AMONG TRUE BELIEVERS in African pop, there has never been any doubt that the sounds of Africa would find an audience in America. But what African act would be the first to capture America's ear?
Manu Didibango was an earlier front runner, thanks to "Top 40" hit "Soul Makossa," but soon sank from sight. The Afrobeat approach of Fela Anikulapo Kuti was strong enough to spark Talking Heads' shift to dance music, but Fela's intensely African perspective and squabbles with the Nigerian government put him out of the running. And though King Sunny Ade was the beneficiary of a massive music press blitz two years ago, his American record deal dried up after three albums.
It's time to introduce a more viable candidate to the race for America's ears. Say hello to Toure Kunda.
Granted, this Senegalese brother act has a few drawbacks. First, they prefer to sing in such native languages as Manadingue Soninke, Poular and Ouolof; second, even if they were to use a Western language, it would be French, not English. Finally, they're plainly devoted to the traditional side of Senegalese music, and that finds them using instruments that, to Western ears, are fairly exotic.
But Toure Kunda's musical strength far overshadows these few cultural differences. For one thing, their music is insistently melodic. True, there's a strong polyrhythmic underpinning to their songs, with all sorts of percussive interplay percolating beneath the vocals, but that seems more to energize the melody than to detract from it. Even on the drum-dominated album "Casamance au Clair de Lune," the simplicity of the settings lends an evenness to the material so that "Sol Mal," with its vigorous, carnival rhythms, balances perfectly with the raw melodic charm of "Ne Nam" and the insistent thump of "Saf Sap."
"Amadou-Tilo" is much closer to the mark for American audiences, though, because this album fattens out Toure Kunda's Africanisms with slick, yet wholly appropriate, pop arrangements. As a result, the album fairly overflows with energy and pop appeal, whether delivered with the gentleness of "Laborador" and the title song, or with the intensity of the fiercely danceable "Courrier" and "Salya." At its best, as on "Utamada," this album demonstrates the kind of match between brain and brawn that makes African pop so dynamic and invigorating.
Lest there be any doubt as to how well Toure Kunda put this across in performance, there's "Paris-Ziguinchor," a live album remarkable for its vitality. It isn't simply that such favorites as "Utamanda" sound hot enough to make you wonder if the album wasn't recorded on asbestos. The confident ease with which the group shifts to the light, Mandingo-styled "Sidi Yella" makes this a delightful reflection of both a sound and an aesthetic.
Toure Kunda may not be destined to become the Next Big Thing. But they certainly deserve consideration, and not just from Afropop fans.
TOURE KUNDA -- "Casamance au Clair de Lune" (Celluloid CELL6102); "Anadou-Tilo" (Celluloid CELL6104); and "Paris-Ziguinchor" (Celluloid CELL6106); appearing Friday and Saturday at Kilimanjaro's Heritage Hall.