Authenticité: The Syliphone Years, Guinea's Orchestres Nationaux and Federaux, 1965-1980
Bokoor Beats: Vintage Afrobeat, Afro-Rock and Highlife from Ghana
Malian desert blues, Nigerian Afro-Beat, South African mbqanga and kwaito, Senegal's mbalax, Congolese rumba and soukous - these and a few other African styles have established niches in the global music marketplace. Two recently issued compilations bring welcome exposure to the somewhat lesser known sounds of Guinea and Ghana.
The two-CD set Authenticité: The Syliphone Years, Guinea's Orchestres Nationaux and Federaux, 1965-1980 (compiled by Paul Hayward and Graeme Counsel), presents 28 selections by the government-supported national and federal bands that emerged after Guinea achieved independence from France in 1958.
The new government of President Sekou Touré made cultural policy a centerpiece of its nation-building efforts. Artists, and particularly musicians, were encouraged to create works that were modern but based in African tradition, hence the policy's name - authenticité.
Under the policy, each of Guinea's 34 regions was represented by artistic troupes comprising an orchestra, a traditional ensemble, a choir, and a theater group. There were regional orchestras (orchestres federaux) and national orchestras (orchestres nationaux). The Syliphone label was home to most of the new Guinean ensembles, but non-Guinean artists, including South Africa's Miriam Makeba, also recorded for the Conakry-based company.
Government subsidies paid for the orchestras' instruments but bureaucrats also exerted influence over what they played, encouraging them to sing about nationalism and anti-imperialism.
Although authenticité was intended to assert newly independent Guinea's cultural identity, the policy often produced propaganda since musicians were expected to praise Sekou Touré and his one-party state. But the emphasis on African cultural roots also meant that the regional and national orchestras could draw inspiration from traditional sources, such as griot narratives. "Soundiata," by Keletigui et ses Tambourinis, the opening track of Authenticité, is an epic griot song in praise of Soundiata Keita, who founded the Malian empire 800 years ago.
Bembeya Jazz, founded in 1961 as a national orchestra and still active today, is Guinea's best-known band; they're represented by four tracks here, with "Bembeya" a standout. A song of self-praise in which Bembeya touts its prowess as Guinea's top dance band, it runs through several tempo changes, beginning with a slow opening section featuring unison vocals by the two lead singers, Demba Canara and Salifou Kaba. Guitarist Sekou "Diamond Fingers" Diabate, a leading light of African music, takes two solos, each one a beauty - the first coming as the band eases into a Cuban-style section also featuring horns.
Cuba's influence, immense in African music, is also felt in "Karan-gbegne" by another leading national orchestra, the Horoya Band.
Though Bembeya, Keletigui et ses Tambourinis and Horoya are the leading orchestras, Authenticité also gives deserved exposure to some less prominent but worthy aggregations. The Super Boiro Band, led by trumpeter Mamadou Niaissa, is represented by the terrific "Mariama," which moves from a stately introduction to an up-tempo section featuring guitarist Karan Mady. "Festival," by Le Simandou de Beyla, is a mostly instrumental track that gives generous solo space to the band's fine saxophonist, trumpeter and guitarist.
Listen to "Mariama"
Despite the common view of African music as percussive, the guitar really is the lead instrument in so many of the continent's styles, including Guinea's. There are great axmen aplenty on Authenticité, but I particularly enjoy Sekou "Le Docteur" Diabate - not the Bembeya guitarist of the same name -- whose fuzztone heroics make "Samba," by Pivi et les Balladins, such an exciting ride.
Diabate also is remarkable on the Manding love song, "Diaraby," from Balla et ses Balladins, which actually is the same band as Pivi's. Balla Onivogui was the original bandleader, but he fell afoul of a Guinean bureaucrat who demoted him in favor of trombonist Pivi Moriba. This bit of government intervention angered President Touré, who insisted that Onivogui be re-instated and that the band return to its original name. But regardless of who's chef d'orchestre, the Balladins, blessed by Diabate's galvanizing presence, were a great band.
For African music aficionados, Authenticité is a must, but a caveat is in order. The tracks were transferred and mastered from the original vinyl, and as the CD notes acknowledge, "sound quality varies according to source." What this means is that although the music is often excellent, listeners have to put up with sound that is frequently tinny, and at times painfully trebly and hollow-sounding.
The twelve tracks that comprise Bokoor Beats document a sea change in Ghanaian popular music, the early 1970s movement away from large dance orchestras to smaller bands that specialized in Hendrix- and Santana-inspired rock, funk a la James Brown, and the Afro-beat of Fela Kuti. Bokoor - which means "coolness" -- was the name of a band and a recording studio. The band was formed in 1971 by Ghanaian guitarist Robert Beckley and John Collins, an expatriate Englishman; the studio, located outside the capital city of Accra, was founded by Collins in 1982.
Collins' biography makes him perhaps the most influential non-African in African music since his compatriot, the ethnomusicologist and producer Hugh Tracey. He's certainly got to be the most hardworking. Collins, who arrived in Ghana in 1952, has been not only a musician, bandleader and record producer, but also a journalist, author, academic, and broadcaster, as well as a documentary film consultant. During the 1970s, he helped found the Ghana Musicians Union and was a member of its executive committee.
The first Bokoor Band folded after only a year; Collins re-formed it in 1975. During the intervening years the evidently tireless Brit played guitar, harmonica, and percussion with many Ghanaian, and Nigerian, artists, including the Jaguar Jokers, Francis Kenya, E.T. Mensah, and the great soul rebel Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. Between its rebirth and its demise in 1979, the Bokoor Band featured an ever-changing lineup of a dozen or so musicians.
On Bokoor Beats, Collins presents some of his favorite recordings from his early years on the Ghanaian music scene. Eight of the 12 tracks are by his band; the remaining ones are late 1980s-early 1990s selections by Blekete and The Big Beats ("Egbe Enyo"), the Mangwana Stars ("Atiadele"), T.O Jazz ("Onam Bebi Basa") and the Oyikwan Internationals ("Anoma Franoas").
Of the Bokoor Band's contributions, the Afro-Beat tracks - "Maya Gari," "Yeah Yeah Ku Yeah," and "Onukpa Shwarpo" -- make the strongest impression. Collins and his band mates thoroughly assimilated the hard-driving, Africanized hybrid of funk and jazz that Fela Kuti pioneered in the 1970s.
A couple of highlife tracks - "Now Comes Another Day" and "Been To"- exemplify the style's sing-songy, cheery quality. (In the latter, the band dedicates "this cheerful tune to you.") Both are slight, yet totally charming. "Money in Bed" and "Trouble Man" (not Marvin Gaye's but an original by Collins and Kpani Gasper Tettey Addy) add soukous to the mix, but percussion dominates instead of the guitar-driven Congolese sound.
Perhaps the most surprising element on the Bokoor Band tracks is John Collins' wailing, chattering harmonica, played in a 60s folk-rock rather than blues-based style. It's fun for a while, but Collins overdoes it. The "less is more" axiom fully applies here.
Bokoor Beats generally doesn't match the sophistication and inventiveness of the best performances on Authenticité. The music's simpler, more rough-hewn, and definitely more raucous. But like the Guineans, the Bokoor Band and the other Collins-produced groups on the compilation exude the self-confidence and joy of African artistry newly liberated from the brutal and arrogant Euro-supremacy of colonialism. - George De Stefano
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