When it comes to musical styles, there is beauty in purity. Traditions lasting a century (eg. jazz) or many centuries (eg. West African drumming) accrue value through generations of musicians adding to a common style. As time progresses, the music experiences gradual change.
There's also virtue in cross-pollination. As time has passed, jazz has absorbed many other forms of music, from European classical to funk, and as a result it has become more diverse, more dynamic, and more versatile.
West African music has an interesting cultural history, which brought it through several rapid changes in the last century. As European colonists assumed control, they brought their musical culture with them: church vocals, marching band music, and small group music. The African colonists could not help but assimilate these changes in instrumentation and style. Centuries-old traditions began to fray and blend.
Perhaps the most exciting change in West African music happened during the '50s and '60s, when New World music bounced back through sea trade and radio broadcasts. Cuban music and jazz in particular resonated in countries like Senegal and Ghana. This cross-fertilization gave birth to a number of brand new styles: highlife, juju, and (later) Afrobeat. Each one had its own flavor and its own influences, and each one told a different cultural story.
These three reviews focus on recent records which reflect the blending of American, Cuban, and other Caribbean music with traditional West African styles. The offspring of these matings are quite different and quite beautiful.
Specialist In All Styles
Hot on the heels of the recently reissued 1982 classic Pirate's Choice, Orchestra Baobab recently re-formed to deliver an update to its signature Afro-Cuban sound. Unlike music of the same name which comes from the diaspora traditions of Cuba, Baobab goes at it the other way around. Whereas traditional Afro-Cuban music reflects the West African roots of the Cuban people, this version arose from a direct reflection across the Atlantic. During the '50s, Caribbean music hit hard in Senegal and Ghana. Claves, timbales, and maracas became standard fare during the birth of Highlife music. Musical forms changed; new harmonies and vocals reflected this cross-cultural pollination.
In the '80s, Orchestra Baobab was the most popular band in Senegal. Its music was fundamentally affable.
Those Senegalese roots refuse to die, and that's what gives this music its characteristic color. West African guitar styles, born from highlife, criss-cross and intersect in a decidedly rhythmic fashion. The vocals, which quite frequently veer into Buena Vista Social Club territory, still retain a folk element. Senegalese singing has a certain level of intensity, a certain minimalist searing energy, which can never be sublimated. You can't listen to "Ndongoy Daara" without feeling you've come close to vocalist Assane Mboup's heart. No way.
That said, Specialist In All Styles has an unswerving sense of raw celebration. Each tune, whether salsa or son or another flavor, begs the listener to get up on his feet and dance. Even the protest tune "Ndongoy Daara" has a fresh, lilting feel. Ten minutes later, the massive "El Son Te Llama" brings guajira into a direct collision with mbalax, and in the process comes right down to roots. Pure groove. With "Gnawoe," you find yourself somewhere between the island and Veracruz, easy guitar solos connecting the dots. But don't look here for extended improvisation; the spirit of thie music is pure dance.
For a band that's been dormant so long, this awakening is a welcome event. Great music often comes from a collision of styles, and more than four decades after Cuban music hit Senegal, the mixture remains at a boil.
In the aftermath of Fela Kuti's highlife-jazz-funk invention called Afrobeat, few groups have come close to the freshness, energy, and poignancy of his work. One reason is logistical: it can be hard to keep a large group together long enough to develop a coherent voice. Another reason is the cultural barrier that can prevent Western musicians from penetrating the inherently African sound of Fela's music. Finally, it seems impossible to build a critical mass without invoking some sort of collectivist mentality. Even though Afrobeat's inventor was a leader of the highest order, his band retained a looseness that made every voice equally important.