Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Meeting of the Moguls

Last fall Original Music's John Storm Roberts got a call from Akhaji Saa Akinbolu, managing director of the Lagos-based Afrodisia label, where Roberts had written some months earlier, inquiring after I.K. Dairo masters for an accordion compilation he'd been poking away at. Akinbolu wondered if he might drop by from Washington to discuss a little CD production for Africa's tiny upscale market. Having persuaded the Nigerian that the Catskills weren't close enough for a quick visit, Roberts invited him up overnight: "I didn't want him to have the wrong idea of what we were." Unfazed by the minuscule standard 150-piece order from Original's chief distributor and the attentions of Penelope the watchduck, Akinbolu signed not just a manufacturing but a licensing agreement.

Thank the loas for that. Afrodisia is the successor to Decca West Africa, a key repository for the music of Anglophone central Africa, including Ghanaian-Nigerian highlife, which ruled the continent before Zaire came on. Whatever its historical relationship to English Decca, Decca West Africa's chunk of the Afropop heritage, unlike EMI's or PolyGram's, is in the hands of the Africans involved, but they'll need outside help getting the catalogue to the rest of the world--the U.S. especially. And ever since 1973's seminal Africa Dances (available like all Original Music product and much related stuff from RD 1, Box 190, Lasher Road, Tivoli, NY 12583), Roberts, who grew up in Kenya, has compiled with an ear for the fetching tunefulness that helps interested non-Africans distinguish one polyrhythmic excursion and/or hotel band from another. Vulgar marketing considerations aside, he's perfect.

The early work of juju patriarch Dairo will be the first fruit. Akinbolu is keen on an early-'80s compilation of the Oriental Brothers' Nigerian highlife, a sampler of three classic Ghaniaian highlife bands is projected, Ebenezer Obey did his seminal work for Decca West Africa, and Roberts is offering his eyeteeth for the chance to sift through the recordings of Sierra Leone's Ebenezer Calender. But the Original-Afrodisia relationship has been interrupted by long silences--commercially, it can't be one of Akinbolu's high-priority projects. The Dairo album, expected in March, has been pushed back to late June.

"I'd like to do 10 albums a year, ha bloody ha," says Roberts, who employs one fulltime and one parttime worker, with his wife Anne moonlighting PR. Initially, Dairo's patriarchal royalties prompted wild projections that 1000 copies of each release would have to be sold to underwrite the next one, though now Roberts has recalculated his break-even mark at around 750. "It's the kind of deal that somebody with the money to put out 10 CDs a year should do. But nobody who has that kind of money will touch it. Since we can't do it right, we'll do it as best we can."

Village Voice, 1990