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Exploring Legendary and Overlooked Afropop: Expert Witness with Robert Christgau

When's the last time you listened to Le Grande Kallé or Youssou Ndour?

by Robert Christgau
Sep 18 2015, 2:48pm

Welcome to Expert Witness with Robert Christgau, the self-proclaimed "Dean of American Rock Critics." He currently teaches at NYU and published multiple books throughout his life. For nearly four decades, he worked as the music editor for The Village Voice, where he created the annual Pazz & Jop poll. Every Friday, Noisey will happily publish his long-running critical column. To learn more about him and his life, read his welcome post here.

Continued below.

Le Grand Kallé: Le Grand Kallé: His Life, His Music (Sterns Africa)

Ken Braun's exhaustively selected, expertly annotated document of the Congolese borrowings, innovations, and masterstrokes that dominated Afropop into the 80s is as solid as yet smaller than a slab of virgin vinyl: two CDs flanking a 104-page bound booklet dominated by Braun's typically well-schooled critical-historical opus. Joseph Kabasele was born into a prominent Roman Catholic family—an uncle became Africa's first cardinal—but broke away as a music-mad teen to become the most influential early master of the rumba that evolved into soukous. Kinshasa's Luambo Franco and Tabu Ley Rochereau got their start with Le Grand Kallé; Cameroon's Manu Dibango was his European buddy long before and long after "Soul Makossa." The high-born Kabasele never matched the bite or lift or blat of these titans. His music tailed off by the mid 60s, although he always remained a force, and he was smoother than neoprimitivists might prefer. But he was a singer of exceptional sweetness and flow, and he had true pop savvy‑-it wasn't just his hustle that turned "Independence Cha Cha" into a continent-wide anticolonalist theme song or induced John Storm Roberts to begin the groundbreaking Africa Dances comp with "African Jazz Mokili Mobimbo." You can play these discs for days without getting bored. I know because I've done it. A MINUS

Youssou N'Dour: Mballax Dafay Wax (FM)

Apparently released in 2012 on the "label" indicated, a welcome sign that the Senegalese activist-entrepreneur counts among his many projects reminders that he'd still be the greatest popular musician in the world if he had the time. There are only three new songs here, apparently concerning children's education, embezzlement in high places, and political commitment in general. The other three tracks, all well over ten minutes, are medleys designated "Pot Pourri 1," "2," and "3." Amid clattering tamas and familiar snatches I can't name because my Wolof isn't up to snuff come instantly recognizable goodies such as "Birima" and "Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da." And what's this, culminating "1"? Why it's Bob Dylan's "Chimes of Freedom." Hasn't sounded so right in years. A MINUS

Amara Touré: 1973-1980 (Analog Africa)

This Touré—there are, of course, many Tourés—was a Guinéean-born percussionist-vocalist who hooked up with the super-seminal Star Band de Dakar in the late 50s, possibly before the game-changing guitarist-attorney Barthelemy Attisso and certainly before the world-beating vocalist-genius Youssou N'Dour. These ten tracks, lasting just over an hour and recorded with a band he led in Cameroon and a bigger one he joined in Gabon, constitute his recorded legacy. They epitomize the languorously "Latin" West African clave Attisso's Orchestra Baobab nurtured to fruition before N'Dour's Étoile de Dakar accelerated it into the future. I don't understand a word Touré is saying, and I'm pretty sure I wouldn't respond like this to his Cuban or Puerto Rican counterpart. But something about African clave just warms me. B PLUS

***

Verckys et l'Orchestre Vévé: Congolese Funk, Afrobeat & Psychedelic Rumba 1969-1978 (Analog Africa) Showcasing the saxophonist more than the bandleader, the James Brown fan more than the Franco wannabe ("Cheka Sana," "Nakobala Yo Denise") ***

Highlife on the Move: Selected Nigerian and Ghanaian Recordings From London & Lagos—1954-66 (Soundway) Direct European links the concept, diluted African content the result (the Quavers, "Money Money"; Kwamalah Quaye Sexteto Africana, "Son of Africa"; Fela Ransome-Kuti & the Highlife Rakers, "Aigana") *

Follow Robert Christgau on Twitter and read the archives of his criticism on his website.