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The Rough Guide to African Disco

(World Music Network; US: 30 Apr 2013; UK: 15 Apr 2013)

A Bouncy Mix of Funky Tunes

Compilation albums are always tricky. Lumping together songs by a disparate group of artists can feel random, especially when the music in question was released years or even decades ago, or is perhaps international in nature. The Rough Guide series takes on this challenge head-on in its recent spate of offerings, most of which manage to successfully avoid these pitfalls. The Rough Guide to African Disco is one of these successes: Fans of high-tempo dance music with a bit of African flavor are likely to be pleased.


The record pulls together a dozen tracks from the 1970s and ‘80s heyday of African disco—music that was heavily influenced by Stateside trends but which also utilized local instrumentation (at times) and languages (nearly always). This comp, intended as an introduction to the curious but not especially experienced listener, mixes African-language tracks with a handful of English-language tunes to keep things accessible.


Highlights are many. Album opener “A Brand New Wayo” by Mixed Grill (love that name!) offers up a bouncing bassline, snappy guitar lines, and spot-on brass that’s guaranteed to work its magic on just about anyone with a pulse. “Come On Home” by the Lijadu Sisters opens with talking drum—a traditional leather-bodied drum held under the armpit, which is worked by the musician to create a startling range of pitches. Soon, this segues into layers of midtempo piano and bass which serve to underpin the sisters’ silken harmonies. Manu Dibango’s “Yekey Tembe” works its harmonized vocals against a backdrop of high-octane percussion to create an irresistible wall of rhythm.


Not every track is a winner, of course, and your mileage may vary when it comes to hits and misses. To my ears, “Dance the Body Music” reminds us of why people wore Disco Sucks T-shirts in the 1970s, while “Ohue” suffers from a tendency to mistake studio noodling for anything interesting. There is also a certain sameness to the tracks in terms of tempo (fast) and length, which hovers at four-to-five minutes. Only one song, “Love Is a Natural Thing”, really stretches into anything epic; at over nine minutes, though, it outlasts its welcome. The 6-minute “Yekey Tenge” is pleasantly hyponotic and could have profitably lasted twice as long. Meanwhile, too many other tunes wrap up too quickly. With the whole album clocking in at over an hour, though, it might be churlish to complain that there’s not enough music.


In fact, it’s even more churlish given that there is an entire second CD included in this special bonus package: an 8-song, 34-minute disc featuring someone named Maloko. Unfortunately, this selection is comprised largely of cover tunes—another stab at “accessibility” for western ears, I’m guessing—and much of it falls flat. Hard to believe it may be, but Africanized disco versions of such classics as “Stand By Me” and “In the Midnight Hour” are actually much less compelling than original tunes by the likes of Manu Dibango and the Lijadu Sisters.


Even so, if the bonus disc of cover tunes lures in a curious listener, if it opens a new set of ears to these other amazing songs, then it’s all good. Afro-funk and Afro-pop are entirely different worlds from what many westerners listen to, and they’re worlds well worth exploring. Kudos to the Rough Guide albums for bringing these worlds to an ever-widening audience.

Rating:

DAVID MAINE is a novelist and essayist. His books include The Preservationist (2004), Fallen (2005), The Book of Samson (2006), Monster, 1959 (2008) and An Age of Madness (2012). He has contributed to The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, Esquire.com and NPR.com, among other outlets. He is a lifelong music obsessive whose interests range from rock to folk to hip-hop to international to blues. He currently lives in western Massachusetts, where he works in human services. Catch up with his blog, The Party Never Stops, at davidmaine.blogspot.com, or become his buddy on Facebook (or Twitter or Google+ or whatever you prefer) to keep up with reviews and other developments.


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