Music » Music Review

Africa on the Ground

Tiny reissue labels dig past the canon to the undiscovered treasures of the continent's golden age.








The marketing of African music outside the continent has long been dominated by a handful of labels like Sterns and World Circuit, which principally target fans of "world music." They've established a sort of African canon, an official history centered on a pantheon of legends (Fela Kuti, Franco, King Sunny Ade, Miriam Makeba, Ali Farka Toure) and a smattering of contemporary stars (Youssou N'Dour, Habib Koite, Toumani Diabate). The canon isn't necessarily unrepresentative of what actual Africans listen to—these artists are huge at home as well as on the international stage. But they're known quantities, and that's where my frustration lies.

I was reminded of this by a piece Robert Christgau wrote for the New York Times on May 18. He was reviewing The Voice of Lightness, a recent double disc from Sterns that collects music by Congolese singer and bandleader Tabu Ley Rochereau, one of the greatest voices Africa has ever produced. I couldn't agree more with his praise of the set, but when Christgau listed a few label folks—employees and owners—who are committed to releasing African music, he did little but reinforce the status quo. He mentioned Ken Braun of Sterns, Trevor Herman of Earthworks (whose compilations provided a crucial conduit to the South African music Paul Simon appropriated for Graceland), Jacob Edgar of Cumbancha (which focuses on contemporary artists like Koite and Dobet Gnahore), and Phil Stanton of the World Music Network (responsible for the broad but superb Rough Guide comps).

These guys have been into African music for their entire careers, if not their entire lives, and their knowledge of it is unimpeachable. And admittedly even top-shelf African artists have rarely enjoyed wide distribution in the West, so it's not like those labels are just flogging material everyone's already heard. What bothers me isn't that Christgau acknowledges them but that he doesn't acknowledge any of the smaller imprints that make it their business to dig up stuff not even the experts know about yet. In the past five years some of the greatest African music I've heard has come from labels like this—tiny European operations like Soundway, Analog Africa, and Oriki Music that release material in danger of being lost to history, regional records whose occasional brilliance never reached a broad audience even in their native lands.

These labels are run not by ethnomusicologists but by DJs and collectors whose obsession with vinyl rarities has led them to Africa, where they root around in storage rooms and closets looking for records. (Operations like Sterns, by contrast, typically license material from companies that own the rights to vast holdings of African music, like France's Syllart Productions.) Connected by a love of crate digging to vinyl junkies of all stripes, these labels tend to operate on the fringes of the indie scene rather than in the world-music niche—Forced Exposure distributes Soundway and Analog Africa, and Dusty Groove carries releases from all three.

"For me it doesn't matter whether I'm in Bombay or Ghana or New York or London or wherever, I'll have a look for records if they're around," says Englishman Miles Cleret, who runs Soundway. He was inspired to launch the label on a 2001 vacation in Ghana, where a friend of a friend, a local DJ in Accra, led him to caches of old 45s.

Cleret has released excellent music from Ethiopia, Colombia, and Panama, but his focus is on Ghana and Nigeria, and he has an affinity for hard-hitting, funky dance music. Thus far his crowning achievement has been the three-part Nigeria Special series, which devotes one release to funk and disco, one to rock, and one to local variations on highlife, all from the 1970s.

Some factions of the "world music mafia," according to Cleret, are bothered by the burgeoning popularity of vintage African funk and other Westernized styles, and they hate his label because its output isn't traditional enough. "I find it hypocritical," he says, "that on the one hand they're challenging people's musical assumptions over here, but when you talk about a big city like Lagos, which has just as much right to produce lots of different styles—including funk, disco, reggae, and rock—they get all touchy about it, like, 'No, no, no, they're not supposed to do that.'

"These were young kids playing pop music, university kids doing their own thing," he continues. "It's as important historically as anything. These are the cultural reference points of the future."

This long-neglected music ought to help interested Americans fill out their picture of Nigeria during the 70s—and there are plenty of holes. In a recent review of Nigeria Rock Special in the Houston Press, Dave Segal seemed startled to learn that Africans were aware of global pop culture before the rise of the Internet: "Finding out that Nigeria had thriving psych-rock and funk scenes in the '70s," he wrote, "is akin to discovering Yemen harbored a killer ice-hockey league in the Phil Esposito era."

But the series isn't just educational—most of the music kicks ass, too. On Nigeria Rock Special the wiggy guitar sound of psychedelia is transplanted into ultrapropulsive grooves far funkier than what most Americans would consider rock; the best comparison I can make would be Funkadelic, but even that doesn't take into account the African-language vocals and native polyrhythms. The Western-inspired material bears a passing resemblance to its models, but you're not likely to find it familiar. Whether by accident or design, the artists went way off course, and that's what makes this collection—and its companion, Nigeria Disco Funk Special—so compelling.

The first installment in the series, Nigeria Special: Modern Highlife, Afro-Sounds & Nigerian Blues, is even better. The two-CD set presents a dizzying range of styles, most of them rooted in local traditions and rhythms, from artists both familiar—Celestine Ukwu, Victor Uwaifo, Bola Johnson—and relatively unknown. Their retooled permutations of highlife and Afrobeat still vibrate with the sense of discovery and experimentation that must have propelled their creation more than 30 years ago.

Many of the records on the Nigeria Special comps were released in the early part of the decade, as the 45 format was taking off in Africa—the low barriers to entry meant lots of singles got pressed, often in batches of just 500 or 1,000. Samy Ben Redjeb, the Tunisian-born German who owns Analog Africa, says that some of the 45s collected on his African Scream Contest compilation, which were cut in Benin and Togo in the 70s, are so rare that he's probably the only person outside those countries to own a copy. But he doesn't prioritize reissuing a band just because it might otherwise slide into oblivion. "It's music that I loved," he says, "and that needed to be released."

Redjeb stumbled into African music by accident. While working as a diving instructor in 1994, he put in some time in Senegal, and after he was transferred away he couldn't stop thinking about it. The next year, when he heard about an opening for a DJ at a Senegalese hotel bar, he went back to take the job, even though he had no real experience DJing. At that point he didn't have a collection of his own, and had to rely on what was already in the booth—mostly frothy, heavily Westernized contemporary dance records and no vintage African music at all. He proposed establishing an all-African night to his boss, and his search for records to make it work—encouraged and guided by some of the older locals who came to the bar—kick-started the obsession that led him to found Analog Africa.

During the off-season at the hotel, Redjeb began scouring other African countries for records. He got the idea to start a label on a 1996 trip to Zimbabwe, where he was finding all kinds of stuff he'd never heard of. His first two releases, which came out in 2004—after more than two years of work—were both stunning compilations of Zimbabwean music. One was from Thomas Mapfumo's early-70s group the Hallelujah Chicken Run Band, the other from the Green Arrows, a massively popular band from Harare that mixed Shona traditions with rock. But it's the burningly funky African Scream Contest that's sold best so far.

Only one of the artists collected here, Benin's wonderful Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou, had ever crossed my radar before. Redjeb figures he spent seven months in Benin, searching for records, researching local music history, and tracking down label folks, producers, and musicians. (He prefers to make licensing deals with artists, since in his experience they need the money most urgently.) The gorgeous packaging includes a 44-page booklet featuring colorful essays for every song; most detail Redjeb's searches and reproduce his artist interviews. "For two and [a] half weeks everybody I knew who had to do with music was looking for Ouinsou Corneille, yet there was still no sign of the guy," begins the piece about the singer. "I was starting to get nervous and decided to make a radio announcement."

Redjeb is happy with the success of African Scream Contest but frustrated that his earlier titles haven't sold as well. "It's really sad, but if I continue to release records only like Green Arrows and Hallelujah Chicken Run Band I wouldn't be able to survive," he says. "The amount of work I put into those compilations is in no way comparable to what I got back. It's a joke. People just want the funky stuff. I love funk, but I want people to understand the other stuff, too."

He's not alone in this desire. Even Cleret, who certainly favors funky records, made plain with the first Nigeria Special release that he also digs stuff that won't necessarily grab the listener from the first bar. And Greg Villanova, the Frenchman behind Oriki Music, definitely shares Redjeb's taste for pop that's strongly inflected with folk forms.

"When I pick tunes from an artist to make a compilation, I always feel like I need to open DJs and funkaholics to nonbinary grooves, so I try to put in some funky tracks as well as nonfunk stuff in order to try to bring things further, deeper," says Villanova. "Funk is just a trick to bring people to popular music in general. On the other hand, I try to push the funk toward the more 'core world music' listener, with the idea of showing that funk and other American musics' influences, whether Latin or American, were part of the sound of the 70s in general. This means I try to make people aware that Africa has been into global and modern cultural networks for a longer time than one might think. African hip-hop is just an extension of older trends already there."

Oriki's most recent releases drive this point home. The ultraraw Keleya, by Malian screamer Moussa Doumbia, radiates the influence of American funk with in-the-red immediacy, and the brand-new Clash Mandingue, which collects rare singles cut by Guinean singer-guitarist Kante Manfila and Malian flutist-trumpeter Sorry Bamba during a late-60s stay in Ivory Coast, has the strong Latin flavor typical of West African music at the time. Manfila went on to fame in Mali's Super Rail Band, so it's fascinating to listen to him at this early stage in his career.

Upstart labels play an important role in the world-music ecosystem: they disrupt the dichotomy that's developed in the public mind, where the only categories of African artists that exist are international superstars making records with Ry Cooder and unreconstructed traditionalists who've never seen the inside of a studio. "My ultimate concern is ideological," Villanova says. "I want to show modernity and sophistication in Africa. I refuse to consider 'genuine' or 'authentic' African music versus 'alienated' African music. 'Authentic' sounds like they want Africans to play music strictly on acoustic instruments, butt naked in the village. Africans can use whatever they want to create. They're not trapped in an ethnic black hole—they're as free as any Western artist to play with whatever they want."v

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