(from The Beat, Vol. 26, No. 1, 2007)

In the early 1950s, I was too young to experience the Congolese music of the day. I was too busy kicking the legs of my highchair. But I did experience my mom singing, as she washed the dishes, "Bongo, bongo, bongo, I don't wanna leave the Congo, oh no no no no no. Bingo, bangle, bungle, I'm so happy in the jungle, I refuse to go."

            Already an impassioned critic, I halted my mother's rendition of the 1947 hit record "Civilization" by the Andrews Sisters with Danny Kaye (written by Bob Hilliard and Carl Sigman) by flinging my strained beets to the floor. Somehow behind my bib I instinctively understood that in contrast to this demeaning ditty, real Congolese pop music of might and power was being hatched even as I contemplated a loud and prolonged howl.

            Proof of my savant abilities lies in the two-disc anthology The Roots of Rumba Rock – Congo Classics 1953-1955, which presents an early wave of Congolese pop from1951-53 just before it became recognizable as the African-Cuban fusion that would conquer the continent.

            But let's get this out of the way, right away. If you value the great vocalists of classic Congolese music, the smooth, soaring voices of Nyboma or Madilu, and can't conceive of rumba without them, you're barking up the wrong branches of the tree. Vocals are pretty rough and tumble and emphasize unison rather than solo performances. And what about electric guitar? If you associate the essential Kinshasa sound with manic arpeggios, from Dr. Nico to Rigo Star, you'll have to go strum a rubber band for a while. This collection isn't about snazzy soloing, either – though on Nganga's "Liwa Ya Nkoko" we hear future legend Franco chopping away at an axe that becomes embarrassingly detuned after vigorous strumming.

            Roots is all about the sheer poetry of invention as the African-derived rhythms of Cuban music – largely experienced in Kinshasa from 78 rpm records of rumbas and beguines by French pop artist Tino Rossi, of all things – were re-appropriated by their Congolese sources, spawning joyous music from Bowane, Liengo, Adikwa, De Wayon, Kalima Pierre and others that is as historically unique as it is eternally infectious.

            Creativity and firsts are everywhere for the taking, beginning with the horse's hooves percussion made by clapping hands near an open mouth on the opening cd tracks from Bowane, to the distorted tones of an early use of electric guitar on Lufungola Alphonse's sax-happy warning against modern traffic congestion, "Prince Baudouin," or the proto-synthesizer tootling contentedly on "Nalekaki Na Nzela," which spins a bubbly narrative about the legal consequences of merely watching a fistfight.

            Although Cuban motifs suffuse the songs, they would become much more recognizable in a few short years. So while you might conceivably mistake a golden-age ditty from, say, Rochereau, as a bona fide son, nothing on Roots has such close similarity, even if Bokalanga's "Mazole Vanga Sanga" includes a musical quote from Moises Simon's Latin mega-hit "El Manicero" (aka "The Peanut Vendor"). And "Belito" by Amba Joséphine illustrates "the interesting interplay between the 4/4 Cuban rumba clave and its probable ancestor, the standard 12/8 cowbell pattern," according to the essential liner notes by song complier Vincent Kenis, producer of the Congotronics cds. Thus, Roots of Rumba Rock may not provide your needed rumba rock fix. But think of it as a tasty aperitif for the intoxicating sounds to come – something a whole lot better than strained beets.

            I can't resist adding that the full story of Congolese music is far more complex and fascinating than what's shoehorned into the liner notes. Grab a copy of Beat-contributor Gary Stewart's Rumba on the River; A History of the Popular Music of the Two Congos for the highly entertaining account of the artists who shaped the music that rocked a continent, and ultimately the world.

            If you're a newcomer to world music and haven't heard the legendary King Sunny Ade before, Gems from the Classic Years (Unmastered) (Shanachie) is a good place to start. If you already own a passel of the Ade albums, you'll still appreciate the spacey vibe and spacious arrangement of 17:49 disc opener "Ori Mmi Maje N'te". It's one of the more cavernous of the King's compositions you're likely to behold, stripped down to a mere two guitars, bass, vocals, and percussion that's understated by Nigerian standards. Listening through headphones is akin to receiving distant transmissions via a space helmet. Sunny's guitar chatters in your right ear, while a second guitar glides and arpeggiates in your left, and the twain never meet in any semblance of a real acoustic space. On 17:52 medley "Nibi Lekeleke Gbe Nfosho" we're also lightyears away from the 'guitar orchestra' African Beats of Ade's Mango/Island label releases of the 1980s, though the two counterpoised leads do develop an impressively dense thicket of notes at times. But ultimately, it's all about the groove – the groove, and King Sunny's sweet as sunshine vocals, of course – as the Beats' beats beat nonstop for 74 minutes, then persist in the head long after that. The juju genre is so unique, one wonders why it hasn't undergone a revival like Fela's Afrobeat.           

            Northern Malian music is some of the most vibrant in Africa due to the confluence of West African and northern 'nomadic' styles. Like his famous father, the late Ali Farka Toure, Vieux Farka Toure sings in the flat tones of the desert wanderers and in the repeating verse structure that some claim to be the taproot of American blues. Vieux's confident style on his self-named World Village-label debut is slightly less rough and tumble than his dad's delivery. The buzz of his voice, the whine of the njarka violin, and sharp guitar tones predominate, but mitigating factors help soften the performances. I'm reminded of Talking Heads' 1978 album, More Songs About Buildings and Food, on which rare snippets of synthesizer legato withstood the staccato note storm.

            "Dounia" is unexpectedly lit by, all things, glockenspiel ornamentation that somehow required the participation of both Eric Herman and Dave Alh. Mamadou Fofana literally howls through his flute for a wild effect that supercharges the restrained flow of "Ma Hine Cocore." And a roly-poly electric organ sound adds warmth to the reggae-induced "Ana," a song far more playful and radio-friendly to western ears than anything Farka Toure senior ever recorded. "Courage" is similarly drenched in pop savvy. The song, which features vocalist Issa Bamba, starts off sounding as if the early '60s Beatles transplanted themselves to Timbuktu. Then the electric guitars and a harmonica-mimicking njarka kick in with killer effect. Kora maestro Toumani Diabate brilliantly ornaments a few cuts, and Ali Farka Toure's gliding electric guitar takes easy charge of "Tabara" and "Diallo." It's an amazing first album, and if this is just Vieux's debut, I can't wait to see what happens when he stretches out.

            I seldom run smack dab into a recording that's as production-perfect as Wátina (Cumbancha) without all the knob twiddling processing out the vitality. But this Belizean-produced disc has power as well as polish. I love how it opens up in flower fashion when I pop on a pair of headphones, revealing bottomless levels of nuance and squeaky clean, satisfying sound. But even under less than ideal conditions, Wátina rules. Once I unplug the ear cans to let Andy Palacio's voice fill the room, although the subtleties may be lost to the hum of traffic, and the squeaks and squawks of our eight pet birds, it still thrills me while spreading joy to the floorboards and furniture, too.

            Garifuna music stalwart Palacio hitches his pliable pipes to hook-filled tunes that pierce the emotive heart of West African traditions, while also burrowing into reggae, French Caribbean and Cuban influences. Producer extraordinaire Ivan Duran, who also plays in the Garifuna Collective musical ensemble supporting Palacio, drenches the songs in memorable arrangements and instrumental touches that make each track distinctive, yet unmistakably part of the whole. It's not just the peppy clave-driven rhythm that sets "Miami" apart from the more meditative tracks, it's a whole complicated ambience thing. A nasal female chorus plays off a mellow electric guitar to distinguish "Weyu Lárigi Weyu." "Baba" kicks off with a riff resembling the opening bars of Compay Segundo's Cuban classic "Chan Chan," only to turn all hymnal in the burnished glow of a French horn texture and Palacio's plaintive, octave hopping voice.

            There's a full year's worth of listening on Wánita, if you plan on taking in the enormity of what's here. Paul Nabor joins Palacio on "Ayó Da," a poignant song that the Garifuna legend wrote some 60 years ago, while "Aguyuha Nidúheñu" (My People Have Moved On) and other tracks interweave the past and future of threatened Garifuna traditions. It's a fantastic recording that makes me thirst for more of Ivan Duran's Stonetree Records releases.

            I've decided it isn't worth the bother reviewing Africando releases. I wore myself out trying to think of superlatives as I listened to the superb Ketukuba (Sterns). It would definitely make my life easier if the singing, songwriting, arrangements and musicianship on this seventh release by the West African salsa maestros (aided by French-based instrumentalists and American-situated percussionists) weren't totally first rate. Why couldn't pianist Efrain Devila stumble on his cool and slippery solo during "Coumba Peul" or honey-voiced lead singer Medoune Diallo fall into a brief sneezing fit, just to provide a low watermark from which to assess the high points? Late vocalist Gnonnas Pedro burns brightly on the title cut, which roughly translate from a Benin dialect as "from the origin to Cuba." His baritone voice exchanges a few pleasantries with Nelson Hernandez's baritone sax in a mid-tempo number fairly bursting with sophistication and Eddie Palmieri-style vibes. It's all too good for words.

            I could have sworn that Sally Nyolo had cornered the market on complex, every-song-is-completely-different releases with multi-layered overdubbed vocals, but I was multi-wrong. From Chilé comes Francesca Ancarola's somber yet buoyant song cycle Lonquén (Maya/Buenacepa), a tribute to Chilean musician Victor Jara, who was murdered by the Pinochet regime shortly after the 1973 coup. Ancarola exchanges call and response parts with herself on the luxuriously kaleidoscopic "Canto libre," while "Lo único que tengo" begins in madrigal mode, turning folksy with acoustic guitar and her clear bell of a voice, before folding back into choral vocals. Other songs are refreshingly simple, like the vocal and upright bass duet on "El lazo" and the straightforward nueva canción of the title cut. Her impressing amalgam of styles draws from folk, Latin pop, sacred, jazz, classical and highbrow genres. She sings with force, finesse and feeling, roping me in from the first few notes without trying to overpower. Sophisticated ain't the half of Lonquén; it packs a velvet-glove emotional punch.

         In the early 1990s, Bulgarian music enjoyed a few moments of popularity, but in recent years the mystere women's choral styles have become obscure again. Enslaved by Ducks reader Betty Turtledove recently sent me a cd by a vocal group she sings with, the Zhena Folk Chorus. The California-based ensemble's Zhena (Zhena) spotlights the classic Rhodope style with its pentatonic melodies, stunning octave leaps and unearthly glissando effects. The mostly a cappella performances are every bit as stirring as the straight-from-Bulgaria releases I remember, which is no surprise, since Zhena has serenaded the Dalai Lama and other visiting dignitaries. In addition to Bulgarian songs, the self-named cd (available from cdbaby.com ) also includes folk songs from other Balkan nations, plus Russia, Turkey and the Ukraine.

         As you might expect from a band called Irie Time, It's About Time (Irie Time) delivers classic reggae stylings free of hip-hop influences or obvious intimations of dancehall. But the Texas-based ensemble's sound is also updated with Scottie McDonald's forceful rather than mellow lead vocal coupled to Greg Brown's up-front, often aggressive drumming. In a '70s reggae mold, the compositions cleave to solid melodies that carry transformational if non-Rasta lyrics plus guitar solos recalling the Wailers' 'Concrete Jungle.' The bypassing of subtleties in favor of the big impact might be thought of as a kind of American branding, though few folks come to Jamaican genres for atmospherics anyway. The taut excitement of 'New Leaf Dub' is as flawless as it gets, to name just one of many fine cuts here, so it's a big, big irie all around.

         I can't decide whether A New Groove (Putumayo) is a celebration or a requiem. On the one hand, this collection demonstrates the creativity of artists in nine countries propagating the seeds of regional music. On the other hand, it illustrates the dilution and mainstreaming of these same styles. But if, say, West African pop flourished under the influence of the rock juggernaut in the '60s, I suppose the hip-hop blip won't exactly flatten world music. As a document of diversity, though, this anthology of tracks from Europe, North America, Australia and Puerto Rico reveals a surprising degree of metronomic monotony, making this an excellent mood sustainer during your next visit to the local opium den. But don't expect these tracks to take you anywhere.

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