Various Artists: The Rough Guide to the Best African Music You've Never Heard

Rough Guide scores big once again.

Various Artists

The Rough Guide to the Best African Music You've Never Heard

Label: World Music Network
US release date: 2014-02-11
UK release date: 2014-01-27

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.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.