As a relative newcomer to African music's multifarious pleasures, I find it hard to overcome the images of the continent scorched into my head of drought, blight, and famine thanks to heartrending video montages I saw in the '80s. While I once believed Africa to be but dust and flies, the opening lick from juju master Ebenezer Obey on Lagos All Routes suggests otherwise. Expansive and deep, shimmering yet powerful, Obey's liquid guitar tone on the 10-minute "Eyi Yato/Elere Ni Wa" evokes nothing less than the mightiest river. And so it follows that the rest of these two compilations of Nigerian Afropop overflow with such abundance and fertility.
Neither Lagos All Routes nor Lagos Chop Up (Honest Jon's; astralwerks.com) has room for the two mightiest practitioners of juju and Afrobeat, King Sunny Ade and Fela Kuti, respectively; but while their gigantic shadows loom large over the proceedings, these compilations also show the roots of these men. African popular music blossomed post–World War II with the end of European colonialism and the nascent risings of national independence. Pop music was closely aligned with national identity as traditional tribal instrumentation and folk forms were modernized while simultaneously the foreign strands were Africanized. Juju—born of Yoruba music and employing talking drums mingled with electric instrumentation—is an example of the former while Fela's melding of soul, funk, and jazz to highlife exemplifies the latter.
Two selections from Dr. Victor Olaiya offer insight into how Fela performed his own sonic alchemy. Nicknamed the "Evil Genius," Olaiya not only employed Fela and master drummer Tony Allen for a time, but on "Moonlight Highlife" he concocts a stew tasting of both Ghana and New Orleans, while "Omelebele" has dashes of soul and R&B in its tumultuous mix. As the '70s wore on, Fela's expansive contributions were emulated by groups like the Nigeria Rhythm Band and Shina Williams & His African Percussions.
While Nigerian Afropop remains the most recognizable African style to Western ears, thanks largely to its familiar super-bad James Brown roots, the golden era of African music was widespread. Golden Afrique, two volumes of two-disc overviews (on Network; www.networkmedien.de) culls highlights from Mali, Guinea, Senegal, Ivory Coast, and the Belgian Congo into a handy book full of biographical notes and colorful photos.
If you can't spot the heady tremor of singer Salif Keïta on at least three tracks from Vol. 1, you could easily spot his strikingly pale features on numerous album covers reproduced herein. Born of royal lineage, Keïta was disowned by his family for pursuing music, singing for government-sponsored groups like Rail Band and Ambassadeurs International as he made his way to stardom. Vol. 1 isn't without its own set of international icons, as selections from Senegalese superstar Youssou N'Dour, Orchestra Baobab, and Miriam Makeba appear alongside lesser-knowns.
One such, Idy Driop, understates the Senegalese classic "Yaye Boye" (Mother Dear) with dub-like clops of woodblock, while Orchestre de la Paillotte, in that too-rare instance of an instrumental in African music, offers a haunting tune called "Kadia Blues." Amadou Balaké's "Taximen" recounts a rude and hectic trip, yet the music itself deftly weaves between horns and slack flanges of guitar with a battery of percussion that you'd mistake for the Buena Vista Social Club.
Perhaps the most confounding aspect of Golden Afrique Vol. 2 is the way that Congolese soukous (also known as rumba) sounds uncannily like a Cuban son or merengue. It's not random, though: people brought over to harvest sugarcane during the days of the slave trade influenced the African music in their new homeland. As WWII ended, transmissions of these sons made their way back to the motherland, where they were made African once more.
This second astounding set focuses on two guitar heroes from the Belgian Congo: Franco Luambo Makiadi and Docteur Nico and spans the '50s through the '80s. Franco was also known as Sorcerer, Grand Master, and the Godfather, and was a mountain of a man, while the sleeker Nico was considered the "God of the Guitar." Franco's four tracks are robust codices for the rumba form (see "Double Double"), while Nico's "Pauline" judiciously mixes soukous rhythms with Hawaiian slide and Tijuana brass fanfare. It's true world firstname.lastname@example.org