V/A – The Rough Guide to African Music for Children

This is a delightful album full of great tunes and unexpected variety. More than a thousand primary-school-aged children across London, the Home Counties and Cheshire sifted through African music albums and plumped for hip hop, various traditional forms and a little bit of novelty

Listening to the selection and thinking of my own son’s preference for Fela Kuti (innate), Miles Davis, Britney Spears and The Tweenies (acquired), one wonders what it is in music that triggers such pleasure in children. As adults, we tend to have more mental clutter in the way of what we allow ourselves to enjoy, making small children’s tastes quite fascinating.
Recently, scientists have been trying to discover how music makes man, “More than 30,000 years ago early humans were already playing bone flutes, percussive instruments and jaw harps–and all known societies throughout the world have had music. Indeed, our appreciation appears to be innate. Infants as young as two months will turn toward consonant, or pleasant, sounds and away from dissonant ones. And when a symphony’s denouement gives delicious chills, the same kinds of pleasure centers of the brain light up as they do when eating chocolate, having sex or taking cocaine.” (Norman M. Weinberger, writing in Scientific American, October, 2004).
Although we are barely beginning to scratch the surface of what happens when we listen to music, making predictions about what music children will like is definitely more of an art than a science. I love the idea of children sorting through songs and some crazy tabulation system to filter results from 150 classes. The results are so neatly spaced in terms of geography and styles that one suspects the compilation process was designed to avoid too much of any one type of music though.
If there is a common thread through these tunes, it must be the bass line. Whether the songs are southern, western or East African groovers, a lolloping bass line carries the listener bobbing along through most of the selections. And there is an uplifting quality about many of these songs too and who does not need more joy in their lives?
Take Real Sound’s ‘Tornados vs Dynamos (3-3)’ for example. Thumping bass, instantly recognisable southern African guitar work and a horn section grab you from the start, then add that reliable fixation of boys (football) and you have a winner.
Leaving Zim and heading south, it’s time to wimba-we with the Mahotella Queens’ superior version of ‘Mbube (The Lion)’, possibly the only track on the album that adults might have passed over (but only because we remember the poptastic version ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ complete with loin cloths on Top of the Pops). Small children will associate it with The Lion King.
A bit of high energy from Mabulu (Mozambique) carries the little ones along before they hit the soft, layered harmonies of Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s hit ‘Inkanyezi Nezazi (A Star and the Wiseman)’. More than equal to the task of calming down even the most frantic little rascal.
The stand out track for me though is not a traditional number but the funky, fast and skilful hip hop of Tanzania’s X Plastaz. The lyrics might be in Swahili but the humour and vocal dexterity are obvious. Add a bass line more persuasive than the Pied Piper and some hip hop humming and the whole thing is smokin’ (but in this case smokin’ is good for you).
My advice to parents everywhere then is clear. Buy this CD, dance round the living room with your children to it, then empty your glove box full of Tweenies tapes and Britney Spears and look forward to some music that the whole family can enjoy. You may never have to sing, ‘the wheels on the bus go round and round’ again.
Artists include — Issa Bagayogo, Ricardo Lemvo & Makina Loca, Mory Kanté, Tony Allen & Tweak, Alèmayèhu Eshèté & Shèbèlé’s Band, Kakai Kilonzo, X Plastaz, Real Sounds, JJC & 419 Squad feat. Cherise, Mahotella Queens, Mabulu and Ladysmith Black Mambazo

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