One of the blaring paradoxes of technological evolution is its ability to reconnect us to history. As we plug in to our digital toys, the possibilities of education, in both directions, are endless. With a few clicks we can learn about the past and present of any nation and culture globally. (Reliability of information, however, is questionable.) And if we know anything about human nature, it’s that as we step into the future, we always look back.
This pattern has come to define the recording industry. The super-sized labels, able to rely less on million-plus selling albums and crafted, polished mega-stars, have turned to back catalogs containing publishing rights they’ve been acquiring for decades. On a more regionalized level, smaller labels are using this forward/backward process to unearth a vast collection of brilliant analog gems from across the planet. These sonic excavations are nothing new, but with a growing ease of communication, crate digging has turned into online exploring—although, as we will see, the compilers below tread the ground they collect from.
In the past few months I’ve received a growing number of vintage treats in my mailbox from labels that have either just started or are looking for interesting scenes to introduce to wider audiences. While I’ve received albums from virtually every country, we’ll focus on a few stellar releases making an Afro-Caribbean connection, which, in terms of modern music in America, underlies the foundation of much of what we listen to.
Early cross-cultural connections on these six albums are seen with startling clarity, especially the influence of American soul, jazz, and R&B (and the reverse flow of island flavors into our national consciousness). We can trace virtually every popular song format to Africa (hip-hop, R&B, jazz, soul, gospel, even country music), and the route it took to the Americas. Along the way sprinklings of island flavors were blended and reformed, and today a cornucopia of sounds gives allegiance to its Afro-Latin roots. Here are a few that have made that circuitous route, now available for wider audiences than most of the artists probably ever dreamed possible.
Bokoor Beats: Vintage Afro-beat, Afro-rock and Electric Highlife from Ghana (Otrabanda)
Every country has its Lee Perry—someone to refine and define the local sound and flavor of regional music. When British musician and scholar John Collins formed the Bokoor Band in 1971, he helped introduce Western funk and soul to the scene, which was already rich in dance music with jazz undertones. While Fela Kuti was heating up Afrobeat dance floors a few countries east, Collins and crew assembled a catalog of incredible material—a trend that continued well after the band disbanded in 1979. Collins founded Bokoor Studios to record others of similar ilk, assembling crooners of gospel and devotees of reggae in the process. This 12-track collection focuses on the funk, featuring smoking guitars and impeccable percussion, the two defining elements of highlife. And, of course, tons and tons of grooves, that scorching funk that makes people scratch their head and exclaim, “Damn! Where did you find this?”
Colombia! The Golden Age of Discos Fuentes (Soundway)
If anyone knows the sound of cumbia, they understand how a music form can hurt so happily. The slight reggae-influenced sidestepping and upbeat swing of South America and Mexico proves to be right at home in Colombia. From the label that previously released an archaeological treasure in Panama! Latin Calypso and Funk on the Isthmus, 1965-75, this compilation spans 16 years and 20 brilliant and lucid songs. There’s such luster in these crooners’ voices, such precision in the swiping of cowbells and shaking of tambourines, the horn lines blare and pianos soothe and set fire. In another cross-cultural collaboration, some of these artists pull from the New York salsa scene, while others tinker with Puerto Rican plena; the African rumba always shows up. Like much Latin music, this collection is filled with celebratory songs. It’s not to imply that melancholy doesn’t exist; that emotional quality is pervasive and liquid everywhere in the world. For this Golden Age, however, we are given the chance to dance the night away.
Cult Cargo: Belize City Boil Up (Numero Group)
Cult Cargo: Grand Bahama Goombay (Numero Group)
The good folks at Numero didn’t simply seek out a few compilations to restructure a new compilation; that only works with Buddha Bars. They physically journeyed to the Bahamas and Belize, knocked on doors, asked around, hit dead ends and turned around, because every direction leads somewhere else. And the whole time they collected. The fruits of their labor shine in the 32 tracks of undiscovered classics from scenes that few knew were scenes. The influence of James Brown is as prevalent as Curtis Mayfield, Otis Redding, and Stevie Wonder. It’s remarkable how clean and clear these albums sound, gorgeously fuzzy and acoustically dynamic. While these two collections are mostly interchangeable in tone and timber, suffice it to say that the Bahamas put a bit of spice in their goombay, leaning toward the dance floor; and while Belize can definitely boil up, their range of balladry and reflective tomes is equally inspiring.
Si, Para Usted: The Funky Beats of Revolutionary Cuba (Waxing Deep)
It’s interesting how Cuba is engrained in American consciousness in two distinct ways: politics and son. (We’ll leave cigars out for the time being.) On the artistic tip, the Buena Vista Social Club dominates our picture of Cuban music. As Si, Para Usted proves, this is only part of a very colorful picture. While the airy acoustics of gentle sea rhythms persists on Buena rip-offs, this 17-track collection is much more reminiscent of the other side we know of Cuba: political aggression. With searing guitar and keyboard riffs and blazing brass—and trademark congas and timbales—these songs may be aggressive, but don’t translate them as angry. There’s plenty of ways to get your emotions out without vehemence, and if there’s anything nasty here, it’s the clave.
The Rough Guide to African Blues (World Music Network)
The premier crate-digging label on the planet, WMN has consistently released solid collections of globetrotting gems for years. And for someone who has acquired close to their entire catalog, it takes something special for any one to stand out as much as this. Such is the nature of Africa’s homegrown blues, however, as well as compiler Phil Stanton’s ears. From the soulful inflections of voices like Mariem Hassan, Rokia Traore, and Oumou Sangare to the tender, rapid fingerings of masters like Ali Farka Toure, Corey Harris, Boubacar Traore, and Djelimady Tounkara—not to mention the chanting hypnosis of Etran Finatawa and Moroccan influence of Nuru Kane—this is a perfect home base for the unlearned, and a laid-back-and-listen to those whose shelves are filled with the rich complexity of Africa. So much space to explore, and time no longer seems a hindrance.