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V/A - African Pearls: Côte d’Ivoire - West African Crossroads

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Artist: V/A

Album: African Pearls: Côte d’Ivoire - West African Crossroads

Label: Syllart

Review date: Jun. 11, 2010

In the era of the Long Tail, there is clearly a niche market for compilations of little-known African dance music. Labels like Analog Africa, Soundway, Stern’s Africa and Strut have been reissuing tracks from some amazing, out-of-print albums. Most of these recordings are vivid sonic expressions of what Robert Farris Thompson calls Afro-Atlantis: a thick web of history and aesthetics that criss-crosses time and space, connecting black culture in Africa and the Americas..

The double-CD collection African Pearls 5: Côte d’Ivoire - West African Crossroads by Syllart Productions fits neatly into this trend. As its title suggests, it gathers tracks from Cote d’Ivoire (a.k.a. Ivory Coast), a country that has been a historical crossroads in West Africa. During the years that these recordings were made, the capital of Côte d’Ivoire — Abidjan — was one of the most cosmopolitan, modern cities in Africa, and the sounds on these discs are complex encounters between traditional and modern aesthetics. Like the musical selections, the album’s visual imagery conveys a sense of both retro fashion and archival, ethnographic exotica: a dirt floor; a vintage turntable and a 1970s-era synthesizer with chickens perched on them; a wall with a chalk drawing of a ram’s head (even more authentic than the chickens); and a wood crate full of LPs.

By any measure, this is a strange album. Depending on your perspective and tastes, West African Crossroads might be a fascinating, diverse collection of tracks. Or it might be strikingly uneven. For die-hard aficionados of African dance music, it’s probably both. Influences from within Africa, like Ghanaian highlife and Congolese rumba, are marked. There are healthy doses of funk- and soul-inspired tunes, and Caribbean styles (mostly Cuban) are a clear, pervasive influence. For example, “Moussio Moussio” by Amédée Pierre is a dead ringer for Cuban charanga bands like Ritmo Oriental, complete with tres, violin, and a smooth acceleration half-way through the track. There is even a classic track by Côte d’Ivoire’s own Alpha Blondy, a reggae icon and trailblazer for a West African Rasta movement that remains alive and well decades later.

West African Crossroads also documents an alternate universe of saccharine pop: tracks like “Exode Rural” by Djins Music or “Taxi Signon” by crooner Bailly Spinto will probably seem absurdly dated and foreign to young Americans or Europeans, giving them a potentially ironic appeal. There are some pretty rugged lo-fi productions included, as well. Listening to tracks like “Midemi-Mikobie,” by Anoma Brou Félix, it’s hard to tell whether the rough edges of the sound are in the original or due to a less-than-pristine copy.

Making the entire album worth the price of admission, a number of tracks grab you and don’t let go. Ernesto Djédjé is featured on four of the collection’s 23 songs, and they are all solid. (Djédjé, was born Djédjé Loué Ernest. Like Ghana’s great bandleader Geraldo Piño [born Gerald Pine], Djédjé added the “o” to Latinize his name — that’s how popular Cuban music was in 1960s West Africa.) “Whisky and Soda” by trumpeter Fax Clarck is another standout track: the musicianship and sound on this light-hearted jam about getting tipsy are first-rate. In a different vein, “Fanga Mamadou” by Mamadou Doumbia is a sweet, mellow tune without pretense or gimmicks.

Given how little most listeners outside of Côte d’Ivoire — or even younger generations of West African listeners — will know about these artists and the context of the recordings, it’s unfortunate that the liner notes for West African Crossroads leave much to be desired: they include both French and English versions, but are poorly written. Although there is a fair amount of information contained in the notes, the evident lack of attention to detail makes some of the details seem suspect. It might be unfair to expect a collection like this to be cohesive, but as the niche for re-issues like West African Crossroads grows, producers and labels should gauge their listeners’ level of interest carefully: if fans of this music buy a collection like this, they will want as much information as possible, complete with an archivist’s rigorous documentation. That said, this is unique and seldom-heard music, and the album includes a lot of real gems.

By David Font-Navarrete

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