various artists,
The Best of Africa
(Universal, 2005)

As presumptuous as it may seem to claim to have captured the best music of an entire continent on a single CD, The Best of Africa is a strong and reasonably diverse collection with many of the most influential African pop musicians of the latter part of the 20th century represented. Fela Kuti, King Sunny Ade, Salif Keita and Youussou N'Dour are each present and accounted for. There are also a couple of the superb collaborative ventures that are seeing African instrumentation wedded to western musical styles; Baka Beyond and Afro-Celt Sound System are both represented here. But where are Oliver Mtukudzi, Hugh Masekela, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Lucky Dube and Miriam Makeba? Surely the picture of Africa's musical diversity is far from complete without hearing from each of these musicians, and many others besides.

Of course, any significantly more inclusive compilation wouldn't fit the neat format that Universal Music has put in place for their wide ranging, discount series of CDs known collectively as 20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection. The Best of Africa is just one of hundreds of discs that Universal has lobbed onto the market to highlight the work of a vast smorgasbord of musicians including The Who, Abba, Patsy Cline, Peter Tosh, Dinah Washington and ... Raffi. And, if it's completely unreasonable to attach the name The Best of Africa to any 12-song compendium (there are approximately 50 countries on the continent), then what we do have here is a delightful taste of the pop music of a handful of those countries.

From Cameroon: Manu Dibango's breakthrough track "Soul Makossa" (1973), which charted around the globe during the disco craze, is the oldest track included on the disc. Nigeria: Fela Kuti's 12.5-minute extravaganza "Zombie" (1977) is certainly lively enough to rouse the dead and get them dancing. The hyperactive horn section tag teams on this track, driving the song along over a relentless drum and guitar rhythm bed. It's more than five minutes before Kuti steps up to the microphone to demonstrate that he can easily match the energy level established by his backing band. Kuti was perhaps the most important popular musician in Africa during his lifetime, challenged for that title only by Hugh Masekela and fellow Nigerian King Sunny Ade.

Ade is represented here by the 1982 track "Ja Funmi," drawn from his first Island Records recording Juju Music. It's immediately apparent how the improved recording technology that came along with western music industry interest significantly impacted the modern African sound. "Ja Funmi" is a wonderfully crisp recording that allows the listener to appreciate the layers of instrumentation that are the hallmark of Afrobeat music. Ade's 20-piece band, the African Beats, construct an intricate, hypnotic, percussive accompaniment that powers the music along beneath the bandleader's relaxed vocal style.

All of the remaining tracks on The Best of Africa are drawn from the 1990s, the period after Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon and WOMAD began directing the attention of many more western ears to Africa's musical riches. Among my favorite tracks is Angelique Kidjo's manic, middle-eastern flavored "Shango." With it's aggressive electric guitars and rock-influenced drum track trading punches with raga dance beats, this track is the sort of perfect hybrid that'll be revered by proponents of world music. On the flip side of this same coin, the UK musicians at the core of Baka Beyond found the "Spirit of the Forest" in a Baka chant and overlaid it with distinctly non-African acoustic guitar and violin melodies to create their own composite musical form.

There's some wonderful guitar work in Ali Farka Toure's "Karaw." Toure is known for blurring the lines between the music of northern Mali and American blues. "Karaw" is certainly more spare and "bluesy" than many of the tracks on The Best of Africa, but the song is absolutely African in its percussion and background vocal arrangements. The final song I'd like to spotlight is Youssou N'Dour's "Leaving (Dem)." N'Dour's collaborations with Peter Gabriel, Neneh Cherry and others have helped bring the music of his native Senegal to such a broad audience that he was named African Artist of the Century by Folk Roots Magazine. At the same time, N'Dour has been criticized at home for his explicit popularization of Islamic religious music. And I must admit there's a slickness to the production of this song that seems to sap some of the life from the recording. The vocal is excellent and the guitar lead has real energy, but most of the other instrumentation, particularly the horns and drums, feels muted and dull compared to the songs that surround it.

The Best of Africa is well worth picking up, especially given its very reasonable cover price. Let's just hope that Universal Music realizes that they've short-changed the continent and will remedy the situation with another couple of equally strong collections of African music.

- Rambles
written by Gregg Thurlbeck
published 3 September 2005