Three times the size of China and situated squarely on the equator, Africa is a continent of staggering geographic diversity. Its deserts are the world's most forbidding; its rainforests are some of the world's most lush.
Its music is as varied as the land.
West African nightclubs are powered by the groove-oriented sounds of West African high-life jazz. Switch the Atlantic Ocean for the steamy Nile River and one finds Egyptian concert halls filled to hear the austere sounds of the oud, a pear-shaped Arabic lute. Two thousand miles to the south across deserts, mountains, and rainforests one finds long-dead ancestors being celebrated with the haunting interlocking melodies of Zimbabwe's mbira virtuosos.
These sounds are rarely heard in the Western hemisphere. But slowly - glacially slowly by music industry standards - that seems to be changing.
This month a broad, if hardly inclusive, set of 13 African music albums is being re-released on CD by Nonesuch Records. This is about 30 years after the disks' vinyl debut.
The African set is just the beginning. Appropriately dubbed the “Explorer Series,” the entire oeuvre of 92 albums - covering traditional and art music from every continent except Australia, Antarctica, and North America - is to be released over the next 30 months.
It's an important project.
Why? In part because new listening experiences stretch the imagination; in part because music is as good a key as any to bridge the distances between cultures.
Most simply, however, these CDs are filled with good music. The disks capture top-flight musicians performing at their best, not in the sterile confines of a sound studio, but within their own communities in concerts and rituals.
The albums were recorded low-budget, seat-of-the-pants style, mostly by anthropologists and ethnomusicologists working in the field. They sound as fresh today as when they were recorded. Maybe better. That's because the recording quality rings with an emotional honesty that has almost disappeared amid the synthetic gloss of our own contemporary computerized note-perfect music editing.
Certainly Americans are familiar with bits of African music. “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” was lifted from a noncopyrighted late 1930s Zulu South African recording titled “Mbube” (Lion). Paul Simon's 1986 “Graceland” album with the South African vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo also spooned from that region's musical well.
Looking more broadly, former Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart has produced a variety of important world music projects over the past decade.
Yet these examples are grains of sand.
Non-Western musical source material is vast beyond knowing. That vastness can be discouraging, of course. But for the adventurous listener, it is also exciting. The “Explorer Series” is an excellent place to begin a journey into new sounds and cultures.
First released in 1969, the Ghanaian high-life music of Saka Acquaye and his African Ensemble (Nonesuch 79701) combines elements of Europe and Africa. That, of course, is the same formula that created American jazz. In Africa, however, the mix has stayed much closer in feel to the mother continent. As with much Caribbean music, traditional drums and rhythms form the path upon which the melody and dance unfolds.
Should these sounds ever break out of the dusty archives of ethnomusicologists or college libraries and into the consciousness of a broader American audience, this and like albums could have the kind of vitalizing impact in American music today that Latin musicians such as Cuban-born drummer Chano Pozo or timbale virtuoso Tito Puente achieved in the 1950s and '60s. Interestingly, a number of the cuts on this album, particularly “Beyond Africa” and “Bus Conductor,” could easily have been recorded in the Caribbean.
Egyptian composer and oud player Hamza El Din has combined the techniques of Arabic music with the slow, measured pace of life in stifling hot Nile river-centered Nubia. The result on “Escalay (The Water Wheel)” (Nonesuch 79702) is music that belongs fully to neither tradition but speaks in full-hearted fashion to modern rural life. The music is sparse, modal in style, meditative in aspect.
Three discs (Nonesuch 79703, 79704, and 79710) are devoted to the East African thumb piano known in Zimbabwe as the mbira or more broadly as the kalimba. Minimalist in aspect, the music is built on melodic cycles that serve manikin-like as stable figures upon which melodies undergo constant redressing and reformation. Songs, which are well explained in program notes, deal with subjects mundane to sublime, from the social stigmas surrounding a failed marriage to meditation and trance.
Other discs - such as “Ceremonial & Folk Music” (Nonesuch 79707), “Witchcraft and Ritual Music” (Nonesuch 79708), or “Ancient Ceremonies” (Nonesuch 79711) - fit more with the American conception of sub-Saharan Africa. Much of this music is muscular, drum oriented, and aggressive in aspect.
Yet, that is a superficial view, one gleaned from background listening rather than focused effort. Where Westerners hear pounding drums, Africans hear sweet dance grooves, rhythmic melodies, and sometimes even language. Where Westerners hear repetition, Africans hear gentle changes in tone color and emotional feel.
With time, these subtleties come into focus for us as well.
Indeed, African music is anything but mono-dimensional in its sonic aspect. The range of instruments used is extensive: ivory horns and reed flutes, lizard-skinned lyres and boat-shaped harps, percussion instruments of every imaginable size and shape. Voice styles range from wood-file raspy to clarion clear.
In the end, these CDs challenge our preconceptions not only about African music - which has so often been distorted beyond recognition by Hollywood - but also about the role that music plays in our own lives. Unlike our own, African music is highly personal and context driven. It is bound in the deeds of everyday life. It is music controlled by the makers, not the recording industry.
As for the rest of the 92-disk series, the next set of releases comes in January and features music of Indonesia and the South Pacific. Following after that in four to five-month sequences are sets from Tibet, Latin America, East Asia, Central Asia, Europe, and India.