Two Frenchmen, an African and a Japanese Man Walk Into a Club...
The nation of France and the continent of Africa have quite a history together. Does that make the idea of combining French house music with native African styles a good one? French DJ/producer/label boss Bob Sinclair must think so, having now put together three compilations that do just that. And many thousands of clubgoers must agree, because the first two Africanism sets were worldwide underground hits. As far as scoring that elusive American record deal, the third time’s the charm for Sinclair; but the music, while bright and multicultural, can’t quite rise above the most mundane of dance music quandaries. That’s right, the continuously-mixed Africanism III must sound great on the dancefloor, but as in-home listening it rarely holds your attention.
Sinclair has assembled an impressive international cast of DJs, producers, engineers, traditional musicians, and vocalists under the tent name Africanism Allstars. Still, it’s a little strange that almost all of the movers behind the project are French, American, even Japanese, while Africans are either sampled in or relegated to “featured” status. The result is that Africanism III is first and foremost a house music record. Not that the African rhythms and accents are inauthentic or novel; they’re not. It’s just that they don’t lend as much color and richness as they might have.
When all the styles and nationalities do gel, you get some snapping, infectious good-time music. Lead off track “Zookey” is down ‘n’ dirty dancehall/soca with some great toasting by Roland Richards. Unbelievably, the steel drum theme that runs throughout the song is an enhancement rather than an annoyance. A strong start, even though it may be a little late for the Sean Paul hit parade. It’s followed by a French-disco-style update of Malinga Five’s vintage afrobeat track “Kalimbo”, which misses the mark. Too much disco, not enough afro. Björn Lundt’s “Imbalaye”, on the other hand, succeeds at striking a groovy balance between deep house and true afrobeat. Its effortless rhythm and scratchy funk guitar work together to leave you with something that’s better than the sum of its parts.
The bad news is that the album doesn’t hit that high again until track 13, when the jubilant calypso of Sinclair’s own “Sye Bwa” leads to the smooth blend of African and European styles on Japanese (!) producer Shinichi Osawa’s “Samouraï Theme”. Then two more Sinclair productions kick it up a notch: “Steel Storm” rides a percolating Giorgio Moroder bass sequencer while a sampled Ladysmith Black Mambazo (the one name here which most non-house fans will recognize) vocal adds weight and soul. On “Juju Beat”, the bass sequence is replicated by Jeff Kellner’s inventive guitar playing. It’s too bad that Africanismdoesn’t provide more of that seamless continuity.
As for the other eight or nine tracks, none are bad, and all are danceable. Though there’s plenty of syncopated percussion, tribal chants and heavy beats, none are particularly ear-grabbing, though, and a few are misguided. The single, “Summer Moon”, is a sexy two-chord number that’s just about what you would expect of The Single off an album like this. KC Flightt’s version of Sting’s “Voices”, though, features some ill-advised “dum dum dum” vocal samples that sounded only slightly less dated on Art of Noise albums in the 1980s. The term “trying too hard” comes to mind.
No doubt about it, Africanism III is classy, reliable, sometimes innovative stuff. It’s just that, with all the talent and possibilities involved with such a project, you expect something to fly out of the speakers and hit you square in the face, and nothing does. For that experience, you’ll have to go back to Fela Kuti’s 1970s Afrobeat masterpieces. Lower tech, sure, but higher impact.
// Notes from the Road
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