Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Those with a yen for the music of sunnier climes soon notice their awkward dependence on a dedicated elite of small-time music-bizzers, who preselect items they hope they can sell from the mass-produced welter of foreign-language pop--"world-beat" or "world music" to us. Craving name brands, these Afrocentric entrepreneurs are forever plotting to transplant stars--King Sunny Ade, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Youssou N'Dour. But when the American audience persists in ignoring the subtleties of artists who make their fine points in alien idioms, they're forced to lump their prizes into the more digestible form of the multiple-artist compilation. And though some may lament this necessity, I don't. Music is not the universal language. Because we all filter music through our cultural assumptions, we're doomed to misinterpret it. Well-conceived compilations help us classify unknown musics in terms we can make sense of--help us enjoy them and use them.

Connoisseurs of Zaire-based soukous, for instance, may be put off by the way Celluloid's Africa Connection Vol. 1: Zaire Choc segues from legendary traditionalist Franco to cosmopolitan intellectual Ray Lema to progressive neoprimitive Papa Wemba. But for most Euro-American listeners, the airborne propulsion of the groove and the transcendent peal of the guitars obliterate such quibbles. The shameless melodic and rhythmic allure and lustrous production techniques that connect these 10 excellent-to-superb tracks are far more powerful than the shades of difference that divide them. As a semiexpert, I prefer Franco & Rochereau's Omona Wapi. But Zaire Choc is the soukous album I recommend first, just as the definitive Indestructible Beat of Soweto is still the place to start on the Johannesburg rock and roll called mbaqanga.

Most compilers hope their collections will double as samplers--that you'll go out and buy whole albums by artists you home in on. And maybe you will. Ideally, though, compilations work as records--each track combines high intrinsic appeal with an aural and conceptual rightness that melds into a whole no less ear-pleasing than Born in the U.S.A. or Sex Machine. Instead, the anthologists often jam disparate styles together, so that even the listener who can't quite identify the problem will be irritated or disoriented by the result.

Above all, landing strong material is tough. Since festivals feature openers as well as headliners, the concert-souvenir rubric of Celluloid's Africolor records and the various WOMAD and Reggae Sunsplash collections is unreliable by definition. Drawing on one label sometimes works and usually doesn't; the folk stalwarts at Rounder, with their endless exploitations of Studio One's reggae catalogue and their deals with apartheid-fighting South African companies of small musical distinction, are notable offenders in this category. And other labels can't even claim these weak rationales--their only excuse is that intrinsic appeal rarely comes cheap.

But because world-beat is a specialty item that attracts enthusiasts rather than profiteers, the taste, philosophy, and vision of the entrepreneur who oversees the selection are usually what tells. Is he promoting music he has a piece of, or introducing the world to songs he loves no matter who owns them? How much talent does he have for consistency, pace, flow? Would he know a good beat if it bit him in the ass? And most important, does he believe in cultural purity, commercial crossover, or some smarter, more complex aesthetic? Overestimate people's ability to transcend their musical assumptions and your records will bore everybody this side of a ethnomusicology convention. But underestimate your audience like the rest of the culture biz and your music will magically fuse the lamest of both worlds.

Planet Africa, from South African producer Hilton Rosenthal's Rhythm Safari imprint, does just that. It leans heavily on laboriously Eurofriendly material from world-beat celebs like Salif Keita and Johnny Clegg, who whatever their individual gifts are too idiosyncratic to mesh much. And although the cover of Music for the World's Africa on the Move boasts artists from Nigeria, Ghana, Zimbabwe, and Senegal, peruse label-owner Bob Haddad's notes after you've paid for 45 minutes of strangely directionless music and learn that three of them now reside in the U.S., news that explains the album's title, concept, and failure. Listen to the instrumental disc put together by world-clothing honcho Dan Storper, the man behind Rhino's two Putamayo Presents The Best of World Music releases, and think evil thoughts about "tolerance" as theft: this is world music as flaccid new-age relaxathon, white folkies exploiting nonwhite instruments and techniques in the service of unthreateningly exotic aural wallpaper. On the vocal disc, the mostly black artists try to sound as congenial as possible; several times--as with Dominican Juan Louis Guerra's soukous guitars, Nigerian Majek Fashek's reggae pulse--they consciously cross cultural boundaries. Yet, amazingly, nothing seems slavish or forced. Whether it's their fetching tunes or their loving hearts, these singers could revive your faith in liberalism.

The Putamayo concept breaks a cardinal rule: range too far for material and your concoction will fall apart like an eggless meat loaf. I'm not just talking one-world collections like Storper's, but one-continent jobs like Planet Africa: at this point in our education, Senegalese Islamicisms no longer jell with South African r&b and the Caribbean rhythms of the Congolese mainstream. The seminal African compilation, however, doesn't fret about such things. Assembled in 1973 from amateur musicologist John Storm Robert's formidable collection of Afropop 45s, Africa Dances holds together simply because Roberts has an uncanny ear for a tune that will travel. Concentrating on a pop era so innocent and small-scale it seems half-rural, even half-tribal, the melodies he chose projected a captivating intimacy whether they literally borrowed from traditional sources or not.

Once he established his tiny, mostly mail-order market (write Original Music, RD 1, Box 190, Lasher Road, Tivoli NY 12583), Roberts could afford to specialize: classic albums like The Kinshasa Sound, The Kampala Sound, and The Tanzania Sound stick to the '50s and '60s output of one production center. But on Mbuki Mvuki, a sampler that roams Roberts's catalogue from Panama to Indonesia, the tunes are still doing their job. Sure you can tell they come from different places, but they're so sweet and direct that they sound seamless anyway. Forget liberalism--this record could make you believe in the human spirit itself. Next thing you know you'll be saying your prayers at night.

The only gatekeeper with a track record more impressive than Roberts's is Trevor Herman, whose Earthworks label specializes in dancefloor-tested compilations of recent hits. Guitar Paradise of East Africa, the soukous variant I drooled over in this space two years ago, is Herman's work, as are Zimbabwe Frontline and The African Typic Collection and Heartbeat Soukous. But Earthworks made its name with The Indestructible Beat of Soweto, and although Herman's four subsequent South African comps have been terrific, it's unlikely he'll ever equal it. So Jive Soweto: The Indestructible Beat of Soweto Vol. 4 is for those whose appetites have been whetted. Like every Herman collection, it's got a sonic concept, focusing on the falsettos of Steve Kekana and Ihashi Elimhlophe and the high harmonies of the Soul Brothers rather than the goatish basses of mbaqanga heroes like Mahlathini. I began thinking it sounded like the others. I ended with a deeper understanding of a music I've come to love. That's what gatekeepers are for.

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