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 a number of books over his career including his autobiography, Going Into the City, which was released in 2015 to critical acclaim. 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.
African Rumba (Putumayo) Every so often the safest and most pan-touristic of the shifting cadre of "world" labels digs into its pockets and pulls out something gorgeous that goes down as easy as its target market supposedly insists. This one documents a pan-African phenomenon, as over a span of stylistically evolving decades, the rumba clave into which Cuban musicians converted Congolese rhythms proved ripe for reconversion from Dakar in the northwest to Luando seven thousand miles thataway. While slightly favoring Zairean variants, Putumayo smooshes all this action into ten tracks that mix godfathers with revivaliasts with expats with pretenders with senior citizens glad for a payday. Yet somehow there's not a tuneout in the bunch, and I'm amazed that I've pursued these musics for so long without ever registering Senegalese legend Pape Fall's "Boul Topato" or running across Togo queen Afia Mala. Too sweet on the whole, you think? Then go suck a lemon. A
Noura Mint Seymali: Arbina (Glitterbeat) Seymali's wonder-of-nature, awesome-as-in-forbidding voice doesn't oblige ordinary Bombino or Khaira Arby fans to like it any more than ordinary boxing fans need appreciate the finer points of mixed martial arts. So it's good that her second album moderates that deep, accomplished sandblast a little—so subtly that no non-Mauritanian will notice without direct comparison and so skillfully that folkies manque still hoping she's Oumou Sangare will keep listening to her praise of a God they don't believe in. Ultimately, they may even notice that in addition to commanding a hell of a voice, she leads a band that rocks harder than, for instance, Bombino's. A MINUS
Awa Poulu: Poulo Warali (Awesome Tapes From Africa) From rural southwestern Mali, Poulo is a Peulh a/k/a Fulani, a mere 20 or 25 million of whom are dispersed across an arid yet mostly sub-Saharan third of the continent. Peulhs have their own culture, which neighboring peoples feel in sharper detail than I can. So for me Poulu's eight songs in 35 minutes captivate as West African with a twist, softening those circular grooves with singing more dulcet than, say, genteel Rokia Traoré's, never mind alarm-bell Noura Mint Seymali's. Although the grooves ride the Peulh variant of the strummed and plucked ngoni lute, they come into their own when a one-stringed violin the Peulhs call a soku echoes the vocal line. The press release indicates that Poulu's lyrics praise traders, blacksmiths, a marabout, and of course her patrons. But what tourists like us grok is the endearing, hypnotic fact of the praise itself. B PLUS
Aly Keita/Jan Gallega Bronnimann/Lucas Niggli: Kalo-Yele (Intakt) Swiss-Camerounian bass clarinet and trap drums join Ivoirian balafon master in jazz trio that in a narrower world might settle for a vibraphone instead ("Kalo-Yele," "Makuku," "Adjamé Street") ***
Brian Chilala & Ngoma Zasu: Vangaza! (SWM) Cheerful Afropop absolutely, Zimbabwean-Congolese get it, pan-Zambian if you say so, rebel lyricist over my head ("Jombo," "Mailesi") ***
Youssou Ndour: Africa Rekk (Sony Music) Former tourism and culture minister pitch-corrects, synthesizes, Anglophones, and otherwise makes nice on an album whose strongest track—about his Sufi sect, the notes say—led the much stronger Senegaal Rekk EP he released locally six months before ("Serin Fallu," "Gorée," "Money Money") **
Fofoulah: Fofoulah (Glitterbeat) European Afrogroovers benefit mightily from actual West African input ("Reality Rek," "Hook Up (Nango Dereh)") *
Follow Robert Christgau on Twitter.