slip”, which relate to raising or lowering the overall tempo – usually in an undesirable way.) Famously, Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones had tendency to play his bass drum lightly. in front (pushing), while its snare beat was slightly behind (pulling), resulting in a confident groove with an incredibly smooth feel. Each drummer has a signature time signature feel – a trend – that is as distinctive to them as the shape of their face. There’s no mistaking John Bonham’s signature time sensation for James Gadson, or Bernard Purdie’s time sensation for Stewart Copeland. Josh Freese, Sheila E., Ringo Starr, Elvin Jones… they are each instantly recognizable by their respective beats, i.e. by where they choose to place the beats, either slightly ahead or slightly behind. delay, or just above.
One of Jeff Porcaro’s hallmarks was the timing precision with which he chose to place notes during his fills. In Steely Dan’s”night after night” (out of pretzel logic) Jeff played 32nd notes in the first parts of his fills slightly ahead of the beat (push), which infuses energy into the phrase, then he slowed slightly in the middle of each phrase (pull), which which instills a feeling of heaviness (sometimes pushing back at the end). In Toto’s “Africa” he used the opposite approach: at the start of a given bar he placed notes much later than expected, then he caught up time just before landing exactly on the downbeat. . See Picture 8 below.