The time period covered on these discs should be familiar territory to aficionados of African retrospective compilations, even if some of the bands have been so underexposed outside Africa that they feel like newcomers. All three albums start in the 1960s and run forward into the ’70s, the years when African reworkings of Cuban music were breaking in waves from the middle of the continent up.
Congolese rumba sat at the crest of this wave, and Congo: Pont Sur Le Congo is packed with it. The first of the album’s two discs is characterised by a lightness that seems almost superhuman, the luminous quick speed of the guitars, the male singing voices that sweep forward in a shallow inverse parabola and then drift upward, the whole rhythm of things floating and swaying, and everything playful and sexual — such as the singer in Trio Madjesi’s “Photo Ya Majesi”, who, smiling, coaxes his partner in English, “I’m sorry! Come on, my darling!”, sounding as if he’s not sorry at all, but in fact admires himself for whatever he’s done and expects forgiveness as his natural right. Or “Koue Koue! Ebony Aboyi Ngaï” by Franco and l’OK Jazz, which runs along for three minutes on its guitars and then switches into something dark and brassy, a change of gear so complete that the end and beginning of the song could have been taken from two different eras. OK Jazz reappears later with “Regina”, and Franco’s brother Siongo, who went by the name Bavon Marie Marie, plays guitar next to some rough trumpets in “Ya Limbisa Bijou”. This roughness comes in on the compilation’s second disc, which is less heterogenous than the first. An African-American note, more unyielding than the Cuban-Lingala one, starts to push through on “Nakoko”, sung by Franklin Boukaka, whose voice rings like a gong.
Senegalese music of the ’70s has been given a huge overseas fillip by the successes of Orchestra Baobab, whose UK comeback at the start of the century boosted the musicians into retirement-age careers that most other musicians can only lust after — in an interview with Pitchfork, Barthélemy Attisso revealed that he was not only engaged on international tours, but also continuing his day-job legal practice, which is a feat mad impressive. There’s also Youssou N’dour, a human tendon of singing, whose monied benevolence has given other West African musicians various breaks: he sang with the resurgent Baobab and produced Cheikh Lô. Sénégal: Echo Musical is all treasures. Orchestre Guelewar de Banjul launched into “Kelefa Sane” and I said, “That’s brilliant, it’s not going to get any better than that,” and then Xalem brought along a jelly-wet and intricate guitar for “Alal”, and I said, “Xalem, you’ve got a point.” Orchestre Guelewar de Banjul hit back with “Wartef Jigen” and Xalem matched them with “Yumbaye”. Super Diamono objected with “ADama Ndaiye”. I covered my face with my hands and said, “All right, you’re all good” and gave up any pretensions to criticism. You people do your thing.
The marriage of Senegal and Cuba on this compilation is not like the marriage of Congo and Cuba on Point Sur. There’s more percussion, for a start, while on Pont Sur the timekeeping role of a drum is often handed to a guitar. The Congolese style is a start-to-finish denseness of spangles, while the Senegalese bands on Echo Musical are more likely to leave spaces between the notes of one instrument and interleave the other instruments and singers in dabs. Etoile de Dakar’s “Mbassa” is a structure made up of Impressionistic spots and darts, each musician providing a colour of his own, one guitar-coloured, one lead-singer-coloured, one chorus-coloured, and so on, all dotted around one another to constitute a song. If the Congolese discs are all about constant quickness, then the Senegalese ones are a kind of galloping slowness.
I expected good things from the other two as a matter of course, but Côte d’Ivoire: West African Crossroads was the collection that made me curious. The Ivory Coast is one of my many musical black holes. What does it sound like, aside from Alpha Blondy and Tiken Jah Fakoly? Why do I hear about musicians from Dakar and Kinshasa and not Abidjan? In the booklet that comes with the two discs, Florent Mazzoleni tells me that during the period covered by this compilation the country was an “island of prosperity.” “All of the big names in African music, from Rochereau to Fela … mingle in Abidjan, an open city to the world and to new musical trends.” A few of the tracks were taken from the early 1980s, but the rest come from the ’60s and ’70s, before the country was hit by an economic downturn. So poverty and lack of musicians were not the problem. Politics were one-sided, but apparently not hostile to the arts. This was not Ethiopia, there were no nightclub-wrecking curfews. President Houphouët-Boigny imported James Brown for a private show in 1968. Such are the perks of uncontested rule.
The compilation prompts speculation without giving any answers. There were Ivorian styles, notably the Bété-based ziglibithy of Ernesto Djédjé, but it sounds as if they were overwhelmed by the popularity of the rumba that dominates the second of Côte d’Ivoire‘s discs. (The Ivorian folk note in all of this seems to be a steady shuf-shuf-shuf-shuf.) Bailly Spinto shows off a handsome voice on “Taxi Signon”, “Ntelesse”, and “Nkenaplesso”, but he hasn’t become another N’Dour. He was “Inspired by Percy Sledge and Otis Redding,” says Mazzoleni, and I came away with the impression that most of Côte d’Ivoire’s popular singers were inspired by something outside Côte d’Ivoire. The impact of James Brown, which spread beyond his one-off with the president, surfaces here and there: in Jimmy Hyacinthe’s “Amouin Souba”, for example.
It was the eclecticism of this collection that struck me, after the inner unity of Congo and Sénégal. Not world-famous perhaps, but these Ivorian musicians are game. They’ll try anything. “Nkenaplesso” opens with a roll of piano so baroque that by the time Spinto comes in, it’s like watching Norma Desmond gesture herself down a staircase. There was another surprise too: the women. The other albums are, putting aside a tiny bit of female chorus contribution on Echo Musical, blokes from go to whoa. Côte d’Ivoire: West African Crossroads, on the other hand, has sunny Aicha Kone on “Aminata” and “Denikeleni”, and Reine Pelagie, la Dame de Fer et du Feu, on “Biande”. “Biande” is a terrific piece of 1980s pop: synthetic Futurist repetition topped off with Pelagie’s adamant voice. There was some rumour on the internet of a Pelagie comeback. What happened to that?