The last two African retrospectives from Honest Jon’s came with the personable alto oesophagal crackle of old records, so my ears were prepared to hear the same on this one. No, no, Africa Boogaloo opens sounding deep, stomachy, rich, with cozy brass and handsome singing on the Le Grand Kalle track that gives the album its name. When unevenness kicks in on Charles Lembe’s “Quiero Wapacha” — the guitar and the voices are a little out of focus, first the sound, then a sliver of the echo of the sound arriving a moment later — it’s hardly important.
The songs on this compilation were recorded in the 1960s and 1970s. They post-date the recordings on the other two albums by some years, and the differences in sound quality and the professional assurance of the musicians is profound. Over three discs we’ve travelled from Marvellous Boy‘s valiant amateurs smacking old pianos, people who’ve faded in and out of recorded history, to experts, some of whom have gone on to tour the world. The names on the back cover look recent, which, after the period of anonymous piano-smackers, arrives like a triumphant coda, like a flourish. See, they seem to be saying, we’re here, we’re still around, we did it, we endure! Orchestra Baobab? Had a new album in 2007. Manu Dibango? If I lived in London I could buy tickets. Gnonnas Pedro? Dead, but he was on that 1970s Benin compilation that came out a couple of months ago, and Africando, the Afro-salsa band he joined in 1995, lives on. His “Adigbedoto” here is a beauty: tight guitar, Cuban percussion, and the man himself singing at the very brink of a luscious quiver. Familiar names. It all seems so fresh that the sound of Laba Sosseh singing gently “Guantanamo,” in his song of the same name, becomes strange and moving, a reminder of a time when the word carried less weight than it does now. The song sounds recent but the sentiment doesn’t. A weird doubling effect.
By the time these songs were released, Latin American music had been filtering into Africa for decades and a hybrid industry was well under way. The piquancy of the Latin trumpet had Africa-ripened into juice. Bands and singers were competing with one another all over the place. Go to Kinshasa, throw a rock, and you’d hit two singers and a guitarist and the person who chased you down and walloped you afterwards would be an aspiring saxophone player. The ground was fertile. Consequently, the breadth of music Africa Boogaloo would like to cover is too large for a single album. The compilers have decided to include songs from the Congo as well as the West African music promised in the subtitle. It’s too much. 13 tracks, 55 minutes, and a time frame stretching from 1960 to the end of the ’70s were never going to leave us with anything more than a sketch. I wish the familiar names had been knocked out so that we could have more obscurities. Yet nothing here makes me happier than the 1978 “On Verra Ça” that was released on an Orchestra Baobab live album in 1992, now discontinued. It’s good to have it back again.