Drawn from the broad panorama of Songlines’ 50 best African albums, The Essential African Album scrupulously includes East, West, North, South, traditional and modern music from the giant continent.
There are many ways to do such a compilation. You can do it from a particular angle (e.g. Psychedelic Africa), a particular place and time (e.g. Nigeria 70), a particular style (i.e. afrobeat) or you can try and cover as much ground as possible — as this one does. Songlines is, rightly, a broad church of opinions and its contributors and editor have very catholic tastes so it was inevitably going to be an extensive palette.
Imagine you have two friends who are both into African music. The first has very strong ideas about what is good and what is not and mostly he likes, say, funky stuff. The other friend has an encyclopaedic knowledge of music from across the continent. You ask both to make you a compilation. The first friend makes you a compilation that you love because you love funky stuff — or hate for the same reason. The second one makes a compilation that you love some parts of and have less warm feelings for others. You can take the CD as a starting point to deepen your knowledge of different styles and traditions. The Essential African Album is definitely in this camp.
You will see giants of African music like Youssou N’Dour, Salif Keita, Miriam Makeba, Mory Kanté and Franco. From Franco, we get a true gem ‘Merengue’, a rump-shaking Latin stormer from the King of the Congo recorded when he was but a boy.
The tracks from the other greats are less satisfactory to my ears though as they are drawn from the albums that formed the top 50 African albums — a selection which represented the releases which had the most impact in the West — and were still available to buy rather than the best of the artists necessarily. This is a small quibble though as each track is worthwhile in itself.
We also get a taste of the artists active on the scene today who are familiar to global music fans and have the potential to reach a wider audience. Excellent tracks are included from Rachid Taha, Souad Massi, Tinariwen for example. Of course, the inclusion of artists from North Africa adds a whole range of possibilities and highlights the drift southwards of Arabic musical influences. For my money, these are some of the most successful inclusions on the album and hopefully lots of people will follow these up and discover more about these exciting voices.
It is tempting to pick out other themes from the selection of artists too. Exile and displacement are key themes represented by the lives of Miriam Makeba, Rachid Taha, Tinariwen, Aster Aweke and Souad Massi. Perhaps this is less surprising when one considers that important voices will often incur the wrath of regimes or that the experience of being in ‘two places at once’ lends itself to musical creation.
It is hard to resist playing the ‘What no..?’ game — for example, ‘What no Fela Kuti?’ but I think that is desperately unfair when the vast treasures of African music have to be filtered down to fit on a single CD.
All in all, we get a wonderful selection of tracks and I defy anyone — even the most ardent fan of African music — not to uncover a gem or two that they wish they had discovered for themselves. Accessible, broad and well-informed this is a fantastic resource.
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