Various Artists

Safarini: In Transit (Smithsonian Folkways)

Paris, Miami, New York City, Los Angeles. You'd expect to find enclaves of African musicians there. But Portland and Seattle? You bet, and it's not even a new development. Ex-Ghanaian Obo Addy came to Portland in 1975 and his countryman Kofi Anang settled in Seattle three years later, to cite just two examples from Safarini: In Transit. Have these artists adapted to their new environment by performing lumberjack songs or thumping the spotted owl? Hardly. They've kept faith with their cultural roots, especially Lora Chiorah-Dye, whose grassroots take on the Shona traditional song “Nyoka Sumango” (“Snake in the Grass”) comes as a pleasant jolt after the pair of soukous cuts that open this disc. Chiorah-Dye moved to Seattle in 1970 to join her husband, the famed mbira player Dumisani Maraire, who died in 1999. Her band Sukutai recasts the Shona song popularized by Thomas Mapfumo as a deeply textured piece for overlapping voices and seven, count 'em, seven marimbas.Preceding her performance are two hot-wired Congolese-style cuts. The playful “Tcheni Tcheni” (“Don't Worry, Don't Worry”) sets the tone for this optimistic CD with a carefree ditty from the Bobby McFerrin school of philosophy. Rhythmic vocal parts and lovely tenor singing runs reminiscent of classic OK Jazz vocalist Madilu “System” Bialu come from Wawali Bonane, a former member of Tabu Ley Rochereau's Afrisa International, and his dance band, Yoka Nzenze. Ex-pat Kenyan Frank Ulwenya contributes the title cut, a vigorous soukous swirl with close harmony singing and “stay cool” Luya-language lyrics about life away from home.

Also onboard is Kofi Anang with a long instrumental piece mixing giri xylophone and environment sounds in “Ko” (“Forest”), a salute to the pastoral environment of his childhood in a small village in Ghana. Obo Addy adds his trademark multilayer drum and vocal workouts to the disc, first all by his multitrack lonesome on “Amedzro,” derived from a recreational song of the Ga people, and later on an Afro-beat workout backed by a percolating seven-piece band. Each of the artists on Safarini gets two or three chances to show his/her stuff on a solid CD whose first half is slightly stronger than the second. The addition of horns on the back end isn't quite the plus it might have been, but it is still topnotch stuff from the land of Twin Peaks. While bands back in the home country straddle the latest pop bandwagons in hopes of breakthrough success, it's the expatriates who freeze time by playing the musical styles they remember as a way of maintaining cultural links.

 
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