. issue XIV : ii .
. artist : various artists .
. album : free africa .
. year : 2011 .
. label : le son du maquis .
. grade : a plus .
2010 marked the 50th year of independence for 17 African countries, and prompted some superb reissues focusing on the music of the post-colonial period. Sterns’ 18-CD set Africa – 50 Years Of Music deserves all the praise (and little of the nitpicking) that it’s received. At less than a quarter of the price, this French-released 4-disc package is a worthy budget-conscious alternative. It doesn’t have the deluxe booklet, insightful notes, archival photos or crystal-clear audio of its pricier competitor (most of the tracks sound quite good, but a few have clearly been mastered from less-than-mint vinyl copies). But what it does have is 50 historically significant tracks from all across Africa, recordings made from the mid-60’s (Miriam Makeba’s signature “Pata Pata”) to today (a selection from Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba’s breakthrough 2010 album I Speak Fula). Many of Africa’s most famous and important artists are represented – Le Grand Kalle, Mulatu Astatqe, Tabu Ley Rochereau, the Rail Band, Manu Dibango, Etoile De Dakar, Bembeya Jazz, Orchestra Baobab, Alpha Blondy, Salif Keita, Baba Maal, Angelique Kidjo and Amadou and Mariam are all here.
But for me the highlight of this set is the selection of tracks from great artists who are less-known to unknown in the USA and Europe: the stately Mande music of Orchestre National Du Mali (“Janfa”); Togolese singer Bella Bellow, whose selection here is reminiscent of French ye-ye rock (“Rockia”); Ethiopian singer Muluquen Mellesse, less known but no less compelling than his peers Mahmoud Ahmed and Tlahoun Gessesse (“Tenesh Kelbe Lay”); Senegal’s Super Diamono, one of the pioneers of mbalax (“Maaduleen”); Zao, the brilliant satirical singer from Congo-Brazzaville (“Ancien Combattant”); the visionary psychedelic rock of Gambia’s Ifang Bondi (“Xalel Dey Mag”); reggae singer Tiken Jah Fakoly of Cote D’Ivoire, probably the most important politically-oriented musical artist in all of Africa today (“Francafrique”); and Cameroon’s Franck Biyong, whose “Afrolectric” sound is taking Afrobeat in a new direction (“Anywhere Trouble”).
This set is very highly recommended, both as an excellent introduction to African popular music and as the kind of well-curated set that will inspire folks who are already fans to seek out additional sounds. Nicely done.