Crate diggers hungry for rare and funky music from Africa have plenty to choose from at the record store, with more and more labels tapping the continent’s rich and seemingly bottomless well. Cherry Red may not be a label you’d associate with this cornucopia, but its two-CD set Africa Airways, dominated by highly Westernized funk, is an essential hip-shaker.

Originally released on vinyl in two volumes, the album compiles music from 1973-1982.
It starts with a beat that isn’t far off from Gary Glitter, but why not have African glam funk? Cameroonian Ekambi Brillant’s two-minute “Africa Africa” is a suitably anthemic intro for this survey of a continent’s vital groove.

The set immediately gets expansive with the five-minute groove of another Cameroon musician, Tala A.M.’s “Black Gold.” Blind by 15 and orphaned by 16, Tala shared a stage with James Brown in Zaire before Muhammad Ali’s “Rumble in the Jungle.” Unfortunately, Brown went on to steal one of Tala’s songs, releasing it as “The Hustle.” Tala successfully took Brown to court, but artistic thievery notwithstanding, many of the tracks here do owe a debt to the Godfather of Soul’s late ‘60s/early‘70s band.

Other tracks sound like lost Northern Soul 45s. “Kag Am,” by Kemayo, features a tight horn section and wicked bass line. Manu Dibango, best known for the disco crossover “Soul Makossa,” adds disco rhythm guitar to the lighthearted instrumental “Mimbo.” Jake Sollo’s “Father Time, Mother Nature” is up-tempo Nigerian funk-pop with a guitar solo that would make Ernie Isley blush.

If volume one, Funk Connection, often sounds like ‘70s R&B radio, the second disc, Funk Departures, is more unusual, if no less Western. The Cameroonian space disco of Pasteur Lappé’s “Na Real Sekele Fo Ya” makes good use of an air raid signal, a more alarming version of the police whistle that peppered “Bad Girls” and other disco hits. Lappé’s warning blast of choice may well indicate a dark political undercurrent, but the sleazy groove and shameless synth-drums make for a blissful way to dance into the apocalypse. The members of M’Bamina hail from Italy, the Congo and Cameroon, but this mix creates a sound that the compilers note is both the most traditionally African on the set, but also rightly called “African Goth.” Percolating synths, cat’s meow and neurotic funk guitar makes “Kilowi-Kilowi” earns the unusual label of African Italo-Disco.

Like M’Bamina, Ekambi Brillant gets two selections on this comp, and “Aboki (Mon Copain)” might be the best track on the two discs. Its staccato rhythm guitar riff sounds like a Meters/James Brown synthesis. It’s an irresistible dance groove, and a wildly distorted funk guitar solo sends it into that rare stratum of dance hits that you wish could go on forever. As far as I can tell, “Aboki” was never released as a 12” single, but it seems like a natural for some dance music reissue label that wants to get the most sound out of its infectious groove.

A twitchy funk makes you happily forgive the awkward lyrics of “Relax (Before Doin’ Sex).” Suriname group Oscar Harris and the Twinkle Stars directly quotes James Brown, invoking “Sex Machine” in its lyrics but with a lighter touch on the rhythm guitar (like JB’s guitar circa 1970, capoed up a few frets) and a more lilting, indeed relaxing, beat.

The album ends on what could just be another novelty. Beloved South African singer Miriam Makeba was an outspoken activist against Apartheid, but here she seems to sell out to corporate interests with “Toyota Fantasy.” The album’s booklet reproduces the single’s cheesy sleeve art, Makeba pictured singing and towering over the new Corolla and Starlet. Maybe she needed the money, but even if the song won’t inspire any political activism, it’s a solid groove.

The two discs add up to a short 80 minutes. While 40-minute LPs made sense for sound quality, it’s too bad Cherry Red didn’t include bonus material for this CD release. But that simply means that Africa Airways has no fat.

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