Various artists: The Rough Guide to West African Gold

Various artists
The Rough Guide to West African Gold
World Music Network

Maybe West African oldies could get a ska-sized global revival if the music were reduced to a single brand name. What would you think of "gold"? Taking a cue from this essential new Rough Guide collection, and from Network Medien's recent Golden Afrique series, gold could describe all that came after independence on electric guitar—before the crossover success of Senegal's Youssou N'Dour, and outside the particular industries sustained by Nigeria's late Fela Kuti and living King Sunny Ade. West African Gold compiles precursors to both Fela's Afrobeat and N'Dour's mbalax, but the heart of its sound lies in Francophone Africa under a sun rising out of Cuba—the percussive 1970s dance orchestras with their Latin horns, cascading guitars, and spidery solos.

More familiar sounds open the disc for a general audience, with lyrics in English: Ghanaian bandleader E.T. Mensah waxes so mellow on his pan-Africanist highlife anthem "Ghana-Guinea-Mali," he could be inviting the continent over for cocktails. Sierra Leone singer Geraldo Pino (born Gerald Pine) funks so convincingly on "Let Them Talk," he could be rocking a pre-hip-hop Bronx. But then comes the dumbfounding, alien beauty of Bembeya Jazz National, whose big-band blend of Mande and Cuban styles out of Communist Guinea sounds like the crowded heart of a party at the center of the world—think Islamic Chuck Berry. Like so much other "gold" here, it maintains a happy face ("Whiskey Soda" lets the late Aboubacar Demba Camara pretend to get sloshed on the mic) while somehow anticipating sadness, as if everyone knew that the government would one day have worse problems than negotiating rights for the box set its state-run Syliphone label so richly deserves. May better times bring "gold" its due.

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