Various Artists: Afrique C'est Chic 2

Tim O'Neil

Various Artists

Afrique C'est Chic 2

Label: Slip 'n' Slide
US Release Date: 2004-07-05
UK Release Date: 2004-07-16

As a wise man once said, "It began in Africa-ca-ca-ca" (OK, maybe it was the Chemical Brothers who said that, but they're pretty wise about these things). Of course, this could be strictly true for just about everything, seeing as how the origins of man date back pretty conclusively to the African continent, and the origins of human civilization can be traced to the "fertile crescent" region of Northern Africa and the eastern Mediterranean. But I suspect that the Chems, along with the compilers of Afrique C'est Chic 2, have but one thing in mind when they refer to Africa: it's the beat, stupid.

The history of Western composition presents the listener with a dizzying variety of sounds and ideas in the context of a constantly evolving continuum of tradition. From Medieval monophony upwards through the Renaissance and until around the start of the 20th century -- with the end of the Romantic phase and the beginning of the Modern -- classical composition can be viewed as a long upward struggle towards a greater, more complex and more empathetic realization of harmonic and melodic forms. The problem, of course, is that the vast majority of Western composers totally ignored the third element of music, rhythm. The gradual invention of the modern language of musical notation left little room for rhythmic exploration outside of the traditional 4/4 or 3/4 beats-per-measure. The opening salvos of the 20th Century found the divisions between strictly classical and traditional forms of music dissolving, as succeeding generations of composers gradually began to incorporate elements of traditional and folk musics from varying cultures, which meant a greater emphasis on rhythmic diversity than had once been encouraged.

These advances coincided with the growing assimilation of directly African rhythmical structures into Western popular culture. The slave ships that brought thousands of African natives across the ocean to be scattered all across the Americas also brought something more subtle and elaborate than mere forced labor. The Africans who became African-American brought their musical heritage with them, the tribal rhythms and syncopation that slowly seeped upwards into the cultures of the West. Suddenly, in the 20th century, after over two hundred years of percolation, rhythm had become the going concern. Blues and jazz and folk music all rose to popularity, the Modernist composers began experimenting with elaborate rhythmical structures, and the cultural prejudices that had long de-emphasized rhythm as a compositional tool began to crumble. Fast forward to the invention of rock and roll. Fast forward to the birth of disco.

Fast forward, finally, to the rise of house music.

Afrique C'est Chic 2 represents a unique chapter in the overlapping history of world music. The rhythmic seeds that were cast out from Africa many centuries ago have returned to the mother continent in the form of strangely evolved fruit -- an unfamiliar and yet intrinsically African artifact. The house music that evolved in the great American melting pot has returned to the land of its ancestry to mingle with the music of modern Africa, the afrobeat of Fela Anikolapu Kuti -- which was itself a hybrid of traditional African music along with American funk and free jazz circa 1968.

The rhythmic complexity of the best house music is here seen in an interesting context. A track like T Kolai's "Zouk" features both the driving 4/4 rhythm of house and the intricately constructed orchestral syncopation of the best afrobeat. Afrobeat, like house, is primarily defined by both repetition and cultural miscegenation. Lonesome Echo Production's "Spirit of Drums" has a driving deep house beat and a funk horn section that would not have been out of place on a 1960s-era James Brown record. There's even a guitar part that reminds me just a little bit of Chet Atkins. Salif Keita vs. Martin Solveig introduce an even stronger rock flavor with "Madan", featuring an African choral vocal and a striking rawk guitar solo. So it goes, for the most part, throughout the album.

The crown prince of afrobeat himself, Femi Kuti, shows up for "Traitors of Africa". This is perhaps the most musically (not to mention lyrically) aggressive track on the compilation. Some have criticized Femi for having adulterated his father's message and music, but the rhythms of "Traitors of Africa" are at once frantic, frenetic and ineffably complex. Kuti's piece is perhaps the most organic composition here, but there's still a rhythmic solidarity with the house genre. I have a hard time imagining the house DJ who'd have the guts to drop this one into a set, but it's a singular possibility.

We live in an era of musical multiplicity. Indigenous forms are mutating and being assimilated with a frightening rapidity. There are many dangers in this bold new era, dangers that the folk music of previous generations will not survive in a pure and untrammeled form to see the next century. But the flip side of crisis, as we all know, is opportunity, and Afrique C'est Chic 2 showcases the unique possibilities of a truly global musical dynamic. History is a living, vibrant organism, and compilations like this help to bring it into fierce focus.





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