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 I’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 Enterprises’ 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 Fiesta’s 1968 recording of “Paquita” and Pepe Kalle’s “Maya” 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 “African” 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 it’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. It’s this cross-pollination, more than anything else, that turns regional songs into world music.
The producers have compiled archival film footage from a variety of sources to create a visual montage for the accompanying DVD. Daily life, festivals, breathtaking scenery, and even a coronation provide a context for the music. From the lush tea fields of Kenya to the sub-Sahara of Ethiopia, each region is as distinct as its music.
The DVD is not encumbered by dialogue. The music and the visuals combine to establish a link between the viewer and the environment. Watching Kenyan fishermen on Lake Victoria utilizing the methods of their fathers to net a day’s catch, or craftsmen using improvised tools to complete a project illustrates the harsh realities of people’s lives in Africa. Here, you realize, survival is not taken for granted and gratitude for simple pleasures is genuine.
As the music plays behind these scenes one begins to understand its importance to the people of this harsh world. Although some of the rhythms and melodies may have tribal origins, and others originate in pop culture, what is important is that the music speaks to the people in terms they can all appreciate.
The booklet included with the collection includes a quote from Nelson Mandela that defines the relationship between Africans and their musicians:
Artists reach areas far beyond the reach of politicians. Art, especially entertainment and music, is understood by everybody, and it lifts the spirits and the morale of those who hear it.
Combined with the National Geographic map, the information in this booklet manages to cover topics as diverse as the political situations in various countries, a who’s who of western musicians who have been involved in African music, and the key players from the continent.
The one area in which this collection is slightly lacking is information about the individual songs. All that is given is the title, artist name, and year of publication. Although some backgrounds can be found in other places in the booklet or on the map, there is no central listing supplying biographical details of all the artists.
Aside from this minor quibbleAfrica, the second release in Palm World Voices’ six part series on world music, is a remarkable achievement. Their objective was to try and create as complete an experience as possible for the purchaser. In Africa they have an unmitigated success.