How does a compiler approach one of these albums, I wonder — how do they decide what to put in and keep out, and where to draw the boundaries? The boundary for this compilation is huge, and surrounds all of Africa, a continent with more guitarists and guitar styles than anyone can easily count. Dan Rosenberg has dealt with a number of different genres for World Music Network in the past, and the only one of his albums I’ve really had serious doubts about was the Christmas one, which tried to stuff too large a range in too small a space. I didn’t have qualms about his competence, but what would he do, I wondered, what would he choose?
His job is made simpler by the presence of the word “legends” in the title. Very well, it’s not enough for a musician on this album to be merely good, crucially he has to be known. But known where? Is it enough for him to be known locally, wherever “locally” is for him, or does he need to be known in other countries as well, or overseas? A few weeks ago, an Australian litblogger drew my attention to an article in the Wall Street Journal. An American reader had written in and asked if the paper’s literary editor could recommend some Australian books. The editor threw out a few standard titles and ended with Jill Ker Conway’s The Road From Coorain. Australian myself, it would never occur to me to recommend The Road From Coorain as an example of Australian literature to anyone, nor do I know any Australian who feels differently. The population of Australia stands currently at something more than twenty million, and my guess is that you’d have to search like mad before you found a single one of them who would recommend Road From Coorain as a useful example of an Australian book, unless you framed your question in a specific and pointed way, eg, “Are there any memoirs, written by Australians, that I would be able to obtain easily in the United States?”
“Yes,” comes the reply. “The Road From Coorain. It was written and published for a North American audience so you shouldn’t have too much trouble locating it.”
My point is that it’s not easy to work out what a foreign country thinks is worthwhile, and what it values. It’s possible that an Ethiopian or a Malagasy would look at this album and wonder where Dan Rosenberg was coming from. The Malagasy would be particularly puzzled, because there is no shortage of distinctive guitarwork in Malagasy music, but not a whisper of it on African Guitar Legends. The Malagasy raises both eyebrows. Where are the guitarists from Madagascar? What would someone like me have to have done to get on this album? The Malagasy sees that Rosenberg’s written introduction to the album booklet points out the “period of national mourning” that followed the deaths of the Malian Ali Farka Touré and Congolese Franco. Touré appears on the album with “Penda Yoro” and Franco appears with “On Entre OK, On Sort KO”. So if the death of a Malagasy guitarist was followed by a period of Malagasy mourning and three days of solid play on local radio, plus an international record deal or posthumous compilations in the West, then maybe …
But the South African maskanda guitarist Shiyani Ngcobo is in there too, with a well-chosen song called “Yekanini”, and his death — which isn’t mentioned by Rosenberg because Ngcobo died very recently, after African Guitar Legends was already finished — wasn’t followed by a period of national mourning. It didn’t even make the front pages of the South African news websites. Conclusion: he was not famous, he was not valued as Touré was valued, he was not a legend. Why is he here? My knowledge of South African music is rudimentary, but it’s enough to make me wonder why John Bhengu, a 1960s pioneer of popular guitar recordings in traditional Zulu styles, wasn’t judged more authentically legendary.
That doesn’t diminish Ngcobo’s playing, which has an excellent dry speed, like someone falling rapidly downstairs, thwonking each step precisely with the head while a fiddle runs down after. As far as I’m concerned the man (rest in peace) can appear on as many compilations as he likes. There’s no point debating the presence of Oliver Mtukudzi, either, especially if the track you’re going to choose is “Andinzwi”, which the musician composed after the deaths of three of his band members. The song is extraordinarily simple, just Mtukudzi and the guitar, horribly gentle and slow, and basic lyrics repeated over and over with a sorrow that lets you know the singer is too stunned by misfortune to come up with anything more complicated, and yet his brain won’t let him rest, it keeps pursuing questions. “Do you have to die to be a hero?” he mourns. Some of the other guitarists make a virtue out of sophistication, complexity and speed, but Mtukudzi’s strength lies in his honesty. He’s at his best when he seems to be, simultaneously, deeply moved and incapable of lying or staying quiet.
Tinariwen, also included here, is known for rawness, but Mtukudzi, in spite of his deceptive soft volume, is rawer still. The Tuareg hold up the African Blues side of things, along with Touré. Djelimady Tounkara, who, in spite of a solo release in the English-speaking world, still doesn’t have the reputation there that he deserves, saunters in with superb elegance on “Fanta Bourama”. Jean Bosco Mwenda sings “Pole Pole Ya Kuina” and the rapport that Pete Seeger sensed when he heard his music in the 1950s is demystified. King Sunny Adé finishes the album. Taken overall, African Guitar Legends is a masterful and continuous display of skill, delivered by a playlist that flows naturally and keeps itself interesting — now fast, now slow, now sad-angry (Mtukudzi), now tantalising (Adé) — and this is only the tip of the iceberg. Next step: volume two: the Rough Guide to African Guitar Unknowns.