Don’t know your Salif Keita from your Aster Aweke? World Music Network’s The Rough Guide to World Music: Africa & Middle East is here to help—never mind the fact that these two exceptional artists aren’t on this compilation. There’s plenty more where they came from, and Rough Guides wants you to hear them.
They’re well aware that world music is so broad of a category that it’s hard to know where to start sometimes. So, if you want to delve into two of the most musically complex regions of the world, this is where they suggest you start. At 15 tracks, you might ask yourself, how could this album possibly cover all that Africa and the Middle East have to offer? Well, that wasn’t the aim because that’s impossible to do. Compiler John Armstrong, a lawyer and DJ with a passion for this music, wanted to introduce some new and old names on the world music scene.
Eschewing current trends in favor of a mix of the classical, the popular, and the new, the disc serves as a balanced portrait of essential musical genres. Released alongside the third edition of The Rough Guide to World Music, the CD is also enhanced with excerpts from the book, features from World Music Network’s website, and an interview with Armstrong himself, whose interests in African, Latin, and Caribbean music happened to coincide with the advent of the term “world music” in the 80s.
In the interview, he speaks of The Congo as a musical hotbed that influences music all around the continent. It certainly seems as such with Kekele’s sprightly, danceable soukous on “Otage Ya Bolingo” and, at the other end of the spectrum, Masanka Sankayi and Kasai Allstars’ (featuring Mutumilayi) fuzzy and distorted electro-track “Wa Muluendu”. The song is jarring at first, but it’s a great example of what’s happening in the Congo, as this track is also on the second Congotronics album. Like their compatriots Konono No.1, the music of this ensemble with the electric thumb pianos is chaotic and it may sound downright inharmonious to some ears, yet it has an undeniable groove.
Senegalese star Baaba Maal, who also appears on the cover of the book in all his brilliantly colored glory, is accompanied by his family griot, Mansour Seck, on the spiraling “Lam Tooro”. The music more or less stays at the same pace throughout—it is Maal’s distinctive voice that rises to a crescendo towards the song’s end.
Along with Maal, another recognized African legend is Nigerian juju master King Sunny Ade. “Synchro System”, so named for a style of playing he developed, hits with talking drums and electric guitar.
A definite highlight from the Middle Eastern section is Nubian percussionist Mahmoud Fadl, known as ‘The King of Cairo Cool’, and singer Salwa Abou Greisha’s cover of Egyptian legend Umm Kalthoum’s classical “We Daret El Ayam”. Dramatic strings blend with rhythmic percussion until Abou Greisha’s voice breaks the built-up tension and proceeds to soar during the remainder of the song. Conversely, Egyptian singer Amr Diab appears with “Amarain”, a poppy love song that’s infused with Arab and flamenco sounds where synthesized strings glide over syncopated handclaps and a touch of flamenco guitar.
Back in West Africa, Etran Finatawa shows that Tinariwen aren’t the only nomadic rebels setting the sands on fire with their music. The band hails from Niger and its members are from the Tuareg and Wodaabe tribes. On “Surbajo” they create a foot-stomping, bluesy groove.
In the liner notes, Rough Guides “encourages you to dig deeper” into this newfound musical territory. By gathering musical gems that may not be immediately recognizable to the new or causal fan, it becomes easier to do just that. Happy digging everyone.
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