Various artists’ The Rough Guides to the Music of Africa, and to Congolese Soukous

Big Earl Sellar wrote this review.

cover art for The Rough Guide to the Music of AfricaI’m thoroughly convinced that no one is entirely sure how many musical genres are floating around Africa right now. These two Rough Guides give a quick glance at some of the music of the continent; one being a general overview, the other an exploration of Soukous, one of the more familiar styles in the West.

The Rough Guide To The Music of Africa is one of those nightmare discs for any compiler to put together: what to put on, what to leave off, and how to work on the often dicey recording quality of African recordings. This disc’s compilers did a very good job, providing not only a disc that a novice would like, but a decent comp for anyone familiar with African music in general. Swinging from maskanda to mbaqanga to more Western-based styles, it covers the map pretty admirably for a single disc. Cheikh Ló’s hot Senegalese pop number “Boul Di Tabgale,” which opens the disc, sets the tune for the first part of the disc: high gear, deep groove dance music. There’s an exhilaratingly beautiful kora (African harp) duet, “Bi Lamban,” from the masters Toumani Diabate and Ballake Sissoko, that made this disc exceptionally worthwhile for me. Unfortunately, the pace slows as the disc goes on, and the Western influences become more prevalent. Miriam Makeba and The Skylarks’ “Yile Ngoan’s Batho,” a 1950s’ piece of South Africans imitating American R&B styles (and, oddly enough, sounding a little like Country Joe and The Fish), was a fairly useless track to include, as is the disc’s closer, Lucky Dube’s utterly pointless “We’ll Find A Way.” (Dube has an amazing back catalogue: why this lame jam is included is beyond me.) But, even given the drab second part of this disc, it’s still quite good overall.

cover art for The Rough Guide to Congolese SoukousThe Rough Guide to Congolese Soukous, on the other hand, is musical dynamite. Soukous, the highlife-styled pop from Congo, is instant party music; a genre few who listen to it dislike. With its heavy, trebly percussion and skanky guitars, it’s a fast paced groove that always brings a smile. This compilation contains all the stars, from Tabu Ley ‘Rochiereau’ from the old school through international stars like Papa Wemba and Kanda Bongo Man to newcomers like Zaïko Lango Langa. Of special interest to me are the older tracks, like the wonderful “Sanga Mbele Mbele” by the trio Thu Zahina. Franco and Sam Mangwana’s hilarious “Cooperation” is one of the best examples of Congolese harmony singing I’ve heard in a long time, and far too short at just over 10 minutes (!). I could go on and on, but I won’t: just buy this disc. It’s perfect.

The usual taglines for all World Music Networks releases apply here. These are compilations from commercial releases: hence, audio quality varies widely from track to track. Given that the majority of these tracks were recorded in mainly dire African studios, don’t expect crisp audio, although most songs are passable. Liner notes are fairly extensive, although they tend to be a little on the “hypey” side throughout. Both booklets contain the usual ads for Rough Guide publications that I always gripe about (I find it really cheapens the packaging). Congolese Soukous is a CD-ROM enhanced with additional information: as always with these enhanced Rough Guides discs, the CD-ROM always interrupts the music as I play it on my computer. (And frankly, it’s not that interesting a read anyway.)

I’m worried with all these Rough Guides in my collection that some World Music snob will view me as somehow “amateur,” given that these are general collections aimed largely at the novice. But Congolese Soukous is simply a righteous disc, an instant audio party: I highly recommend it. The Music of Africa is pretty good too, especially if one trims a few selections towards the end of its running time. I’d recommend both discs for any serious slaves of groove.

(World Music Network, 1999)
(World Music Network, 2000)

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