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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Acoustic Africa

Acoustic Africa

Since its introduction in Africa in the early 1940’s, the electric guitar has been a vehicle for musical innovation that has spawned many different types of African popular music. The intense guitar-driven sebenes of Luambo Franco’s symphony-length compositions, the restive mbira-transposed chords of Thomas Mapfumo’s Chimurenga, and Djelimady Tounkara’s kora-based “Manding Rock,” are all evidence of the guitar’s adaptability to local musical penchants. Acoustic Africa, a compilation release by the Putumayo music label in September, celebrates the impact of the acoustic guitar on African popular music, by showcasing the works of popular artists such as Benin’s Angelique Kidjo, Mali’s Habib Koite, Congo’s Lokua Kanza, and South African Vusi Mahlasela. The compilation also features the work of lesser-known but equally talented artists such as Eneida Marta from Guinea Bissau and Gabriela Mendes from Cape Verde.

Throughout the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, the electric guitar dominated popular music compositions in many parts of Africa. Soukous, high-octane dance music from the Democratic Republic of Congo epitomized this dominance. The sebene, the climax of a classic soukous composition, consisted of lengthy guitar virtuosos conjugated by the screams of the animateur. Manding Rock, Mali’s popular fusion of traditional sounds (praise singing and western sounds) initially included long and elaborate solo outings, which hung heavy with monotonous guitar riffs. Since the mid 1990’s, a shift in the balance in favor of the acoustic guitar is evident. Avatars of this new dispensation include Lokua Kanza, Habib Koite, Rokia Traore, Henry Dikongue and Vusi Mahlesela. These artists have exchanged the boisterous intemperance of the electric guitar for the earthy cool of the acoustic, creating music girded by minimalist instrumentation and lyrics, which resist cultural labeling or stereotyping.

Music from Africa, so-called “World Music,” is becoming more popular in America. Nothing typifies this interest in African music better than the proliferation of African music compilations in American music stores. Putumayo Records has been a leader in this field and its most recent release, Acoustic Africa, show us the reason why. The compilation, which revolves around the Southern, Central and West African musical orbits, features twelve solid tracks. Malian, Habib Koite is featured in “Baro” from his critically acclaimed album released in 2001 of the same title. Koite’s mastery of the guitar on this track is offset by his singing. With the exception of an exuberant talking drum, “Baro” is a pretty mellow song. South African singer Vusi Mahlesela’s alto leaves a lasting impression on “Basimanyana”, which combines superb guitar play, and call and response singing between the lead singer and chorus. “Vusis, Bana”, a track dedicated to children everywhere, is a collaboration between Congolese singers Lokua Kanza, Faya Tess and Tabu Ley Rochereau. It embodies the cadence of salsa and is sung in Lingala, a dominant language in the Democratic Republic of Cameroon. The artists take turns singing a verse each, as the other retreats to the chorus. The call and response patterns, which characterize the entire track, are solid, and the vibrations emanating from Lokua’s acoustic guitar are unforgettable.

Senegalese singer Laye Sow makes a forceful showing in “Mauritania”. Sparse blues-influenced arrangements on this track allow plenty of room for Sow’s raspy voice to flourish. Djelimady Tounkara, a founding member of the venerable Malian band, Super Rail Band de Bamako, and one of Africa’s most prolific guitarists is the composer of “Fanta Bourama”. The track opens with a lilting guitar virtuoso, accented by a gist of flamenco and splatterings of kora chords, that Tounkara deftly coerces from his acoustic guitar. The solo, which meanders along for a quarter of the track, retreats when the chorus steps to the fore. Halfway through, the track veers decidedly towards traditional kora music, as the call and response intensifies. In “Palea”, Dobet Gnahore’s soothing voice conjures painful images of Ivory Coast’s rapid decline into a senseless civil war. “Palea” embodies the musical proclivities of the Bete and Baoule ethnic groups of Ivory Coast, but is also infused with a good dose of Makossa, Cameroon’s dominant afropop strain. A solid compilation all the way.

The Acoustic Africa tour, aimed to promote the compilation, will perform at the Somerville Theater, located at 55 Davis Square, Somerville, Ma, on November 17. The performance, which will begin at 8pm, features Habib Koite, Vusi Mahlesela, and Dobet Gnahore. I will be there and you should be too.

Some of the proceeds from the sale of Acoustic Africa, according to Putumayo’s Press Release on the tour, will be donated to Mercy Corps to support its AIDS campaign, and its humanitarian work with refuges in the civil war in Darfur, and to Oxfam America’s “Make Trade Fair” campaign to improve trade conditions for African countries.