“Current research among naturalists tends to break down any remaining class distinction between animals and man,” began composer William Bolcom’s 1973 liner notes to Animals of Africa: Sounds of the Jungle, Plain & Bush, one of 87 albums Nonesuch released between 1967 and 1984 that comprised the company’s seminal Explorer series of non-Western recordings currently being reissued in geographic batches. “The more we know about the other creatures on our common planet,” Bolcom continued, “the sillier it seems to judge homo sapiens either as superior to all others, as the ancients dreamed, or as the lowest conceivable form of beast, as some of us might suspect today.” The daily paper confirms Bolcom’s suspicion, of course. And three decades of free music have affirmed the utter modernity of the East African leopard snarls, velvet monkey barks, and (personal favorite) wallowing hippopotamus grunts of a release that duck-call virtuoso John Zorn once declared an important, if little-known, influence on New York’s nascent downtown improv scene. These (literal) cats can really blow; but, excepting some terrific wildebeest call and response, they can’t work a groove to save their lives.
You don’t have to look far for that, of course. The remaining dozen discs in the Explorer series’ African drawer survey a world of beats and chants from a time when exploration signified an endeavor somewhat more challenging than Googling for mash-ups. And is ironic the word for the way regional music that took producer David Lewiston 70 pounds of equipment to record can now be captured on a small digital rig—if such music still exists? The Explorer series, for better or worse, arguably marked the endgame of the notion of musical exploration in the 19th-century pith-helmet sense. Music is neither produced nor recorded like this anymore. Yet seeds of the audience taping phenomenon lie in its fetishizing of the real-time, low-fi, one-shot deal. The Explorer’s field recordings bespeak a music minus commodification—at least until it leaves the country.
Explorer’s African sounds are primarily functional, as you might imagine, and include some notable if not quite Riefenstahlian juxtaposing of unfortunate cultural norms and good music. A pair of brief tracks toward the end of 1975’s East Africa: Ritual & Witchcraft Music document the female circumcision rites of Kenya’s Pokot tribe. One records a Native American-like chant with shaken bells that takes place in a smoke-filled hut the evening prior to a girl’s dawn clitoridectomy. The other, a portentous a cappella chant, concludes the night-long ceremony at daybreak. Your heart may break a little, too, during this track that engineer David Fanshawe characterized as “a song of destiny and of courage.”
So much great music created on the horizon of so much suffering. Can we enjoy the minimalist mbira trance grooves of Zimbabwe heard in The African Mbira: Music of the Shona People and The Soul of Mbira: Traditions of the Shona People without recalling the nation’s 1980 independence followed by—and excuse me for getting all Christopher Hitchens here—Robert Mugabe’s lethal regime? Likewise, the driving Burundi beats on Music From the Heart of Africa were recorded prior to the insurrections and reprisals that led to the death of some quarter-million Burundians, mostly Hutus. The Hutu drummers whose regal beats provided Malcolm McLaren with a production hook for both Adam Ant and Bow Wow Wow now perform at the behest of Burundi’s president, Tutsi tribesman Pierre Buyoya—but without a great deal of enthusiasm, one hears.
For all its natural charms, much of the Explorer series’ functionality doesn’t particularly motivate feelings of pleasure or happiness—but it’s not supposed to, either. Bizarrely, the single title that leans in that direction is the 1969 release Ghana: High Life and Other Music, a frankly pop-oriented disc featuring the buoyant “modern” horns, vibes, and guitar of Saka Acquaye and His African Ensemble. The band’s name is a misnomer, however, insofar as the record was actually recorded in the United States and released by Elektra in 1959 as Gold Coast Saturday Night. Its 11-piece lineup contains only two Ghanaians—Saka and (presumed brother) Joseph Acquaye—augmented by some pretty good American jazzmen with an interest in African music.
There have long been two main categories of African music exports, the raw (as exemplified by the Explorer series) and the cooked: i.e., the syncretic, synthetic, and international. But the down-home sounds of tribal Africa, not to mention its fauna, hover in the background of even the most displaced African artists. And it’s old news to laud African musicians for bringing it all back home as part of an arc that usually goes something like this: Locally successful act records groundbreaking international album in Paris (participation by French keyboardist-producer Jean-Philippe Rykiel optional); after a few less-successful French recordings, act retrenches to homeland to record and release an acoustic return to roots and achieves critical acclaim. Repeat as necessary.
Surprisingly, both Senegal’s Youssou N’Dour and Mali’s Salif Keita have new albums that sound both more organic and natural, yet more professionally rendered and acoustically thrilling, than anything either artist has exported in years. And if it’s something like a call to pleasure you want from African music, look no further than Moffou, a serious happiness manifesto that’s easily the most satisfying Keita album since his electrifying 1984 international debut, Soro. The record resembles a suite on the themes of joy and the feminine, with a trio of duets—Keita and a guitar awash in three distinct studio palettes (one echoes, another reverbs)—punctuating densely arranged ensemble tracks his new band knocks out of the park.
Keita performed these three tunes—”Iniagige,” “Ananaming,” and “Katolon”—alone onstage to open his October 13 show at Irving Plaza. From there the evening gradually accrued complexity, ending with a steady procession of supplicants willing to dash off handfuls of bills upon the singer’s head and shoulders in exchange for a hug, quick dance, or, in the case of one believer, a Pentecostal collapse in a fit of ecstasy. And why not? The music was that transportive. Keita’s refined version of Mali griot melodies, sung in his simultaneously imploring and excoriating gritty high tenor, crosses all kinds of borders. A deep calabash alternated rumba, Afrobeat, and Malinke rhythms alongside a djembe and talking drum. Electric guitar, bass, and keyboards gave the music an exuberant dancefloor oomph—though who wouldn’t prefer a real balafon marimba to a keyboard patch? Nevertheless, the show delivered the most exciting Afropop I’d heard since the last time Baaba Maal passed through town.
The hook upon which Youssou N’Dour’s wonderful Nothing’s in Vain hangs comfortably is the singer’s liberal use of traditional Senegalese percussion—the kora, the five-stringed xalam lute, the one-string riti violin, etc.—alongside the electrifying musicians who have accompanied him for two decades. It was produced over a year and a half atN’Dour’s Senegal studio with longtime bassist and music director Habib Faye. Their music is rich, diverse, virtuosic, and, like Keita’s, verges on the orchestral. It is spectacular in a way African music has aspired to be ever since Ibrahim Sylla began producing slick Congolese music with Paris expatriates and sending it home nearly 30 years ago. And it radiates the pop authority N’Dour has long sought, usually through seemingly calculated collaborations with the likes of Peter Gabriel and Neneh Cherry.
Nothing’s in Vain is structured ingeniously so that five tracks devoted to love and the eternal, African feminine form a core around which more traditionally masculine concerns revolve. Both Keita and N’Dour so insistently declare their recognition of the suffering of woman at the hands of man that you have to wonder what inspired them and, more important, what, if any, difference it makes. N’Dour sings about love in three languages, and even a lyrically thin song like “C’est l’Amour” sounds downright skippy in Wolof. His paeans range from the pointillist and propulsive pop mbalax of the track translated as “Because Love’s Like That” (with its casually profound observation that “Love’s so complex that you shouldn’t be too demanding”) to “There Is No Happy Love,” a chanson he croons over an accordion and loping Wolof percussion ensemble.
Few albums this good sound so scrupulously crafted, so balanced between local moods and global tastes. “Heat, Breeze, Tenderness,” the opener, weaves the riti through poetic lines about nostalgia and the seasons, and, with its unusually honest image of curling up in front of the TV, sounds about as African as a poem in The New Yorker. The sort of soaring mbalax N’Dour is usually noted for doesn’t kick in until the third track, “As in a Mirror,” as beautiful and joyous a tune as he’s ever composed. He makes a personal plea for peace in “For Those Displaced” and returns after his love quintet with “Show Your Mettle,” a frolicking, skittering track condemning the abuse of power, which takes off into a tough, upbeat dance.
Nothing’s in Vain ends with “Africa, Dream Again,” which N’Dour performs in Wolof and English with a trio of French ringers. It’s an odd goodbye, bland and cliché in its way, but I can’t imagine the album without it. N’Dour’s and Keita’s intelligent optimism couldn’t come at a more necessary juncture, either, as the beasts howl here, there, and everywhere. As Keita proclaims joyously amid a small forest of percussion in the last line of “Here,” Moffou‘s final song: “Oh my friend, a new sun rises.” Beats waiting for worse.