Various Artists

Africa: Never Stand Still

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Cashing in on widespread exposure to African music via high-profile supporters like Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel, most compilations of contemporary African music suffer from insufficient size, narrow focus, or poor selection. Against this background, Africa: Never Stand Still stands as tall as a Masai warrior. In three hours of top-notch performances, this set spans from the Sahara to Cape Town, from Ghana to Kenya and everywhere in between, plus peripheral areas such as Madagascar and Mauritania. If there's a shortcoming, it's the lack of historical dimension that comes of relying on recordings made near the date of release. But this is a minor complaint -- three years later, the music still has a freshness lacking in the products of the Western pop mainstream. Predictably, most of this is groove music. What makes it special -- aside from its sheer variety and the obvious delight the performers take in playing -- is twofold: lithe rhythms that seep into your heart and feet and, at the same time, a lightness of touch that's been absent from American and British popular music since jazz gave way to rock roll. Most of the cuts are lengthy two- or three-chord jams in the modern mold: drums, bass, guitars, keyboards, brass, and voices. But the indigenous sounds of the kora (harp), sanza (thumb piano), balafon (xylophone), and goge (violin) are never far away, and compiler Brooke Wentz went out of the way to include ensembles playing in more traditional styles. (Check out the fluttering Gambian kora orchestra, produced by Bill Laswell and Foday Musa Suso.) Familiar names abound: South Africa's Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Senegal's Youssou N'Dour, Ali Farka Toure and Salif Keita from Mali, Farafina from Burkina Faso, and many others. (Curiously missing are juju master King Sunny Ade and Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the continent's closest equivalent to James Brown.) These artists are extraordinary enough, but many standout cuts come from artists you'll be hard-pressed to find in the import bin: the Bedouin rai of Algeria's Bellemou Gana El Maghnaoui; the hypnotic Gnawa Musicians of Marrakesh; the laidback highlife of Ghana's Martin K. Obeng; Gabriel Omolo's off-kilter Kenyan twist. If nothing else, these three CDs prove Brian Eno's contention that Africa is brimming with contemporary music as valid as any made in the West. And if the quality of this compilation is any indication, it won't be many more years before everyone knows it. ~ Ted Greenwald, Rovi

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