When Palm World Voices, headed up by former Island Records head honcho Chris Blackwell, announced a series of boxed sets celebrating world music, I have to admit my reaction was rather muted. Although the premise of mixing music, visuals, and cultural information was promising, I had my doubts about their abilities to deliver.
Well, if the second release, Africa is anything to judge the rest of the series by then you may want to mortgage the house if need be. No matter what they cost this series is going to be indispensable for those with any interest in world music. The only problem Iâ€™m having is trying to figure out what to lavish praise on first.
Aside from a few minor quibbles, Africa is a spectacular release from packaging to content. What you get is a compilation CD of a wide representation of African musical styles, a DVD that places the songs against a cultural backdrop, a beautifully illustrated information booklet, and a National Geographic map that provides historical and geographical references.
A collection like this will only be as good as its choice of music. Luckily for them, and us, they have the whole Universal Music Enterprisesâ€™ back catalogue to draw upon. Some names, like King Sunny Ade of Nigeria and Baaba Maal of Senegal, will be recognised by a wider audience, but others may be less familiar. African Fiestaâ€™s 1968 recording of â€śPaquitaâ€ť and Pepe Kalleâ€™s â€śMayaâ€ť are two songs and artists completely new to me.
One thing that becomes abundantly clear on listening to this disc is there is no such thing as â€śAfricanâ€ť music. Listening to the music, the instruments and styles differ radically from country to country, the same as they would on any continent. Would you lump Quebecois music in the same category as Mexican? This CD makes it clear that itâ€™s equally ridiculous to lump Senegalese and South African music together.
Spread out the included National Geographic map and see the different musical instruments that have come from each nation. From the Mbira (thumb piano) of Zimbabwe, the Hoddu (a small three to five stringed precursor of the banjo from Senegal), to the more widely known Djembe drums of West Africa, the instruments are as varied as the peoples.
Of course, none of the artists have escaped the influence of other forms of music. While our pop musicians have borrowed freely from Africa, the influences of reggae, latin, the blues, and even country can be discerned in the music of the newer performers. Itâ€™s this cross-pollination, more than anything else, that turns regional songs into world music.