Blasts from Africa's past | Bleader

Blasts from Africa's past

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My interest in international music may be skewing my perspective, but by my reckoning the past few years have seen a veritable avalanche of killer reissues from distant parts of the globe, and 2007 was no exception. While the archives of the Western world are picked pretty clean, that’s not the case for Africa, South America, Asia, and the Middle East--until the advent of the marketing category “world music” in the 80s, barely anyone tried to sell music from those parts of the world people who didn't live there. For decades the only accessible material from Africa, for example, was either ridiculous manufactured exotica or dry ethnological recordings. Thriving pop scenes in dozens of countries were all but ignored in the U.S., and even the specialty importers who eventually started bringing in music to satisfy immigrant populations didn't make a dent in the mainstream.

What that means to us now is that there are five or six decades of thrilling pop music out there that Americans have never heard. The floodgates are opening, and savvy reissue producers are releasing fantastic albums and compilations that offer an authentic, in-depth, and only lightly mediated glimpse of the history of pop around the planet.

Today I’d like to mention a few of 2007's best releases of vintage African music. Many of them come from the vast holdings of Senegal’s classic Syllart label, which has joined forces with UK label Stern’s (a key outlet for all stripes of African music) to jump-start a dazzling series of reissues from the continent.

For me nothing can top the double CD Authenticité: the Syliphone Years. "Authenticité" was the name given to the Guinean government's postcolonial effort to establish a progressive arts program that retained traditional roots, and the music chronicled here, produced between 1965 and 1980, reflects the most fertile period in the country’s history. Some of Guinea’s greatest bands--including Bembeya Jazz National, Keletigui et Ses Balladins, the Horoya Band, and Pivi et les Balladins--emerged during this era, nurtured not only by governmental largesse but by vigorous competition between groups. You can hear a heavy Cuban influence on most of the tracks--a common feature of West African music at the time--but the music also overflows with creativity. Lilting yet propulsive polyrhythms and gently sashaying horn arrangements give way to furious grooves, searing guitar, and fiercely declamatory singing. Pivi’s version of the ubiquitous “Samba” rocks as hard as anything I’ve ever heard from Africa, and even at its most restrained this stuff bristles with an inspired synthesis of styles and textures. The set includes a gorgeous 44-page booklet that reproduces many of the original album covers. I’m more than ready for all those albums to be reissued in full.

Mali’s brilliant Rail Band, a vitally important combo that began in 1970 and carries on to this day, is the subject of a projected three-volume set of double CDs, the first of which, Soundiata, spans 1970 to 1983. The group is probably better known as the launching pad for superstar singers like Salif Keita and Mory Kante than for its actual music, but this first installment makes plain that the Rail Band has long been one of the continent’s most potent musical forces. It emerged during a time of optimism and experimentation that began when Mali became independent--similar to what happened in Guinea--and mixed Mande and Bambara traditions with Afro-Cuban elements, soul, and rock, all while sounding thoroughly Malian. When the group began it was small and had only a set of timbales for percussion, but as international businesses scrambled to gain a foothold in Mali, the Rail Band--which played for a globe-trotting clientele at the Buffet Hotel de le Gare de Bamako--also learned Egyptian pop songs, French chanson, and of course Cuban jams, alongside their meaty repertoire of originals. (Unfortunately, the sequencing isn't chronological, so it's hard to trace the development.) The group often replicated the extended jams of its live gigs in the studio, and disc one opens with an epic version of the title track that runs just under 28 minutes, permutating endlessly with elaborate embellishment from Kante and extended guitar solos by Djelimady Tounkara, the lyric genius who’s led the band for several decades now. It’s breathless stuff, stunning as much for its bravado as its rhythmic and melodic generosity.

My final recommendation for the day is Ujamaa, the third installment in the Zanzibara series from Buda Records--the same French label behind the essential Ethiopiques series. It's a compilation dedicated to 60s dance bands from Tanzania--another dazzling thread in the dynamic fabric of music from Swahili East Africa, which bears virtually no resemblance to the more familiar styles of West Africa. Most of the groups included here feature the word “jazz” in their names--Nuta Jazz Band, Atomic Jazz Band, Morogoro Jazz Band--but there’s nothing jazzlike about the music. Electric guitars pick out ultramelodic licks and solos, forming a lighter-than-air lattice for the simple Afro-Cuban grooves, beautifully harmonized singing, and sparse, punchy horn parts. It’s rhythm-driven stuff but maintains a gentle feel, preferring reverb to distortion and implication to declaration.

Tomorrow: A concise survey of other 2007 African reissues you should check out.

Today’s playlist:

David S. Ware Quartet, Renunciation (Aum Fidelity)
Takayanagi Masayuki New Direction for the Art, Complete “La Grima” (Doubt Music)
Luigi Nono, Quando Stanno Morendo (Diario Polacca No. 2) (Edition RZ)
Wado e Realismo Fantástico, A Farsa do Samba Nublu Do (Outros Discos)
David Bowie, Station to Station (Virgin)

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