Throughout the 1980s, African pop styles—some generations old, some invented last season—came in a stampede. Everything from mbaqanga to mbalax, juju to zoukous to bikouts, rushed through Western ears. Supposedly, this was the international payoff for a long musical gestation. The backlog of well-tested star players had built at an accelerated pace in sub-Saharan Africa since the first optimistic days of postcolonialism. But the Afropop explosion no more shattered bedrock economics than the e-commerce boom 15 years later. The logistics of good-sized international tours never got easier, the possibility of turning a profit never got closer. Nowadays, venture capital for world music has shrunk to match expectations, from Chris Blackwell promoting King Sunny Ade as the next Bob Marley to Putumayo and Rough Guide anthologies that envision Afropop as a tidy clothing or travel accessory. But foreign performers who fail to make it in America keep on keeping on. Just as in country or arena rock, there are African performers with the ability to sustain, even renew, venerable modes and band-institutions. In 2001, it’s craft-savvy conservatives who are releasing the most vital Afropop records.
When Ghana’s E.T. Mensah brought highlife music to Nigeria in the early 1950s, he set off a mania. Highlife’s electric guitars excited as much as its translated Cuban rhythms and jazzified arrangements, and the style’s cosmopolitan concept clinched the seduction: “highlife” was the name fans who couldn’t afford to get in bestowed on this music of ballroom swells. The ambitious 22-year-old Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe became a believer in 1958. Six years later he founded his own band, the Nigerian Soundmakers International, and he’s stuck to his lilting guitars and soft-spoken saxophones right through his nation’s infatuations with juju, fuji, reggae, and civil war. But like all the classic highlife groups—in fact, like his whole country since juju’s shortfall—he has gotten only the barest hearing in America. Recently, however, the Indigedisc label has reopened Nigeria with a series of intelligent, consistently packaged releases. Despite his sterling one-off Kedu America (Xenophile, 1996), recorded during a low-profile U.S. tour, Osadebe’s catalog of 500 songs has remained an enigma until the new Sound Time (Indigedisc) appeared with samples of work from 1970 to 1985.
Highlife—even the Nigerian version, with its passion for heavier guitar—generates a fire-in-restraint not unlike that of the Buena Vista Social Club’s faded-nightclub boleros and sones. Particularly on Kedu America, Osadebe’s voice rustles with the parchment charm beloved in Ibrahim Ferrer. Osadebe was holding out against the forces of fashion even on the earliest Sound Time material, and the shiny confidence of an enlightened one performing the truth with his troops comes through. As a compact sax soliloquy follows a snappy percussion interlude and is then succeeded by one of the leader’s ruminative half-chanted verses, the Soundmakers International never let your attention flag and never lose their buoyancy, though they understand tears. If you are a faithful flock, Chief Osadebe will lead you; if you are a generous fan, he will even write you a praise song.
The band offers the jauntiest imaginable tribute to the members of a sports club in “Nri Sports Di Uso,” and the tune that features the line “Please if you have a big mouth try to shut up” is the tersest one. Form and message blend best, however, in “Makojo.” Here, the wah-wah guitar has none of the aura of electronic alienation common in ’70s rock. Instead, it rolls on like a long birdcall under the clipped exhortations of a second guitar. A horn phrase steps in with Ellingtonian élan, matched only by a modulated purr translated as “No matter how bad we must live/No matter how much it rains, it must stop raining.” And no matter what the temptation, or the latest thing, Osadebe will glorify highlife for you. Or at least you believe that until the number ends.
Understated as Osadebe is, he is nevertheless the Soundmaker who counts. By contrast, Malian master guitarist Djelimady Tounkara had been the everyday director of the almost too venerable Super Rail Band for decades without ever making the group synonymous with himself. But Tounkara has recently built himself into a marvel on record for the first time in 30 years of playing. First, he enjoyed the luxury of a full portrait in a Western book, Banning Eyre’s In Griot Time. When Eyre detailed Tounkara’s stage wattage, his idiomatic command of styles from flamenco to French pop, or his claim that he spent most of the ’70s perfecting his touch on a single riff, the words were too vivid to deny. But this Tounkara seemed hard to connect with the player in the Super Rail Band catalog.
Malian bands developed a simultaneously starker and lacier variant on Zairean rumba in the late 1960s. For audiences unconcerned with how well the subsidized group was fulfilling its mandate to promote national music culture, the Super Rail Band was a vehicle for lead singers, first Salif Keita and then Mory Kante. Ears less attuned to the bandleader’s Manding eloquence heard more Fela/JB sass from Bembeya Jazz National across the border in Guinea. Of the two Super Rail Band albums released here in 1982 and 1990, the earlier New Dimensions in Rail Culture (GlobeStyle) was flat and cluttered with horns, and though in retrospect Tounkara sliced through his cocoon on Super Rail Band de Bamako (Indigo), it was easy to slight as another suave soukous rip. Then the Rail Band fell into a long silence recordwise, punctuated by reports the outfit was aging, losing steam.
But shazam—the foxy mover and shaker of In Griot Time comes to life faster than a speeding plectrum on the Super Rail Band’s recent Mansa (“king”) and finally throws down the six-string challenge he always had in him on the acoustic Sigui (both Indigo), due this September. Scooting away from the brink, the Rail Band has toured America this summer (see sidebar), and Tounkara might return for a solo swing in the fall. It’s preservation as rebirth. The spacious, unhurried, alert arrangements of both albums show the influence of recent releases by Baaba Maal and Youssou N’Dour, a suggestion that the synthesizer overload of recent years is done. Plugged in or not, Tounkara uses longer guitar phrases, frames his dramatic shifts brashly, and converses hard in a forthright guitar tongue that’s gained rhetorical heat since his early days. Second only to the calmly audacious raga-drone introduction to “Dounia,” the craggy melody and hypnotic coherence of the title track on Mansa crown the album—pretty catchy for a praise song. Tounkara gets the Afro-Hispanic fusion that Africando only promises on Sigui, and if the album never regains the eerie poise and beyond-white-light clarity of the first two numbers, “Mande Djeliou” and “Gnima Diala,” those sound like the start of the most gorgeous acoustic album ever recorded. Now it’s possible to believe Djelimady Tounkara will grace us with the rest of it someday.
Click here to read Robert Christgau’s review of a Super Rail Band live performance.