[2 July 2010]
For anyone caught up in the resurgence of interest in African popular music of the 1970s, there will be a lot that is familiar in this collection: an emphasis on heavy funk; echoes of Fela Kuti, James Brown, and late highlife; the references to “quarrying” rare music that signal this is a vinyl archeology project. But Afro-Rock should be granted an originary position, being a reissue of a collection that first came out in 2001. Back then, when vinyl collector and sound engineer Duncan Brooker put together a compilation based on a small sample of the thousands of records he had collected while traveling around Africa in the 1990s, it was far from the norm to release this kind of music.
Brooker’s project laid the groundwork for later releases by Strut, Soundway, and Analog Africa, among others. Such releases, with their constant references to digging, quarrying, and unearthing, find parallels with Elektra’s Nuggets comp of 1972. Like Nuggets, the work of these labels creates its own underground retrospectively; the African projects, however, are more likely to draw criticisms of cultural colonialism and have needed to explain themselves and their motivations to a far greater extent. The main motivations and justifications tend to circle around the obscurity of the material, the opportunity to bring it to a new audience, the need to preserve a set of cultural practices, the possibility of reviving the careers of otherwise forgotten musicians (occasionally realized, often not), and the desire to give the music the value and attention it deserves.
Brooker doesn’t appear to have taken the music or musicians for granted, and in fact made numerous trips to Africa (particularly East Africa) in an attempt to find records in decent condition and to track down the musicians involved in making them. It seems that the preservation of the records he collected was of more importance to him than it had been to many of their former owners. As for the musicians themselves, many had moved on from the styles of playing that had been preserved on vinyl, or perhaps had only performed that material for the purposes of marketing records to particular audiences. As many reformed bands have found, their recorded past is often of more interest to audiences than their present situation. But if Afro-Rock and the numerous compilations that have followed in its wake have set a decade and its fashions in the artificial amber of retro-chic, they have also made available brilliant, adventurous music that forces us to reconsider our ideas of the evolution and revolutions of popular music. The reaffirmation of the enormous and still under-acknowledged role of Africans in the history of music will ultimately be the raison d’être of the new vinyl archeology.
As if to emphasize the gradually increasing involvement that Brooker had with the continent, Afro-Rock presents a musical program that gets more “African” as it progresses. By this is meant simply that the introductory tracks might just as easily pass for African-American numbers were they to appear on a collection of US-based funk and soul. Ishmael Jingo’s “Fever”, emanating from Kenya in 1974, is sung in English and sounds “American”. It’s a great track, with deep bass and persistent horns filling out Jingo’s high vocals (“Fever” was subsequently used in the film The Last King of Scotland). Geraldo Pino, originally from Sierra Leone but also resident in Nigeria and, later, Ghana, appears here with the Heartbeats performing “Heavy Heavy Heavy”, another English language number. Pino, some of whose music has been reissued by Soundway in recent years, was influenced by James Brown and was an influence on Fela Kuti. “Heavy Heavy Heavy” bears parallels with both and features sublime funk guitar, Afrobeat percussion, and fabulous keyboards.
The first non-English lyric on the album comes on the appropriately titled “Africa” by Steele Beauttah, leader of Kenyan band Air Fiesta Matata, which enacts a further reterritorialization of the funk sound via the use of some well-placed flute. Ghana’s Mercury Dance Band contributes “Envy No Good”, on which the combination of heavy percussion, deep sax, and pidgin English recall the work of Fela Kuti. The return to Africa is completed most spectacularly by the deep, hypnotic groove of “Yuda” by Dackin Dackino, from what was then Zaire. This track is an excellent example of the illuminating possibilities of such vinyl archeology, having been unreleased prior to its discovery by Brooker on a discarded reel. The track’s extended running time (twelve minutes) allows the band the opportunity to work in leisurely solos on percussion, guitar, and saxophone, while the drums and bass hold the beat together.
The excellence continues with “Kzenkyen Bi Adi M’Awu” by K. Frimpong & His Cuban Fiestas. This number, which also appeared on Soundway’s Ghana Special last year, sports a soulful vocal, sweet flute, and a deceptively simple and utterly compelling drum pattern. There are more Congolese sounds in the form of Orchestra Lissanga’s “Okuzua”, with its beguiling heavy bass and high electric guitars, and Super Mambo 69’s “Sweeper Soul”, which channels James Brown more explicitly than any of the other tracks here. These two tracks mark the sonic boundaries of the Black Atlantic from which so much great music of the 1970s emerged.
Yahoos, another Kenyan group, are represented by the weird and wonderful “Mabala”, a psychedelic instrumental track featuring tripped-out wah-wah guitar, synthesized sound effects, and heavy soul saxophone. John Collins, founder of the Bokoor Recording Studio in Ghana and author of the classic African Pop Roots, contributes harmonica to the Bokoor Band’s “Onukpa Shawarpo”, bringing a swamp blues-boogie sonority to an otherwise straight late highlife number. Nkansah and Yaanom’s “Pem Dwe”, which brought the original Afro-Rock to a close, is an organ-based party piece with a sound quite distinct to other predominantly funk-based tracks on offer.
The reissue adds an extra, untitled number from Jingo which transports us back to the sounds of US funk with its high vocals, English language lyrics, and futuristic, Herbie Hancock-esque synthesizer. It adds a neat symmetry to the collection, though it also highlights the fact that the more Afrocentric numbers at the heart of the program are the real gems from the “quarry”. With the regular appearance of less obviously US-inspired music on the more recent archeological projects of Strut, Soundway, and Analog Africa, audiences have been given a chance of burrowing further into the mines, which is presumably one of the key attractions of these compilations. That said, we should be wary of falling into the trap of assuming we are getting a more authentic experience the further we move from the familiar. Afro-Rock, with its varied selection of Africa-sourced material, remains both an influence on later projects and a reminder that the music of other countries may not always be as “other” as we might sometimes imagine.