Various Artists: African Odyssey

Various Artists
African Odyssey

Everytime I read or hear about Africa, I have to work to even imagine what a huge and ancient continent Africa is, second in size after Asia and home to 50 countries, 1,000 languages, and 3,000 tribes. From the northernmost tip of Tunisia to the southernmost Cape in South Africa, in between there can only be an astonishing geographical and cultural diversity. As the music is as diverse and complex yet interrelated as the cultures and the continent itself, it must be a challenge to select 10 tracks for a compilation. Rather than relying on the accustomed music rich in traditional percussive effects, the compilers opted to show some of the softer-sounding acoustic music that has a mellow, calm groove. The overall effect is more relaxing and laid-back, like many of Putumayo’s other musical odysseys. Although at first seeming unusual and perhaps too mild, African Odyssey just grows on you.

With the exception of Oliver Mtukudzi of Zimbabwe, this is all new music by artists completely unknown to me. The recording sweeps through vast geographic distances to gather music from musicians of Mali, Kenya, Cape Verde, Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, and Guinea-Bissau (allowing me fun with an atlas, too). The record introduces most all of these artists for the first time to an audience outside their own countries.

Manecas Costa is quite well known in Guinea-Bissau. In 1987, he won the prestigious Radio France International Discoveries award and UNICEF nominated him a Goodwill Ambassador for his songs that addressed the struggles of women and children in Guinea-Bissau and throughout the Third World in general. In 1990, he emigrated to Portugual. The lyrics to “Fundo di Matu” (“Deep in the Forest”) are quite mysterious, this seems to be a love song with an underlying mood that could be melancholy. But this can also be a commentary on the state of his native land, “Bissau is sleeping but doesn’t know it.”

Augusto Cego (“Blind Augusto”) gives out the surprise of the collection. Mar” is a Cape Verdean morna, a style of singing related to the fado of the Portuguese colonizers. A slower mood piece in minor keys and nudged by gentle percussion, “Mar” is a sensuous song, adrift with longing and a desire as endless as the waves that brush the edges of the rugged Cape Verde islands. This is the most romantic song I have heard in quite some time.

The n’dan, a six-stringed Malian harp, is even more striking when placed near a haunting but understated synth in Adama Yalomba’s “Miri Yôrô”. The song is an eloquent plea for generosity in the face of poverty: “When you are rich, you should help the deprived, the poor, the sick, the orphans / Wealth can’t be limited only to power and money / Generosity is an outstretched arm which allows one to jump over the hurdles in life / Let’s think about our destiny / And settle our disputes through dialogue / Let’s study / For education is the only path to development / Let’s struggle / To overcome the problems in our community.”

One of the recognized fathers of the Zimbabwean pop movement, Oliver Mtukudzi is now Zimbabwe’s best-selling recording artist. Mtukudzi (or “Tuku” as he is called) began recording in the 1970s with the Wagon Wheels, a band that also included the legendary Thomas Mapfumo. Even with three simultaneous hit albums at a time, Mtukudzi is not like the typical star but very down to earth, and runs a grocery store when he is not working with his band. One of his biggest fans stateside is Bonnie Raitt, who used his music as inspiration for the song “One Belief Away” on her album Fundamental.

On “Raki”, Mtukudzi is inspired by the cycling rhythms of mbira (thumb piano) transposed to steel string guitar and there is a hint of South African township music mixed with the sound of a classic R&B soulman. “Raki” is a contagious, gently rocking song, carried by the smoky-voiced singer and his chorus. But it is his lyrics that have captured the hearts of Zimbabweans. “Raki” (with a trilled “r”) is a soulful reminder to recognize spirituality as a guiding force in life. “There are people who survive, who make it in life / Because of their belief they are lucky / They don’t even know that there is someone looking over them / Someone who carries them through the rough and dangerous patches / You hear them boasting that they are so lucky! / But the question is: ‘Where do you get that good luck?'”

Sung in Shona or English, Mtukudzi’s songs inevitably deal with social and economic issues. In the face of political turmoil and a horrific AIDS epidemic that has impacted Africa severely, he has much to sing about. Half of his band, including his brother died of the disease, but Tuku’s example of humor and optimism is what is needed to begin facing tremendous challenges and his appeal crosses generations. Putumayo to their credit have provided ways in the liner notes and their website for people to get more information on the African AIDS epidemic and to begin to do something to help.