Various Artists: The Rough Guide to the Music of West Africa
Choice cuts from the vast range of music in West Africa make for another polished installment of the Rough Guides collection.
If every global music compilation series had a personality, World Music Network’s Rough Guides would constantly be that kid at the head of the class, the overachiever that makes everything look effortless as they wreck yet another curve. Everything is polished, professional, and meticulously curated, and on The Rough Guide to the Music of West Africa, this tradition of excellence continues with 15 tracks from seven West African countries, showcasing an incredible variety of music from an outstandingly diverse region of the world.
Writing it all out, it sounds like a particularly deluxe tour package -- in the port city of Dakar, singer/songwriter Nuru Kane blends gnawa and griot sounds for a uniquely hypnotic sound on "Afrika". Landlocked in Mali, the likes of Samba Touré and Anansy Cissé serenade us with melancholy guitar and ngoni. In Niger, don’t miss the melodic desert blues of Etran Finatawa! -- but everything is neatly, tightly packaged here, with no hassle through customs. What’s more, the travel goes not only through space, but also time with the classic Nigerian psych rock of Sir Victor Uwaifo’s "Ekassa 28".
The long and short of it is that everything here is good, high-quality music. Some of the artists will be very familiar to followers of West African pop music: the aforementioned Sir Victor Uwaifo, for example, and Cameroon’s Sally Nyolo. Up-and-comer Noumoucounda Cissoko’s nimble kora playing leads to rapid-fire verses and lively rhythms on autobiographical "Noumou Koradioulou".
Deeper cuts come from the Bidjoï Sisters, whose call-and-response song "Chantal" was recorded in a tin-roofed studio in Cameroon by Sally Nyolo along with a host of other local groups’ music, and the Bamako School for the Blind, where students perform the catchy, bass-heavy "Farinya Manji". Seprewa Kasa puts the spotlight on the lesser-known Malian seprewa, an instrument somewhere between a harp and a lute that makes for some sweet highlife-roots music on "Adowa (Otanfo)". Hailing from Ghana, palm-wine music superstar Koo Nimo adds a soft, contemplative note to the mix with an acoustic medley the album’s liner notes name in full as "Adowa Palmwine Set: You Will Be Overtaken By Events / Listen, Listen and Listen Again".
Every collection of music grouped by region has its structural flaws upon closer examination, and The Rough Guide to the Music of West Africa is no different. It’s important to recognize that by no means does this album represent every country in West Africa or even a contiguous group of nations. It certainly can’t represent every musical style in even a single country, but it never dwells too long in one place, and each song has a totally distinct flavor. For an album meant to cover such a broad expanse of land and culture, that’s about as good as it gets.
Each new Rough Guides release brings with it comfort and reassurance, and West Africa is no different. There’s no fear of anything sub-par coming through your speakers: you can simply lay back and bask in the music.