By Jacob Katel
By Laurie Charles
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Abel Folgar
By Kat Bein
By Jacob Katel
She's really blurry, too. The lyrics are just too general and disconnected to paint more than the barest skeleton of an image. They're like an imitation of jive talk instead of the real thing. If the music sounds secondhand as well, that's because "Heavy Heavy Heavy" was originally aimed at West Africa rather than the projects. The exuberant eight-minute opus appears on Afro-Rock, Volume One (Evolver/Kona Records), which anthologizes one of the most obscure genres of African pop you're ever likely to encounter.
Influenced by equal parts James Brown and the late Nigerian Afrobeat superstar Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Afro-rock has seldom been heard in the United States before. A lack of decent source material is one of the problems. The liner notes apologize that master tapes for the eleven cuts on the disc weren't available, because those tapes were continually erased and reused by cash-strapped African studios. "All that remains are the worn vinyl copies and now the record on your turntable," writes compiler Duncan Brooker, apparently a victim of memory erasure who forgets that we're listening to a compact disc. But never mind. The sound quality of the songs on Afro-Rock is in fact quite nice, closer to a pristine eight-track tape than a scratchy 45-rpm single plucked from a cardboard box at your neighborhood Goodwill store.
While it's a treat to hear this energetic style at last, brace yourself for a few awful moments. Fela Kuti's immensely popular Afrobeat invention was sort of a mutant stylistic offspring of Ghanaian dance style highlife and the Bay Area funk ensemble Tower of Power. On "Envy No Good," the Mercury Dance Band tries besting Fela with brass blasts that surge into overload and a frog-voice "la la la" stretch of singing better imagined than actually heard. Ishmael Jingo's "Fever" from 1974 gets off to a promising start with an explosive drum break until fingernails-on-blackboard falsetto vocals float another of those seemingly inevitable "way you walk, way you talk" couplets. But that's the worst of it. If you're able to inoculate yourself against funk clichés and an overall ambiance resembling the soundtrack for a chase scene in a 1970s TV cop show, there's a lot to admire here.
From Ghana, K. Frimpong and his Cubano Fiestas succeed with a lighter take on Afrobeat that, despite a certain loosey-goosey ethos to the performance, could stand on its own in almost any African-pop anthology. The 1976 single "Africa" by Kenya's Steele Beauttah is a flute-driven anthem boasting engaging harmonies reminiscent of Black Uhuru during the Puma Jones period. Even the tracks that set your teeth on edge benefit from the joy of hearing superb musicians play ditsy songs with uproarious gusto. Bad is beautiful, and discerning listeners who realize that garishly awful music can be every bit as enjoyable as blander fare from virtuosos will discover that Afro-Rock, Volume One is really good indeed. And really really heavy, too.
For examples of classic African popular music that keep the kitsch at bay, the budget Naxos World label delivers a top-notch anthology of early 1980s music with Electric Highlife: Sessions from the Bokoor Studio. Once amplified instruments replaced brass and reeds by the 1960s and the traditional West African orchestral dance bands teetered on the verge of extinction, the sound of guitar highlife became the instantly recognizable sound of African pop. The first ten seconds of Francis Kenya's "Ensuah Nzema Kotoko" explains the reason why. Flinty guitar lines provide both polyrhythmic grooves and soaring melodies, keyed-up vocalist Kenya shouts and warbles to the encouragement of his supporting singers, a drum kit and hand drums throb in the background, and the incredible intensity never wanes.
Guitar highlife launched international acts like Nigeria's Prince Nico Mbarga and paved the way for Fela's Afrobeat. But back home in Ghana where the genre was invented, a night curfew instituted by Flt. Lt. Jerry Rawlings when he took over the government in 1979 put the kibosh on club culture. Local musicians who had earned a living playing gigs turned to John Collins's open-air Bokoor Music Studio to try to make it as recording artists. The raw, live-to-record sound with almost no overdubs gives the performances an edgy immediacy. Even the rather dippy "Tsutsu Tsosemo" (Old Time Training) by the veteran group Black Beats with stuttering "too-too-too" vocals, roller rink organ, and languid tune easily crosses the fun threshold. Highlife highlights here include Eddie Ansah's chiming guitars on "Mewu Mo Dzi" (I'm Looking on High), the high-pitched instrumental antics of the oddly named Beach Scorpions on the nearly ten-minute-long extravaganza "Friends Today, Enemies Tomorrow," and the wonderfully funky "Yaka Duru" from Collins's own Bokoor Band. This, incidentally, is the perfect companion disc for Collins's 1992 book on West African pop music and the heady days of the Bokoor Music Studio, West African Pop Roots (Temple University Press).