In better days, the appearance of an album that managed to span cultural, political and chronological gulfs yet still stood on its own as pure entertainment would have been regarded as something of a marvel. That such a work has been achieved in 1982 seems just a shade short of miraculous.
From its unprepossessing but precise title to its acute sensitivity to pace and mix, "Music and Rhythm" (PVC Records, PVC 201) reaches out to the music lover who seeks to understand and enjoy the rich legacy of sound within his possession. A double album devised to benefit an English festival that took place last July, "Music and Rhythm" is a broad collection that includes centuries-old Ghana rituals, the futuristic eccentricities of Jon Hassell and Peter Hammill and contributions by such comfortably current Western notables as Pete Townshend and David Byrne.
Although emphasis is on the vast and undeniable influence of the African continent on Western musical thought, the point is how ethno-musical ideas have been volleyed across oceans for so long that everyday sounds are intertwined with -- and sometimes mistakable for -- those being enjoyed worlds away.
The success of "Music and Rhythm" lies largely in its producers' refusal to degenerate into middlebrow academics or didacticism. Concise information about each song is available on the inside cover, to be discovered at the listener's leisure and inclination. The pacing of this collection is what will drive the listener, with almost every track offering elements of familiarity for anyone who listens to pop music.
Side one opens with the Drums of Makebuko, Burundi (recognizable to Joni Mitchell fans as the "Burundi Drums"). This 1977 recording has been painstakingly remixed and refined, and although it's strictly confined to percussions with intermittent chants, its dynamics and intensity lend it a thunderous lyricism all its own. This is followed by "Across the River," a rhythm-based composition by Peter Gabriel, formerly of the rock group Genesis. Next, the toe-tapping Afro-Caribbean dance company Ekome performs a Ghanaian social song, followed by the punkish good humor of XTC's "It's Nearly Africa," in which the English group exhorts us chant-like to "shake that bag of bones." The side ends with a rare and valuable recording of the Dagbamba Cultural Group, lovingly remixed to highlight the female vocalist as she performs a moving, ancient ritual song of the firstborn.
The other three sides follow in this eclectic yet logical vein. The producers let the pieces speak for themselves, though they are not above a little creative remixing. For example, "Mirror in the Bathroom," a reggae hit by the Beat (known in the U.S. as the English Beat), has been "especially remixed in order that it might lead easily into the Nigerian rhythms of the next track" by Prince Nico, of whom the group are avowed fans.
Highlights of the album include a track by Mighty Sparrow, whose lead singer strongly recalls African popster Fela Kuti; the exquisitely good-natured and simply structured reggae of Rico; the maze-like ostinato of Morris Pert's Moroccan/Arabic Blend, and the dream-like fusion of Jon Hassle's "Ba Benzele."
There are weak spots, too, most notably Peter Hammill's egocentric and amorphous contribution and Pete Townshend's amateurish if adulatory venture into raga rhythms. And the final side loses its strength trying to encompass the special complexities of India's musical language.
But "Music" is generally consistent in its use of variety to make a statement about universality, and it succeeds with a healthy proportion of humor, compassion and love for what has evolved into a worldwide pop aesthetic. Indeed, after hearing it, it's difficult to listen to the most bland and modest radio hit without making a thousand pleasant connections and digressions. With the release of "Music and Rhythm," no longer are the works of these varied and talented artists to remain inaccessible to all but a handful of rock elite who have commissioned their ideas for years.
A less ambitious attempt at the same kind of artistic entente is "Sound D'Afrique II" (Island MLPS 9754), a compilation of African dance pop concentrating on the countries of Mali, Cameroon, the French Congo and Zaire. Because it seeks to specialize, "Sound" doesn't make the kind of broad connections so easily achieved on "Music and Rhythm."
Instead, the album chooses for its theme "Soukous," very roughly translated here as the concept of having the best possible time. The collection serves its theme well; those not inclined to dance to Mensy's "Ane Ya" or Asi Kapela's "Yoyoyo" are probably defying some natural law.
In general, "Sound D'Afrique" does not begin to capture the musical essence of global pop the way "Music and Rhythm" does, but it has the same upbeat spirit of music as self-contained language, and that's an auspicious start.