Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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It's been 20 years since journalist John Storm Roberts released Original Music's classic Africa Dances compilation, the seed of what is now a full-time mail-order business. Keeping his break-even point below 1000 sales, Roberts never thinks mega or even crossover. But this doesn't mean he favors esoterica--by his standards he's selling pop music, compiling singles that once enjoyed genuine commercial life in somebody else's urban center.

Always rhythmic but seldom high-energy, Roberts's music doesn't throb with the beat of jungle drums and the rest of that racist malarkey. His special gift is an ear for a tune that will travel. So while collections like The Kinshasa Sound and The Kampala Sound may strike Americans as foreign, folkloric, even "primitive," they never sound forbidding. They work as records--each track combines high intrinsic appeal with an aural rightness that melds into a whole no less integral than Born in the U.S.A. Mbuki Mvuki performs the same feat for his entire catalogue.

Though they come from all over Africa (as well as Panama, the Antilles, Indonesia), these 23 songs are so sweet, direct, and beguilingly strange that they sound seamless anyway. Granted, those with a taste for slick won't find it here. But if all you ask is slick's honest forebear, a friendly willingness to ingratiate, you'll be seduced. It's enough to make you believe in world peace. Which is a faith that's always worth refurbishing.

Fast Cuts: If slick is your thing, though, you may prefer Putamayo Presents The Best of World Music: Volume 1: Vocal (Rhino), where artists from the Dominican to Madagascar strive congenially to cross cultural boundaries. And if you'll settle for sweet (and still like Graceland), Jive Soweto: The Indestructible Beat of Soweto Vol. 4 (Earthworks) might just be the mbaqanga compilation for you.

Playboy, July 1993

June 1993 Aug. 1993