AFRICA: 50 YEARS OF MUSIC VARIOUS ARTISTS (Discograph)
By dint of its size and ambition, Africa: 50 Years of Music, Discograph's new 18-CD box set, is the most important compilation of African pop ever assembled. No one else has even come close. So it's important to say straight off that one thing 50 Years is not is complete—it's not even possible to represent every developmental stage of every style from those five decades. Nevertheless, the mere fact that this box is gesturing toward a total picture of African pop makes it impervious to track-by-track nitpicking. Because 50 Years is trying to accomplish something grander than just showing off the best (and best-preserved) recordings, you can't simply slap it with an 8.0 because, say, 80 percent of the songs are great. Even though a significant fraction of the set fails, the bounty it represents as a whole is unprecedented.
There's also something approachable—if that word can be applied to a release that is, let me repeat, 18 CDs long—about 50 Years of Music. It doesn't pretend to be the final word. The title, for example, isn't intended to imply that African pop as we know it began in 1960, though that year is a useful starting point for discussing the big bang of postcolonial music—the set also includes three songs each from the 1940s and '50s. And the box's principal triumph, above and beyond providing an abundance of music you'll want to keep around forever, is that it creates an outline, a roughed-out map for others to follow and fill in.
In compiling 50 Years, Ibrahima Sylla—don of the venerable Syllart Records—was assisted by Pierre-Olivier Toublanc, Arnaud Bassery, and Pierre René-Worms. They've divided the box into six mini sets by region: east, west, north, central, south, and Lusophone. (The north African portion was handled by Bouziane Daoudi and Bruno Barré.) Each region gets three CDs to strut its stuff, and each trilogy is arranged chronologically to one degree or another. Thankfully Sylla and company haven't filled every possible minute of every CD. One thing that makes the box more manageable than its heft suggests is that it's only about 16 hours long, rather than the 23 or so it could've been. "Only"—hah!
In a way, 50 Years of Music seems less like a response to other African compilations—or even to series like the Rough Guide CDs—and more like a natural consequence of the giganticized music culture that MP3s have given us. It's hard to imagine any label deciding to market a collection of 185 songs by 183 different artists without the example of the mega-playlists that Web denizens have been making and trading for years.
It might seem that MP3 culture would make overview-style box sets like this obsolete, but if anything it makes them more desirable. A hundred songs fit easily on an MP3 CD-R, to say nothing of a Flash drive, and with iTunes it's possible to assemble a playlist that will run for days from a modest music collection. But dumping stuff from your hard drive onto a CD-R is a far cry from making a box set. When you get a huge mix like that from a friend, the tendency is to listen through it once, if that; you can enjoy the songs without ever returning to them. It can easily be nothing but a one-night stand.
Of course, a mix that's just a bunch of songs rubbing elbows can be great, but the curatorial intent behind 50 Years makes it much more than that. Even if you know some of the material already—and if you pay any attention at all to African music, you will—the set will enlarge and enrich your notion of the continent. The last thing Africa needs is to be narrowed down. Its cultural canon is mind-bogglingly diverse, and it should look that way to Westerners too. A big box set like this is a good first step.
Yet 50 Years of Music has gotten relatively little American press. Part of that is undoubtedly for practical reasons—few music writers can afford to review a release that takes more than 16 hours to process, not when a review of a 40-minute album would pay just as much. But the dearth of coverage is also a symptom of an insidious change in the marketplace of ideas. It's become so deliberately foreshortened and click-driven that a box like this is largely ignored simply because other releases make better traffic bait—despite its obvious importance, and despite the fact that reissued African music is making more headway among stateside audiences today than it has since the mid-80s.
Newer labels like Analog Africa, Soundway, and Strut specialize in material that's amenable to U.S.-UK sensibilities—Soundway and Strut are based in London, as is Stern's, the greatest of all African reissue labels—and between them they've made vintage African music Pitchfork friendly. African flavors and African acts are also turning up more and more often in the American pop landscape. In 2007, Slate's Jody Rosen noted a key reason Akon became a star: "No recent African-American star has sounded quite so African." Fela Kuti's story and music have conquered Broadway and are headed for the big screen. The South African white-trash joke-rap act Die Antwoord has been ubiquitous on the festival circuit, as has Somali rapper K'naan. And indie-rock bands from the Dirty Projectors to Vampire Weekend are taking cues from classic African pop: the intriguing tangle of Ethiopian jazz, funk, and soul in the former case, the billowing guitars of Congolese rumba in the latter. In light of the criticisms Vampire Weekend's borrowings have provoked, often from people with a fairly shaky grasp of African music's outlines, the choice of final track on 50 Years' third southern African disc is the funniest thing about the set: "The Warm Heart of Africa" by the Very Best, with vocals by Vampire Weekend front man Ezra Koenig. If Ibrahima Sylla thinks Koenig is a cultural imperialist, he's keeping it to himself.
Ill-informed complaints like the shots at VW are exactly why 50 Years of Music is necessary—Westerners' increased interest in African pop all but mandated the set's existence. We're long past the point where Paul Simon's Graceland ought to be the go-to musical comparison for Vampire Weekend; the bubbling Congolese rumba that influenced the band's first album sounds little like Graceland's bumpier South African mbaqanga grooves. I understand that a reflex is a reflex; my own are equally lazy. But this box demands everyone step up their game.
This past February, Pitchfork published an updated version of a 2005 piece by staff writer Joe Tangari called Africa 100: The Indestructible Beat, an extensive historical overview of African music that includes info on relevant websites and reissue labels as well as an annotated 100-song playlist. "The most fertile period for African funk, soul, rock, and jazz lasted from 1965 to 1982," Tangari writes, and plenty of music on 50 Years comes from that period—71 tracks out of 185. But it says more about the box's proclivities that the decade best represented here is the most recent: there are 51 tracks from the 00s, compared to 30 from the 90s, 42 from the 80s, 34 from the 70s, and 22 from the 60s. This doesn't make Tangari's point moot, though—he's discussing genres that are essentially offshoots of American styles, whereas 50 Years focuses on music more indigenous to Africa.
In America, unsurprisingly, the African pop that's gotten the most attention is the stuff with American funk, soul, rock, and jazz in it—which did indeed peak decades ago. But take a broader view of African music, and who's to say when its golden age ended, or even if it ever did? The phrase that keeps coming to mind (with an obvious substitution) is Anthony Bourdain's cautionary response to a team planning a "pan-Asian" menu on a 2008 Restaurant Wars episode of Top Chef. "You know," he said, "Asia's big."
The big disappointment on 50 Years is the narrow scope and perfunctory feel of the three discs devoted to southern Africa (Botswana, Madagascar, Malawi, South Africa, and Zimbabwe). Not only are they short—their average length is 39 minutes, shorter than all but the Lusophone discs—but the selections are often disappointingly safe and familiar even when the music's good. We get comfortable later recordings by veterans like Mahlathini & Mahotella Queens, the Soul Brothers, and Thomas Mapfumo, rather than the rougher but better early material with which they made their names—and the discs dispatch the 60s and 70s, when township jive was developing in South Africa, in a mere three songs. But for some reason we get the 1992 hit "Slave" from South African reggae singer Lucky Dube, one of the drippiest things I've ever heard.
It feels churlish to complain about a cornucopia like 50 Years of Music, though. Most of the box's regional subsets present their tracks in strict chronological order, which does a lot of the work of contextualizing them. The one exception—the north African discs, which cover three sequential overlapping periods but don't order the material on any given CD—more than compensate with the most surprising segues and intensely worked-out track-to-track flow in the box. Great stuff jumps out throughout the north African subset—in particular Dahmane El Harrachi's "Kifeche Rah," forthright Algerian rai from 1960 with a slinky guitar-violin riff, and City 16's "La Tchitchi," Francophone hip-hop that brings '88 back to the Algeria of '98. The east African discs showcase Ethiopian and Kenyan pop with equal facility, in particular hard, tinny, propulsive late-70s benga by Slim Ali & the Hodi Boys and D.O. Misiane & Shirati Jazz. There's a lot more worth noting—far more than I have space to list, much less describe—and it adds up. You know, Africa's big.