The African Beat Archive
Jan 25th, 2011 by robert

I had the privilege to write a column about African music in The Beat magazine for eight years, from 1995 to 2003, until life’s exigencies prevented me from writing. The Beat was the world-class magazine covering “world music” for 28 years. As time allows, I will place that column’s archive on this site, improving on its original published format to include more pictures and even sound samples. Eventually I hope this becomes a testament to the enormous quantity of fantastic African music published during those fecund years, when “world music” flourished on the world market.

This effort will take some time, and there are no promises when I will finish. Hopefully it will provide interesting reading for some of you! To get to the articles in the archive, either click on the link in the upper right column of this page, or click here for direct access. Enjoy!

Vinyl Thoughts: Feeding an Obsession
Dec 8th, 2010 by robert

The record arrived in the mail, carefully packed by an Ebay merchant in Portugal. I sighed with relief and delight: A twenty year quest had ended, and a terrible thirst was quenched – for the moment!

I know precisely when my African music obsession began. I was living in a country at war, writing a long report in a language not my own. To avoid the chaos around me, I had headphones on, listening to cassettes on my Walkman. There was one tape I played over and over because it was indescribably beautiful music, with wonderful singing and complex rhythms. I was hooked. The tape held a compilation of songs by Pierre Akendengue, the great musician from Gabon, and it was sent to me from England by my dear friend Akwe. I virtually wore out the tape, but when I returned from Central America, I began collecting every Akendengue album I could find. Over the years there have been many, and I wrote about every new release for my column in The Beat magazine. I even had the opportunity to interview Akendengue by phone, when he was in Paris one time, and published that in The Beat, too (which you can read here).

However one Akendengue album eluded me, Eseringila. Yet here it is finally in front of me, found via the internet and delivered 8,200 kilometers!

I am so pleased! Now, if only I could set up my turntable, I could listen to it! More than that: I could record it and share it with you. . . well look here.

Easy sharing is one of the obvious and great features of the internet, and probably all of us share pictures and crucial words of wisdom with our families and friends, or perhaps the entire world, via Facebook or YouTube or some other sharing site. Yet not all sharing is so benign. As I described in an earlier article, the illegal sharing of music crippled the music publishing industry, making CDs an endangered species and catalyzing the creation of legal, low-sound-quality, digital download stores like iTunes and Amazon.

Searching for Eseringila I discovered a whole world of music being shared on the internet, and I have to confess that I have tapped into that world to feed my obsession. To gorge, actually, like an addict. I’ve found treasure troves of out-of-print African vinyl records that other obsessive collectors have digitized and posted on their blogs, including records that I own.

I thought long and hard before downloading any of the plethora of digitized vinyl I found. I explored the world and discovered that much of the digitized old recordings is encoded at very low quality, so emasculated at 128 bps that I cannot listen to it (again, refer to my earlier article). However there are a few bloggers who post high quality recordings, so fine that you can hear every scratch and pop as well as cymbals. I recommend the Global Groove site as an entry to this world; but there are others I will describe in a future post.

How does this sharing differ from, for example, your kid’s downloading the latest Eminem release through special file-sharing software? Is it okay, legal? Most of these posted recordings are long out-of-print, often from vanished music companies and deceased musicians. Even the entire style of music may be extinct. In other words, these recordings are out of the commercial stream, stranded in piles and boxes with no profit aspirations. Many music bloggers state clearly on their home page that they will remove a recording from their site if anyone holding copyrights objects.

My opinion about downloading music has changed, perhaps warped by my addiction. I adamantly discourage and disapprove of the vast music file sharing (better called stealing or piracy) that is ubiquitous among the younger generation. But I think downloading vintage recordings, where copyright is likely expired, is different, and that it benefits the music industry in two ways.

First, and most importantly, if a person likes the music downloaded, he or she will likely seek other music from the artist that is still commercially available. This has become an expensive obsession for me because I have ordered many CDs I found available, after listening to something I downloaded, even paying for shipping from Europe. The second benefit for the music industry is that when someone writes enthusiastically about an out-of-print recording, and lots of people download it, it is very much like the donkey in Shrek, jumping up and down yelling “Pick me! Pick me!” Such a recording is worth considering for restoration by a wise and confident record label.

There is another, more esoteric benefit from the sharing done by music explorers: It helps preserve the music. With so much of the world’s diversity of music smothered by the hyper-commercial crap music promoted and distributed by transnational corporations that seek every almighty dollar, any effort to recover and share vital, true culture is commendable.

Kenyan Gold: Issa Juma and Super Wanyika Stars
Jun 18th, 2010 by robert

At a time when globalization has led to increasingly homogenized “world” music, a return to the post-colonial, golden age of African music can be an exciting experience. Many classic African pop recordings are surfacing on the internet, as a few enthusiasts search dustbins throughout Europe and African for discarded or forgotten vinyl records, and then digitize them to share with the world. The Global Groove link on the right is the best starting point to enter this expanding universe of sound. But digitized old records sound like old records, often with the pops and surface noise that drove people to CDs as the preferred music medium. That is why there is reason to celebrate when a record company collects some of this wonderful music, restores and digitizes the sound with the best tools available, and puts it out on compact disc.

STCD1050 Issa Juma and Super Wanyika Stars

Stern’s Music has been a stalwart evangelist-distributor of African music for decades, and their recent release World Defeats the Grandfathers is a fantastic collection of Kenyan hits by Issa Juma and Super Wanyika Stars. Issa Juma was a Tanzanian musician whose career blossomed in Kenya due to his rich baritone voice and brilliant ability to lead bands in innovative directions. Juma sang in Swahili, the common language currency of East Africa, allowing the music to flow widely across ethnic and national borders.

The songs collected on this CD capture Issa Juma at the apex of his career, in the early to mid-1980s. Powered by the bright, intertwined guitars and percolating rhythms typical of Swahili rumba, this release is a delight from beginning to end. The songs incorporate influences from Congolese and Tanzanian rumba, as well as more indigenous Kenyan pop styles, and Juma’s voice simply glides through the complex mix, grounding it and counterbalancing the extended dance instrumentals. The guitars are wonderful throughout, but superlative in the song “Maria.” I’ve posted a snippet of the song below to give you a taste of the entire mix. I especially appreciate the deft bass that provides the swinging foundation in “Maria” and the following track, “Muanaidi.”


This album was compiled by East Africa music expert Doug Paterson, and the complete liner notes of the album, with much more information on Issa Juma and his bands, can be found on Doug’s informative site. World Defeats the Grandfathers can be downloaded through iTunes, where it actually has a bonus track, but if you want the full fidelity to appreciate the total richness of this music (see my last post below), order the CD from Amazon, where today only four copies remain in stock. This great album has the power to brighten a gloomy day, and I recommend it highly for any day — or night. Enjoy!

Endangered Music
May 26th, 2010 by robert

Not so long ago I was a columnist for a great magazine devoted to “world music,” called The Beat.  I put world music in quotes because it was a marketing phrase coined in the early 1980s to cope with the explosion of music being published from Africa to the Caribbean to Bulgaria. It’s a nearly useless label because it includes such diversity, but it is also a tad xenophobic because it lumps all music not from “America.” Absurd, when you think about it; but I digress.

My Beat column covered music from Africa, an immense source of diverse culture and, for me, the foundation for almost all of the world’s music. I usually wrote about the latest developments in African pop music, often highlighting important innovators who captured global interest and fame. Frequently, though, I would receive traditional or historic field recordings to review, and I would write about how important they were because they preserved music that was extinct or barely surviving the onslaught of globalized commercial culture.

Today I am writing about endangered music at a different scale. I believe ALL MUSIC IS ENDANGERED Read the rest of this entry »

Mérida, la música, and life
Mar 31st, 2010 by robert

Valladolid was hard to leave, but I needed and wanted to shed the car that seems both useful and a hindrance. Once again I entered the cuota highway, but this time with a purpose. I had to get to Mérida in a hurry to make the rental deadline, and with almost no cars on the expensive route, I could go fast. Think autobahn. Read the rest of this entry »

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