The happiest five hours I ever spent in mid-air was aboard an Air France jet plugged into their on-board global jukebox. A menu of multiple simulcasts featured three channels entirely dedicated to regional styles of African dance music, including a dizzying array of North African electronica. The new Rough Guide to North African Café reprises that joy with 14 tracks by a multinational selection of artists demonstrating the hybrid vigor and sophistication of Islamic psalmody. Whether performing Moroccan gnawa, Algerian rai, Arab-inflected dancehall, or Latino-inflected shaabi, these guys are creating eclectic beats you can hear booming in hookah bars from Dubai to Loisida. Indeed, the jazzy improvisations riding the digitized rhythms of Smadj’s “Hat” suit such cosmopolitan dives just as well as Tarik’s Franco-Moroccan cover of Edith Piaf’s “La Foule.”
Two similarly exciting antidotes to American insularity are Doubet Gnahoré’s sub-Saharan songbook Na Afriki and Andy Palacio and the Garifuna Collective’s Wátina. Both albums (from New York’s newish Cumbancha imprint) offer compelling vocalists wrapped in seductive melodies and world-class production values. Doubet, from the Ivory Coast, sings protest material in the tribal dialects of many war-torn African nations, just as Miriam Makeba once did. Songs sung in Wolof, Lingala, Dida, or Xhosa interrogate polygamy, incest, and the lust for money, all chirped in a light, silky contralto almost too pretty for such topics.
As for Wátina, the Garifuna people of Belize—descended from runaway slaves—have a language and music that doesn’t sound quite like anything else from Africa or Latin America. Some of their choral harmonies evoke the polyphonic voicings of a kora or balafon. Here, “Lidan Aban” has a prominent reggae influence, while “Gagánbadibá” mimics the propulsive sway of Afrobeat. But Palacio’s acute ear and touch always keep his songs in a category more rhythmically and melodically subtle than either.