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Robert Christgau on the Blended Flavors of Two New West African Releases

The Dean of American Rock Critics reviews 'The Rough Guide to the Music of West Africa' and Trio da Kali & Kronos Quartet's 'Ladilikan.'

The self-proclaimed "Dean of American Rock Critics," Robert Christgau was one of the pioneers of music criticism as we know it. He was the music editor at the Village Voice for almost four decades where he created the trusted annual Pazz & Jop Poll. He was one of the first mainstream critics to write about hip-hop and the only one to review Simon & Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water with one word: "Melodic." On top of his columns, he has published six books, including his 2015 autobiography, Going Into the City. He currently teaches at New York University. Every week, we publish Expert Witness, his long-running critical column. To read more about his career, read his welcome post ; for four decades of critical reviews, check out his regularly updated website


The Rough Guide to the Music of West Africa (World Music Network) Musicologically, this is a potpourri dressed up as a hodgepodge—hook-deprived modern Saharans, specialty artists with their own Riverboat albums, Afropop sure shots from the barely West African Nigeria and Cameroun of decades ago, a 2006 novelty hit by schoolgirl sisters from Sally Nyolo's village, palm wine preservationist Koo Nimo showing off his unobtrusive guitar on a little something called "You Will Be Overtaken by Events." At first it seems nice but marginal—Victor Uwaifo's "Ekassa 28" sticks out like the instant classic it was in 1973. But as sequenced by Rough Guide major domo Phil Stanton, it keeps evolving, seldom high-energy but always in infectious motion as one likable tune segues into another. The other instant hit is the novelty, the Bidjoï Sisters' impossibly light and amateurish "Chantal." But as you keep listening, you notice how the aged Koo Nimo's homemade aura sets it up. Everywhere flavors blend. A

Trio da Kali & Kronos Quartet: Ladilikan (World Circuit) Brought together by Malian music promoter turned ethnomusicologist Lucy Duran, the Trio da Kali is a fabricated supergroup designed to preserve a format that dates to the 13th century. The Kronos Quartet is a standard violin-violin-viola-cello unit that has specialized in cross-genre collaboration since the '70s. So this is neither authenticitéor a new fad. But as a skeptic regarding such well-meaning endeavors, I guarantee that it's gorgeous, by which I do not mean merely pretty. For me its deepest attraction is timbral—the way the full quartet's evolved harmonies and pizzicato comping flex against Lassana Diabaté's deep-tinkling balafon and flesh out the funky thrum of Mamadou Kouyaté's bass ngoni. But all this texture needs the melodic anchor provided by lithe power contralto Hawa Diabate, daughter of the renowned Kassé Diabate in a culture where music is a vocation passed generation to generation. The mood isn't ceremonial, but it doesn't party either. Grave and secular down to its two Mahalia Jackson covers, it honors, celebrates, and enjoys music as a calling. A MINUS


Fanga/Maâlem Abdallah Guinéa: Fangnawa Experience (Strut) Expatriate Afrobeat meets devotional Gnawa in la belle France, climaxing with a concert-climaxing tour de force worthy of the Allman Brothers themselves ("Wouarri," "Kelen") ***

Kondi Band: Salone (Strut) Sorie Kondi, blind Sierra Leonean master of the thumb piano Sierra Leoneans call a kondi, transformed into a dance band by Sierra Leonean-American DJ Chief Boima ("You Wan Married?" "Without Money, No Family") ***

Simo Lagnawi: The Gnawa Berber (Riverboat) London-based Moroccan's main ax is the three-stringed gimbri of Jajouka fame, but it's the percussion he overdubs that will move you and the occasional extra voice that will come in handy ("Solami," "Dounia") **

The Rough Guide to African Blues (World Music Network) Pan-African not Sahel, the second edition is no more bluesy than the first, but a nice cross-section of African guitar that's jumpiest when it's bluesiest (and when an Englishman is playing!) (West African Blues Project, "Lalumbe"; Tamikrest, "Tamiditin") **

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