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V/A - African Scream Contest: Raw & Psychedelic Afro Sounds from Benin & Togo 70s

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Artist: V/A

Album: African Scream Contest: Raw & Psychedelic Afro Sounds from Benin & Togo 70s

Label: Analog Africa

Review date: Jan. 13, 2009

Music from outside of Europe and North America has often been sold to the residents of those places with the promise of either cultural edification or palate-piquing exoticism. The former (ex: Nonesuch’s Explorer Series) tended to come packaged with quasi-anthropological documentation that caters to those who want to hear what once was; the others (ex: Putamayo) tend to be smoothed-out and spiffed-up so that they look and sound nice when you’re in line at the boutique checkout line. Recently, outfits like Analog Africa, which is run by a Tunisian-born, German-based DJ named Samy Ben Redjeb, take a third route that emphasizes a personal vision engaged with the local (as opposed to global) marketplace. In Redjeb’s case, he’s still digging into the past, but it’s a past that’s particularly compelling to one crate-digger with a taste for ’70s groove music. African Scream Contest’s execution, sketchy title aside, is a powerful argument for putting yourself in the hands of a man with good taste.

The record’s name might raise hackles from some quarters, or at least questions. Is Analog Africa trying to capitalize on lurid preconceptions of dark content primitivism, or putting a lo-fi spin on the search for the exotic other, or simply suggesting that this is the work of a bunch of Africans deeply indebted to James Brown? It’s certainly misleading. First of all, this collection is no competition, but a 14-way tie for first place - there’s not a dud in the bunch. Second, far from being an African collection, everything on Africa Scream Contest comes from Togo and Benin. And while there’s plenty off Brownian motion, this is not a purely Africans-do-James Brown set, or even exclusively funk-oriented. The satisfyingly fat and splendidly illustrated accompanying tome puts paid to any suspicions about Redjeb’s motives by including plenty of biography and anecdotes that shed humanizing light rather than perpetuate stereotypes upon musicians you’ve almost certainly never heard of before. They also foreground Redjeb’s personal journey in making the record; the picture that emerges over the course of 44 pages of text and images is of a guy driven by an apparently adaptive but quite out-of-control compulsion to immerse himself in vintage West African pop sounds and bring them to people’s ears, either by blogging about them, spinning them, or compiling records.

While African Scream Contest might sound raw next to the slick electronic productions coming out of Paris today, its music is not so badly recorded. The music may not possess the slickness that was attainable in contemporary studios based in L.A. or Rio or London, and sometimes the brass overwhelms the microphones, but the trebly guitars, layered percussion, and intertwined vocal lines come across just fine, especially considering that some of the tracks were sourced from vinyl. If anything, the music presented here beats both ethnographic recordings and polished Afro-pop for universal, as well as visceral, appeal. These artists weren’t fringe types and these grooves weren’t rare by design, but intended to move butts on the dance floor. Some of Contest’s records may have been pressed up in editions of a few hundred, but the people making them didn’t want to be obscure. Certain participants were actually quite popular in their part of the world; the Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonu, which is the only band on this compilation that’s already been the subject of collections released by other labels, included some of Benin’s top musical guns and people flew in from other countries to record with them.

Should the promise of screaming raise your James Brown antenna, you’ll be wiggling your bunny ears in puzzlement when you hear the opener. Lokonon André & Les Volcans’ “Mi Kple Dogbepo” features tire-puncturing guitar solos, Latin clave and trumpet action. Other tracks seem more influenced by music from nearby Nigeria than by Brown. Ouinso Corneille & Black Santiago “Vinon So Minsou” and Tidiani Koné and Orchestre Poly-Rythmo’s “Djanfa Magni” draw heavily on Afrobeat elements such as stuttering guitars and snare drums, and both have more than a hint of Cuban styling in their marvelously fluent trumpet solos. The performers that do cop James Brown’s moves generally assert their own personalities as well. Orchestre Poly-Rythmo may cycle through a catalog of his vocal and rhythmic tics on “Gbeti Majro,” but they take them at a thrilling, breakneck pace that even the JBs would have been hard pressed to sustain. On “Ye Nan Lon On,” Orchestre Super Jheevs des Paillotes also mesmerize with speed; the singer has his Brown sounds down, but the drummer and guitarist play with a reckless abandon that threatens lift-off. This track sounds especially rooted in African tradition; reportedly the rest of the band called Ambrose Gnagenon’s self-constructed goat-skinned traps “La batterie indigene” (indigenous drums). But the way D’Almedia Expédit’s guitar overloads his amplifier would have sounded right in on a volume of Nuggets. And El Rego et Ses Commandos kick off “Se Na Min” with a trade-marked grunt over a typically Brownian shuffle, but the quavering organ tone and pungent, slurred wah-wah guitar take the music into another zone, compounding rhythmic urgency with garage-rock grit. In that regard, this collection underscores a point also made by Luaka Bop’s Love Is A Real Thing and Nigeria Rock Special: that musicians in Africa were as tuned into the sounds of rock and roll as they were into funk, rumba, reggae or calypso.

By Bill Meyer

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