Compilations: Mali, Ghana, Nigeria

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The whole scene used to be more obscure. It took a long time for most African artists to gain recognition outside their home turf. With time, attention from the recording industry, and an explosive expansion in general interest, Western listeners have come to appreciate the incredible diversity of styles from the continent. Certain African musicians have even become international stars—Youssou N'Dour, for example, has a massive following in Europe and a respectable audience in the US.

With all this expansion and transformation comes a certain amount of bewilderment among novice listeners. Where to start? How to know which musicians or styles will be the most exciting? Those are hard questions, and without investing a lot of time and cash they can be hard to answer.

That's where this month's collection of music comes in. Each one represents a sampler of many recordings, a way to peek into many worlds all at once. The first, from Malian blues veteran Boubacar Traoré, encapsulates many high points from throughout his career. (The artist personally chose these tracks, which is a real bonus.)

The next disc focuses on Nigerian highlife—easy, uplifting music—with special focus on the most influential artists in the genre. These tracks were culled from Nigeria's own Permier Music. Finally, a collection of '70s music from Ghana delves into all the nooks and crannies that developed when highlife morphed into a thousand flavors of funk and jam. This disc offers the greatest diversity of sounds and brings a number of obscure artists to light.

Boubacar Traoré
Best of Boubacar Traoré
Wrasse Records
2003

To the extent that bluesmen from Mali have reached worldwide prominence, the leader of the pack is Ali Farka Toure. Partly as a result of his Ry Cooder collaboration Talking Timbuktu, he has attracted a surprisingly large audience.

But close behind is Boubacar Traoré, who was a big radio star in Mali in the '60s. A number of starts and stops in his career (related to family, money, and travel) derailed him along the way, but in 1994 he finally made his first recording. Mariama drew attention to his understated lyricism, and within the next decade four more records followed. Now 61 years old, Traoré has begun to receive the attention he deserves. And thus this compilation, a well-paved road into the master's music.

Like most West African string players, Traoré finds himself deeply rooted in the music of the kora, a harp-like instrument which has been at the center of the region's musical tradition for centuries. It's curious to hear how he adapts the open tonalities of that instrument to his guitar and the blues. The opener, "Bebe Bo Nadero," relies mostly on vocals to maintain its simmering energy. Traoré has that rare sixth sense found only in veteran blues players, knowing how to milk the most emotion out of simple phrases. A few earthy vocal harmonies and some light percussion round out the piece.

One of the songs that made Traoré a national radio star in the '60s was "Mali Twist," borrowed here from a sampler that was never released. Its busy, detailed stop-and-start guitar underpinnings follow a regular cycle and transform the piece into a virtual chant. That makes some sense. "Macire," which comes next, has a strong roadside blues flavor. The unison violin notes that emphasize the melody smoothen out the more rugged tone of Traoré's guitar and voice.

As listeners become more familiar with this material, they will come to understand that the blues convention of the 12-bar form is but one way of getting to its heart. Boubacar Traoré might not follow this American formula, but he has no trouble communicating the deepest essence of the blues. And that's not a common thing in this small world of ours.



Various Artists
The Kings of Highlife
Wrasse Records
2003

Around the time highlife was born in West Africa, horns were fading out and the guitar was assuming their place as the most popular lead instrument. The earliest highlife was a variation on the big band concept, with an enlarged rhythm section and brief instrumental solos spaced between well-harmonized themes and vocal passages.

As time went on, the genre diversified and went through many changes. This compilation does a nice job of representing some of the biggest names from these phases of Nigerian highlife, each with his own approach to the music. It comes to us from Lagos's Premier Music label via Wrasse Records (UK). A long road indeed for these Kings.

Remember that this is popular music, dance music, not the kind where instrumentalists travel long roads through many changes of key. Highlife keeps it real simple.


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