Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing email@example.com.
Geek obsession: Vintage Afro-pop
Why it’s daunting: African pop encompasses dozens of styles, hundreds of artists, thousands of recordings, and of course any number of foreign languages. There are many reasons to take the plunge, but almost as many reasons African pop tends to make inroads among American music lovers only via well-known performers like Paul Simon. Granted, the Nigerian Afrobeat of Fela Kuti (and his sons Femi and Seun), with its feet in American jazz and funk and pidgin English lyrics, and the entrancing Zulu a cappella chorale Ladysmith Black Mambazo (via Simon’s Graceland) have made their mark, and the knotty, Arabic-tinged Ethiopiques series has become something of an indie-rock staple. But with the boost provided by the passel of Fela reissues from a decade ago, and with a number of excellent compilation series currently available—not to mention those from the ’80s and ’90s, most sadly out of print—there are any number of ways to dip one’s toes into an immeasurably rich area, especially for those who like complex beats and guitars going every which way. And no, there isn’t any one kind of “Afro-pop”—it’s shorthand. To hear the best of it is to want to get more specific quickly enough.
Possible gateways: The Indestructible Beat Of Soweto (Earthworks, 1985); Golden Afrique Vol. 2 (Network, 2005); The Best Best Of Fela Kuti (Barclay/Universal, 2000)
Why: These three compilations beautifully lay out three of the continent’s important pop sensibilities. The Indestructible Beat Of Soweto introduced many Anglophone fans to the stirring, hard-loping township jive (mbaqanga) that ruled apartheid-era South Africa; it’s one of the all-time great compilations, moving like a single thing up to the a cappella Ladysmith hymn that ends it. Every song is great. Repeat: every song.
That’s true also of the two-CD Golden Afrique Vol. 2, which focuses on classic-period Congolese music from the ’50s to the early ’80s, including four cuts featuring the grand maître of the area’s Cuban-based rumba, Franco, whose quicksilver guitar playing was enormously influential and still evokes a liquid-mercury sonic fireworks show.
The Best Best Of Fela Kuti, meanwhile, does the impossible by summing up a singular performer who liked his songs to jam on out to a half-hour or more. There are a number of edited versions here, but the total effect is so enormous, it’s impossible to feel cheated while it’s playing.
Next steps: A good rule of thumb about World Music Network’s Rough Guide series is that if a title looks especially good, it almost always is. There have been dozens of titles in the 15-year-old series, but a handful of African-themed titles—namely the collections Congo Gold, West African Gold, Highlife, The Music of Ethiopia, and South African Gospel, in about that order—are especially consistent and well programmed. And they do right by individual artists: see the volumes on Senegal’s Youssou N’Dour & Étoile de Dakar (his first band, late-’70s/early-’80s vintage, featuring some of the hottest rhythms ever devised and N’Dour in his unreal vocal prime), Franco (more below), and the Soul Brothers (South African giants).
For those who love Indestructible Beat, there are five sequels of varying quality that bring things up to the late ’90s, but grab the prequel, The Kings And Queens Of Township Jive: Modern Roots Of The Indestructible Beat Of Soweto (Earthworks, 1991). It’s stuffed with wondrous ’70s tracks that are friskier than the early-’80s titles on the first Indestructible, including West Nkosi’s “Chillis 500,” which features the greatest wah-wah guitar this side of Isaac Hayes’ “Theme From Shaft.” If you crave more Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Shanachie’s Classic Tracks is the place to start.
There are dozens of Fela Kuti albums; after The Best Best, go for 1976’s historic Zombie (the title track viciously mocks the Lagos government and helped lead to Kuti’s arrest, one of many) and especially the twofer CD containing Confusion and Gentleman, mid-’70s titles showcasing him at his leanest.
Congolese guitar music from the ’50s to the ’80s—rumba, or as it was known for a time, soukous—may be the most purely gorgeous pop style ever devised. Franco and his band OK Jazz provide the style’s motherlode, and there’s a terrific Rough Guide volume devoted to him, as well as the confusingly non-chronological but endlessly supple two-CD African Classics (Sheer/Cantos, 2008). But 2008’s Francophonic (Stern’s), another double, is the master class. It covers 1953 to 1980, it never steps wrong, and just about everything is head-turning, especially “Azda,” a Volkswagen dealership ad that could melt a glacier. Franco also made a wonderful duet album with his bandleader/singer rival Tabu Ley Rochereau, Omona Wapi (Shanachie, 1985); Rochereau’s own brilliant career is covered on Sterns’ endlessly listenable The Voice of Lightness: Congo Classics 1961-77.
A number of people have been turned on to African music over the past decade by Buda Musique’s Ethiopiques series of ’60s and ’70s Ethiopian funk and soul, which provide a unique angle on a period it can be easy to take for granted. Of these, the first, third, and eighth volumes are the most sure-fire.
Where not to start: Oh, Putumayo, so much to answer for. Between the horrible line-drawn cover art, the genteel coffeehouse aura of their many compilations, and the yuppie-dippie sensibility at work throughout the entire catalog, this label has done more to make the idea of Americans seeking out foreign music seem like empty sanctimony rather than serious adventure. Not every Putumayo comp is terrible, but there are far better ways to spend one’s time than making sure of it.