Agony Shorthand

Tuesday, August 12, 2003

Or, “Agony Shorthand discovers Africa”. And musically, over the past year of two I’m beginning to find that it’s quite a place. Prediction: African 60s and 70s music is soon to be the new dub, the new tropicalia, the new krautrock – whatever it is that people move on to when they’re bored with rock and roll, and ready to leap into wild foreign sounds from what some might argue was the heyday of recorded musical innovation (the 1960s). Some Soul Jazz-like label is going to swoop down and package up compilations of the most mind-blowing rare 45s and EPs of African sounds, and in so doing become the standard-bearer in what is now a sea of disparate, extremely limited European-only releases (maybe Afrodisiac Records from the US?). These two compilations couldn’t be more different – one a wacky testament to the power of Afrobeat, the African interpretation of American soul and funk, the other a full-bore tour of the natural, likely centuries-old music of Guinea. Let’s take a look, shall we?

1995’s “MONEY NO BE SAND” focuses on new, mostly 1960s, interpretations of traditional Nigerian and Ghanaian “highlife” in the wake of those countries’ discovery of JAMES BROWN and other American soul music. It’s a blast, and doesn’t completely hue to any one form or another. Calypso, straight-up funk, rock, and wailing, polyrhythmic African highlife are all well represented here – with a strong undercurrent of Mr. Brown throughout. Looks like you can’t overstate the impact he had in these two countries, at least, and the 1958-1971 timeframe represented here roughly correlates with his peak hit-making years in the US. Again, that’s not the whole story. The highlights are CHARLES IWEGBUE & HIS ARCHIBOGS' tough title track as well as their swinging “President Tubman” and the PROFESSIONAL BEACH MELODIANS’ aptly-titled “Shake It”. You’ll find a lot to groove to in this one if you can track it down.

By contrast, the rambunctious 2000 compilation “SYLIPHONE 40 EME ANNIVERSAIRE: GUINEE VOLUME 1” (Syliphone celebrates the 40th anniversary of Guinean independence) is as authentically heart-of-Africa as I comes. I don’t have a good handle on when this music was recorded, but let it be said that there are virtually no American or rock influences anywhere. It’s pure Guinean syncopated rhythm and choral chanting, with lots of bells, horns, cymbals and traditional African instruments. There are soaring choruses full of boisterous children – or perhaps it’s more accurate to say children of all ages. My favorite here is the super-uptempo “Nina” by BALLETS AFRICAINS and “Kogno Coura” by PIVI ET SUS BALLADINS, which has such a laid-back, warm Caribbean feel to it you’d be forgiven for thinking it was Cuban (my limited, uh, academic research in this field has told me that around the 1930s and 40s there existed a huge cross-cultural pollination between Cuba and parts of Africa). After maybe 60 minutes straight of this I’ll ethnocentrically admit to wanting to deplane from Africa for a while; the percussion and foreign-tongue babbling is relentless and best absorbed by the newcomer in limited doses. I’m planning to get re-involved soon; these are definitely two great comps that’ll help get you introduced to distinct shades of the African musical palate.