I AM ADDICTED TO MUSIC. This isn't entirely a bad thing; I could be addicted to crack or Xena or something harmful. My addiction is manageable for the most part. Except when I get obsessive about an artist, record label, producer, session musician, or genre. When that happens, things can get a bit scary. Take this past summer, for instance. Everything was going along fine, and then BAM--a friend played me an African highlife CD and I have been penniless ever since.
This has occurred before. 1999 was all about Brazilian pop. '95 comprised a love affair with Bill Laswell and John Zorn. '92-'93 belonged to every type of jazz imaginable. But my obsession with African music has eclipsed all of those with a blinding ferocity that, during moments of rare lucidity, frightens even me. What's wrong with me?
You can blame it on the groove. African music, particularly that which is derived from popular Western sounds--Nigerian highlife, Congolese soukous, Senegalese mbalax, township jive, etc.--grooves like a mother. To my Jewish, utterly unfunky self, African music embodies an attitude that is uncomprehendingly cool. Like James Brown, times 20.
But the attitude is only a part of it. There's something in African pop that is indescribable. Perhaps it's the fact that African translations of R&B, funk, and pop are ultimately twice-removed translations of native traditions. (What is R&B but a child of the blues? And everyone knows the blues comes from Africa.) Whatever it is, I am addicted to it big time.
Does my confession intrigue you? If so, I bet you're wondering where to start. Well, with dozens of African CDs released each month, there are a fair number of stinkers, which are usually the result of a producer trying to "Westernize" an artist's sound. I have, however, found a handful of companies that are 80% reliable. Unfortunately, these labels are either very hard to find (Sonodisc) or out of business (Original Music). There are a few, on the other hand, that you can locate regularly at any decent record store. These include Buda Musique, Stern's Africa, Dakar Sound, and Popular African Music.
The novice should keep a couple of things in mind. 1. Generally speaking, the uglier the artwork and packaging, the better the music. That indicates a lack of funds on the part of the label, which (typically) denotes a lack of Westernization. 2. If you see it, buy it. What is in print today will be unavailable tomorrow. I've been "into" African music for less than a year, and have been burned several times as a result of this. Consequently, when you get a good African album--a really good African album--you may be the only person in Portland who owns it.
That's the real reason I'm confessing my addiction here. Maybe, just maybe, if enough people get on the bandwagon and not just the trend du jour (currently Fela Kuti), the really amazing stuff (like El Hadij Faye and Franco & Le TP OK Jazz) won't be next to impossible to locate. Until then, I'll keep scouring the racks and feeling the rush when I find something like Bokelo & Le Conga Succes.