While listening to The Rough Guide to Afrobeat Revolution compilation, I couldn’t help but instinctively compare it to much of today’s dance floor fodder, which is dominated by blaring, distorted, four-on-the-floor beats awash with glossy synths and Auto-Tuned vocals. I find very little finesse in much mainstream contemporary dance music, where oftentimes danceable rhythms are constructed in the crudest, most ham-fisted ways. To be fair, I’m comparing two completely different musical forms. But nonetheless, World Music Network’s The Rough Guide to Afrobeat Revolution stands next to such music as a potent reminder of what well-crafted grooves should sound like.
The music of The Rough Guide to Afrobeat Revolution is a celebration of rhythm as a life-affirming, positive force. In words and in spirit, this is music intended to overcome the ills of the world. Featuring material from Afrobeat artists from all around the globe, The Rough Guide to Afrobeat Revolution is laced with mesmerizing compositions that feature armies of performers and frequently breach the six-minute mark. Song length is irrelevant, for the grooves of every single track draw the listener into them, enveloping them in a wholly spiritual experience.
The album is uniformly solid, and there’s not a duff track to be found. Aside from choice song selections, the reason this compilation is so listenable really comes down to the nature of the genre. Pioneered by Nigerian musician Fela Kuti in the 1970s, Afrobeat is a potent mix of traditional African music and strains of 20th century descendants like jazz and funk. The Rough Guide to Afrobeat Revolution naturally trades heavily in polyrhythms, showcasing songs that utilize layers of drums and traditional African percussion, weaved together with scratchy funk guitar. Everything else feeds into this framework. Vocals are more often than not group chants, often performing call-and-response dialogues with each other or with the brass section.
An example of this approach in effect is Dennis Ferrer’s “Dem People Go”. Rumbling percussion forms the basis of the song, supporting Ferrer’s spoken-sung conversation with his backing singers. There are strong melodic segments, like the keyboard tapping away in the background and the saxophone that pops in over a minute into the song. But every component serves that rhythmic foundation, playing off it and off one another. Note how the syncopated horns contrast with the sax solo, while still locking into the groove. Never staid, these rhythms are always breathing, always invigorating.
The record definitely delivers on the Afrobeat, but it’s the revolution part I find lacking. True to the vision of the genre’s father, politics permeate The Rough Guide to Afrobeat Revolution, from the Soul Jazz Orchestra vocalizing the sounds of firing weapons in “Freedom No Go Die”, to Afrodizz bemoaning the social evils of the world in the eleven-minute “Bombe”. Despite the subject matter, these artists are never outwardly angry. In fact, they are rather mellow, the effect of becoming so entwined with the music. That total immersion into the music causes a bit of a problem on this compilation, especially considering this is a genre so focused on getting a message across. Despite their imperatives, the words are very much subservient to the musical gestalt. It’s quite easy to get lost in these grooves, but the messages are often lost in the process. That is a shame, because it’s always evident that these wonderfully-realized performances are imbued with some sort of higher calling. It’s nice to know that danceable groove can be well-constructed, but as much Afrobeat has tried to assert over the decades, a groove alone isn’t everything.