Various Artists: Air Africa

Various Artists: Air Africa

Another day, another compilation of rare African grooves.

Various Artists: Air Africa

3.75 / 5

Another day, another compilation of rare African grooves. With such labels as Analog Africa, Awesome Tapes from Africa, Now-Again, Sterns and even Cherry Red cranking out sets of African pop with little if any overlap, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the wide-ranging continent’s great bounty. With claims that Air Africa, the inaugural volume in its Noir C’est Noir series, offers ‘60s and ‘70s material never reissued before, Spanish label Aziza Disques is one more competitor for your world pop budget. They deserve your ducats, too.

The set opens with a familiar chord progression; “Save Me,” a 1970 recording by Congolese group Orchestra African Fiesta, features rhythm guitar that is a barely disguised “Gloria.” Just like vintage garage rock, the sound quality is amateurish, bass and drums overwhelming the guitar. But the performance is spirited, and it’s all over before the two-minute mark. Such enthusiastic concision is typical of an album that delivers 14 tracks in 43 minutes. Unlike some comps that try to fill a CD’s worth of material at the expense of pacing, you’ll want another volume of this music.

With soul and beat influences in addition to garage rock, Air Africa taps varied subgenres, but despite drawing from numerous countries, the set coheres, and is consistently danceable. From Tanzania, Sunbust brings on an almost psychedelic organ and wah-wah guitar solo for “Let’s Live Together,” a message of unity in a sensuous groove. The Gee Dees, from Ghana, play a lightly funky reggae rhythm on “Amina.” Cameroonian group Les Kilts go beat with “Jerk Bastos,” and the inevitable James Brown card is played by Ugandan group The Rwenzori’s on “I Wara Part 1,” its scratchy funk guitar invoking the Godfather of Soul while sensuous rhythms suggest Fela. Congo’s Docteur Nico & The Orchestre funkify an unlikely American source on “Sookie,” an unofficial cover of the 1968 hit by Steppenwolf; who knew that the creators of “Born to Be Wild” could inspire such things?

The set takes its title from Guinea-born Kanté Manfila, whose “Air Afrique” filters a lilting highlife rhythm through a garage band template. Its chorus specifies the topical dance craze as the boogaloo, invoked again by Congo’s Kalle et L’African Team on “Mi Nueva Boogaloo.”

Unfortunately, liner notes aren’t provided, and any context might have boosted this to a full four-star rating. The listener will have to dig around on their own to learn that, for instance, “Jerk Bastos” was recorded as a promotion for a cigarette company; or that Orchestra African Fiesta was co-founded by legendary singer Tabu Ley Rochereau, who left the band in 1965; and that Manfila led the popular Malian band Les Ambassadeurs in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Still, it’s hard not to get excited about further volumes in the series; the second title, released concurrently, is intriguingly called Murder by Contract, and promises psych, garage and prog rock! If available samples are any indication, it sounds like an even better compilation. Come for Air Africa, and stay for whatever else is released in the series.

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