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Various Artists: The Rough Guide to West African Gold

Various Artists: The Rough Guide to West African Gold

Label:World Music Network
Release Date:2006

By Michaelangelo Matos | Posted 10/4/2006

Anthologies tend to fall under two broad categories: those that summarize what we already know, and those that teach us something we didn’t before. The amazingly consistent Rough Guide series of CDs often falls between the two poles. If you’re a fan of a certain region or style, you’re probably going to get something good, and you’re probably going to find something you weren’t already familiar with. And if you’re new to whatever or wherever a Rough Guide compilation guides you through, you’re probably going to learn something.

That’s how these two excellent volumes work. The Rough Guide to Planet Rock is in some ways the more revelatory of the two, since it provides a nice new definition of "planet rock" that has little to do with Afrika Bambaataa’s electro/hip-hop classic. Instead, compiler Johannes Heretsch, a Berlin world-music DJ, goes for tracks that split the difference between U.S./U.K. rock and indigenous global sounds, a gambit so obvious that anyone who’s heard a quarter of the artists or styles represented will wish they’d come up with it first. Heretsch bookends the mix with a pair of American performers, Cambodian Los Angelenos Dengue Fever and Ukranian New Yorkers Gogol Bordello, and moves all over the place in between. A few cuts feel "rock" only by very tenuous association, like Congolese percussion troupe Konono No. 1--apparently because they use distorted speakers, or were "discovered" by Dutch punks the Ex--and Jewish rappers Hip Hop Hoodios, whose "Kike on the Mic" is one of the most abysmal records you’ll ever do well to avoid. But the rest is very solid, even at its oddest, like a version of "In A Gadda Da Vida" by Tuvan throat singers Albert Kuvezin and Yat-Kha.

There’s an equally novel moment on The Rough Guide to West African Gold: Bembeya Jazz National’s "Whiskey Soda," in which lead singer Aboubacar Demba Camara mimics drunkenness over a simmering, guitar-led Afro-Cuban big-band groove. Camara’s high-pitched laugh, culminating in a hiccup that sounds learned from Sylvester the Cat, provides one of the funniest and most unexpectedly musical minutes anyone’s reissued all year, and it’s hardly the only highlight here. West African Gold is one of the Rough Guide’s sharpest entries, primarily covering the ’50s through the ’70s. Plenty of this has been easily available for a while, like the blissful highlife of E.T. Mensah’s "Ghana-Guinea-Mali" and "The Lord’s Prayer," by Ghana giants Super Sweet Talks International. But plenty of it hasn’t--"Whiskey Soda" isn’t on Bembeya Jazz’s two-CD Syliphone Years, for instance. Meaning that even die-hard fans of West African music will learn something, and that anyone with ears will find the disc’s sequencing to die for.

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