Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Playboy Music

There's great pop music in Africa, but nobody knows how to get non-Africans to discover it. Mali's Salif Keita goes the crossover route on Soro (Mango), and while I won't deny the skill of his heartpiercing vocals, synthesized Afrosounds and dramatic Euro-American arrangements, I still prefer the soulful flow of the more traditional album he released with Les Ambassadeurs on Rounder in 1984. Even if this one sells more, the audience he's after won't notice.

King Sunny Ade takes the opposite tack on the CD-only Return of the Juju King (Mercury), which, instead of adapting juju for a Euro-American audience, chooses an hour of music from the Nigerian LPs he has cut since he gave up on America in 1984. Digital recording enhances juju's intricacies, but, perverse though it may seem, I prefer the bass accents and subtle Westernisms of his Mango records, especially Aura.

Maybe Paul Simon's beloved mbaqanga can beat this predicament. South African township jive is a spontaneous crossover that synthesizes American R&B with indigenous vocals and rhythms. Sparked by Graceland, the British label Earthworks' anthology The Indestructible Beat of Soweto became an underground hit for Shanachie. The sequel, Thunder Before Dawn, is distributed here by Virgin; like its predecessor, if a tad less undeniably, it showcases some of Soweto's hottest bands and singers. And to prove how much more there is where that came from, Shanachie has compiled Heartbeat of Soweto. The collection is slightly less compelling rhythmically and vocally while a bit more exotic, spotlighting Tsonga and Shangaan as well as Zulu songs. It's also catchier, and despite its variety, it holds together. Me, I'd buy it ahead of Thunder Before Dawn--and also ahead of Graceland.

Playboy, May 1988

Apr. 1988 June 1988