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At the beginning of The Da Capo Guide to Contemporary African Music is a map of "Africa Political." There's also one of "Africa Linguistic," festooned with dynamic-looking arrows, and in the body of the text you'll find some two dozen more, each covering a nation or two, with cities and tribal regions indicated. These learning aids are necessary--the subject is overwhelming even with the Arab music of the north excluded. It's one thing to be touched by Ladysmith and Sunny Ade and Fela and Youssou N'Dour, to know names like mbaqanga and soukous and juju and mbalax, another to comprehend their provenance--to understand where musics come from, much less how cultures clash and intertwine within them. J. W. Kwabena Nketia's The Music of Africa lays out the tradition, but contemporary Afropop info is hard to come by. David B. Coplan's strictly South African In Township Tonight! is weakest on modern pop; the chapter that closes John Storm Roberts's Black Music of Two Worlds is way out-of-date; John Collins's Musicmakers of West Africa and African Pop Roots are crude and parochial, overemphasizing Collins's own Ghanaian scene. Billy Bergman's tour guide, Goodtime Kings, has the virtues of professionalism and an outsider's perspective and is already out of print. Not even Chris Stapleton and Chris May's U.K.-only African All-Stars, a solid, interview-based survey due to be published here late next year, is likely to supplant Ronnie Graham's foolhardy and obsessive effort. For the foreseeable future, this will remain the essential handbook of African music.

The Da Capo Guide is organized like a discography, with lists of records interspersed through the text occupying about a quarter of its 300-plus pages. Graham describes specific titles briefly if at all, making few qualitative distinctions, but despite an unavoidable weakness for the historically significant, his judgments ring true. His clear, balanced, painstakingly researched account of Afropop history, arranged by nation and then artist but never blurring criss-crossing influences, should fascinate novices and experts, and his full bibliography (a rarity in this kind of book) does indeed turn it into "an agenda for further research." In his piecemeal way, he corrects or fleshes out the bare theoretical overview that's the best the most enthusiastic non-African fan has been able to manage so far.

Afropop began in the English-speaking colonies. Because Francophone Africa had trouble transcending its Parisian pretensions and proprieties, Ghanaian highlife, which fused African and European dance musics in several distinct subvariants, dominated until the Zaireans began fusing with Afro-American (mostly Cuban) rhythms and song forms in the '50s. With its distinctive high-speed guitar-picking style now spread across the continent, soukous (originally "rumba") has become the rage of Paris itself (fusing back into one Caribbean style to create Antillean zouk). An Arab tinge (typically originating in Senegal) has infiltrated both black Africa, with its widespread Islamic population, and white Europe, with its widespread North African population. And South African styles, for geographical as well as political reasons Africa's least polyrhythmic and most U.S.-influenced, are hitting the big time. Since African-rooted rhythms from the U.S. and the Caribbean have been the secret of world pop since the '20s at least, these developments look like the future, though for cultural as well as political reasons I wouldn't be as confident as Graham of their eventual hegemony. Nevertheless, this stuff is worthy of any culture maven's active curiosity. Afropop holds out the promise (or at least the image) of both unity and respect for the earth's most exploited continent. And of course, Not only that, it's good to dance to.

One caveat. Purely as discography, The Da Capo Guide is something of a nightmare. This is partly because the African record industry is pretty phantasmagoric. Multinationals meddle and steal, indigenous entrepreneurs come and go, studios and shops are rare and meagerly outfitted. Established stars maintain a frantic release schedule designed not so much to exploit their audience with essentially interchangeable product, although there is that, as to stay one step ahead of cassette bootleggers. How could the artist himself prepare a discography on the seminal Zairean guitarist-vocalist-bandleader Luambo Franco, a 30-year veteran who's recorded some 200 albums and countless 45s for at least 20 companies? An extreme case, but such untracked wilds do render completist dreams absurd. This doesn't mean, however, that Graham couldn't have revealed what labels generated the virtually useless catalogue numbers he provides--if he had one he had the other. And though if he hadn't stuck to LPs his labors might never have ceased, Africa is no more vinyl-oriented than the rest of the Third World; cassettes can be played on battery-powered equipment, and much African music (early Youssou N'Dour is Graham's example, almost all recent Kenyan mine) is available in no other format. nowhere else. Nor was I pleased to learn when I got home from Tower that Celluloid's Best of Ambassadeurs, one of the few Graham-catalogued prizes I could locate in the desert of Manhattan retail, was a shoddy pressing of Rounder's Dance Music from West Africa, listed by Graham as a different record. Nevertheless, the titles are tremendously useful just as words on a page, a start available nowhere else. Graham promises revisions in future editions, and I hope his publishers take him seriously. This is a book that deserves to become an institution.

Village Voice, 1988