The German label Network Records recently issued the third installment in its excellent Golden Afrique series, book-sized double-CD sets that focus on particular regions of Africa primarily during the 70s—the continent’s golden era for popular music. Volume 3 takes aim at South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Zambia, and if only for the reason that Paul Simon’s Graceland made South African pop ubiquitous on these shores, it’s the least interesting edition thus far. That’s not to say that the choices made by its three compilers—including Günter Gretz, the German behind the indispensable Popular African Music label—are weak, although inclusions by Miriam Makeba, Brenda Fassie, and Chris McGregor ignore vastly superior work. It’s just that we’re unlikely to be surprised by tunes by Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Mahlathini, and Hugh Masekela, as good as they may be. I’m shocked that kwela king Spokes Mashiyane isn’t represented, as Malawi’s Donald Kachamba delivers a dose of the style, but such quibbling could go on forever.
Disc 2, which focuses on Zimbabwe and Zambia, fares better, presenting earlier, more urgent work by the likes of Thomas Mapfumo (heard here with the great Hallelujah Chicken Run Band) and Oliver Mtukudzi, rather than the slickly produced stuff that’s gained them favor in the U.S. and Europe. But most of the tracks come from lesser-known acts. While most of the music on the first two volumes (covering West Africa and the Congo, respectively) revealed a deep clave feel, here the rhythms are more bubbly and liquid, with fluid, interlocking guitar patterns. As the liner notes point out, this music was also born under highly oppressive European regimes. Nightclubs and beer halls provided the only social outlet these natives had, and creating new music was both a salve and a vital means of expression. If you don’t have much African music this series has thus far provided as good an introduction as any I’ve encountered in recent years, but beware: this stuff is contagious.