[18 March 2014]
Well, this is an embarrassment of riches. The Rough Guide music series has been an often reliable, rarely outstanding set of primers on various aspects of world music, but this installment is very strong indeed. Ranging from soft acoustic numbers to dance-party rave-ups, the disc spans a wide variety of African music. A bonus disc spotlighting the unvarnished grit of Lesotho roots musicians Sotho Sounds merely adds an unexpected bonus atop an already burgeoning set.
The Rough Guide to the Best African Music You’ve Never Heard might be a presumptuous title, but hat the hell, it’s tongue-in-cheek enough to bother none but the most oversensitive audiences. The fact is, most of these musicians aren’t well known, at least to me; not that I’m an authority on the subject, but I do have fairly wide-ranging tastes and some degree of experience in the genre. Most of these tunes are, in fact, hidden gems from little-known artists.
The good vibes start right away, with the delicately interwoven guitar and gentle vocals of Mali’s Annane Sy Cissé (raise your hand if you’re shocked that a representative from Mali kicks of the proceedings). Buttressed by occasional bursts of djembe, along with snatches of electric guitar, a low-key bass line, and a few well-placed handclaps, “Bala” is the kind of effortlessly hypnotic tune that many listeners will know from better established lights such as Ali Farka Touré or even newcomers like Sidi Touré. This isn’t to say that the song is derivative; it’s not, it’s lovely, but it envelops the listener in a kind of cozy comfort that is not entirely unfamiliar.
More highlights follow. UK-based Simo Lagwani uses the hand-percussion and traditional three-stringed cowhide guitar of Morocco’s gnawa tradition, lending a trancelike urgency to his tune “Baniyorkoy.” Noumoucounda Cissoko brings the multi-stringed, lightning-fast kora into the mix with “Noumou Koradioulou”, an uptempo number that benefits from smooth harmonies and a thrumming, insistent beat. The Senegalese virtuoso has toured in the UK and from this track it’s easy to understand what the fuss is about. His is a name to watch.
A couple of tunes later, dance-pop Anergy Afrobeat offers up “Fela Chief Priest” in homage to Fela Kuti, the ringleader whose James Brown-style outfit rocked for decades. But AA is no mere tribute band; they bring their own energy and urgency to the material, and they sing of contemporary concerns. At seven-and-a-half minutes, this is the longest tune here, and it’s a stunner, seamlessly blending a loping bass line, snappy guitars, mellifluous keyboards, and sharp jabs of brass. I don’t even like Fela all that much—but I love this.
An astute listener will realize at this point that she is merely five songs in, has been listening for 27 minutes already, and yet still has more than 20 tracks left. This is where the whole “embarrassment of riches” feeling sets in. It only continues with the gentle harmonies and finger-snapping of “M’beguel” from the Batch Gueye Band, a Senegalese outfit. According to the liner notes, this is a song “intoning words of praise relating to Islamic teachings”, and like the best devotional music, it carries a hearftfelt emotion discernible even to listeners unversed in the Wolof language. Then there is “Anzoro” by Wayo, a tune that seems almost perversely repetitive, yet manages to cast a hypnotic net of its own.
The album ends with its strongest song, “Ndinewe” by Zimbabwe’s Monoswezi. According to the liner notes, Monoswezi blend elements of Zimbabwe music with Nordic music, and if the connection isn’t immediately apparent, the result is nevertheless compelling. The female vocals here are affecting, and the instrumentation is heavy on percussion and bass but quiet enough to let the vocals command our full attention, at least until the sax solo kicks in.
And that’s just the first disc! As with many Rough Guide releases, a second disc is included, in this case from the outfit Sotho Sounds, and listeners expecting more relatively smooth sounds are going to be disappointed. Sotho Sounds is the project of a group of shepherds from the Kingdom of Lesotho, and their sound is as raw as the landscape that surrounds it. Songs like “Ha Kele Monateng” are built around call-and-response vocals and simple rhythms which are bashed out on homemade instruments as the collective sings along. As far as complicated songs structures or significant alterations in instrumentation, there are none. The album plows a single furrow throughout its length and does a fine job of it, but rarely deviates.
Whether the bonus disc is to one’s taste or not, though, hardly matters. This Rough Guide entry is a strong installment in this already-useful series. Recommended for all listeners of world music, both newcomers as well as those who have done some exploring and are ready to go a bit deeper.