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A Guide to the World of African Music

Ever get a craving for some new, unfamiliar music, only to wind up staring at a bin full of records without the slightest clue as to which album to pick? There’s no way around the shot-in-the-dark method until you start finding performers, labels and styles you like--or until you run into a godsend like Ronnie Graham’s book, “The Da Capo Guide to Contemporary African Music” (Da Capo Press, 315 pages).

Graham’s formal, scholarly tone is forbidding at first, but ultimately his social and political slant gives an extra dimension to the African music world. He breaks the continent down region by region and country by country, making it easy to trace the historical development of the different styles.

Informative biographies of the most prominent African musicians are included, along with listings of more than 3,000 albums. Now there’s one source to consult when you stumble across an obscure South African album such as, for instance, the first entry in this edition of On the Off Beat, a roundup of ethnic, regional, reggae, roots and related recordings.

Melancholy Drone

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“ZIPHANSI IZINSIZWA.” Fihlamahlazo Nabochwepheshe. Vulindlela import. Labeled “Zulu traditional” on the cover, this acoustic guitar/accordion/fiddle trio blends into a melancholy drone that actually falls surprisingly close to the sound of Cajun music. The ragged singing succeeds more on high spirits than technical polish, but the rhythm section (one overdubbed by the producers?) only clutters the sound. The songs are mesmerizing individually, particularly the title track and “Sengikhala Negentombi Yami,” but lack of variation in the arrangements (particularly that inescapable bass drum, which maddeningly sets the same tempo for every tune) chips away at the collective luster.

The Real Deal

“LIGHTNING AND THUNDER.” The Golden Eagles. Rounder. Mardi Gras Indian music on record--from the celebrated Wild Tchoupitoulas album on Island to the rare pair of Wild Magnolias collections on Polydor--dressed the tribes up in mid-'70s soul/funk arrangements. Not “Lightning and Thunder”: This “live in context” recording captured the Golden Eagles running through their material in a New Orleans bar. Informative liner notes supply the historical context, but the record’s true flavor is revealed when Big Chief Monk Boudreaux wraps up the performance by thanking the crowd and adding, “They got some meatballs and spaghetti in back if y’all want to eat.”

The musical menu is all rough, ragged vocals served over percussion (heavy on the tambourines) with plenty of call-and-response byplay with the audience. “Thunder and Lightning” isn’t for everybody, but staunch New Orleans fans will welcome this slice of the real deal.

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Stellar Reggae

“FAMILY.” Joe Higgs. Shanachie. The only problem with Joe Higgs’ records is there aren’t enough of them; recorded in Los Angeles, “Family” is only the stellar reggae vocalist’s fourth album in a 30-year career. Higgs is a masterful songwriter equally comfortable with love songs, socially oriented material or stepping outside the usual reggae vein on “African-Can,” “Free Africa” and the miscalculated version of “Day O.”

His voice can swoop from soft caress to rough exhortation in mid-phrase and his vocal texture recalls the late Peter Tosh--but then Higgs was the vocal mentor for Tosh, Bob Marley and Bunny Wailer when the Wailers formed in Jamaica in the early ‘60s. The sharply etched melodies and piquant lyrics sprinkled through “You Didn’t Know,” “Upside Down” and the title track makes you hope fans of young lion Ziggy Marley take the next step to an old pro like Joe Higgs.

East/West Diversion

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“SITAR POWER.” Ashwin Batish. Shanachie. Sitars and drums machines? Song titles like “New Delhi Vice” and “Casbah Shuffle”? That’s the recipe for Santa Cruz-based musician Ashwin Batish, who employs the sitar like a lead guitar within the framework of Indian-tinged rock song structures.

“Bombay Boogie” could be the theme for an Indian spaghetti Western (?!) while “Casbah Shuffle” and “Raga Rock” both sport catchy melodies utilizing recognizable Western pop hooks. While Batish hasn’t created a stunning new synthesis, his skillful playing and the sitar’s spidery, tingling tone make “Sitar Power” a light, entertaining diversion.


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