Last year I wrote a piece about the deluge of reissues from Africa over the past few years, particularly those that have uncovered obscurities in danger of being lost to history. A few months ago Ken Braun, a longtime American employee for UK label and distributor Sterns–one of the most important sources for African music outside Africa–reminded me that such reissues, whether by former superstars or by bands that never made a ripple outside their backyards, just don’t sell much. Reissuing this material is first and foremost a labor of love.

In 2008 Braun was responsible for Francophonic Vol. 1 (Sterns), an astonishingly good double-CD retrospective of Congolese bandleader and guitarist Franco, whose band Le TP OK Jazz was one of the true juggernauts of African music, with a career spanning more than four decades. Few artists in any style from any era can rival Franco in his cultural importance and musical genius, but the fact is very few Americans have any clue who he is–so this set is just as welcome as the sets of rare music from Nigeria or Benin I wrote about in June.

Franco cut nearly 2,000 songs, so Braun certainly had his work cut out for him. This thoughtful chronological survey, which runs from 1953 to 1980, traces the maestro’s development and assimilation of new ideas. The 48-page booklet Braun wrote explains the conventions of Congolese music, points out which qualities were derived from Cuban music and which from local ethnic traditions, and provides both sociopolitical and musical contexts. Yet even these thorough liner notes can’t hope to be anything more than icing on the cake–the cake being 148 minutes of addictive music. The songs combine an ever shifting rhythmic matrix–the classic “Marie Naboyi,” for example, shimmies through four distinct episodes, each with its own irresistible groove and melody–with gorgeous vocal harmonies, intricate lattices of guitar, and punchy horn charts, and in the sebene section (introduced to Congolese music by Franco’s mentor Henri Bowane) the players take extended solos. It’s an excellent introduction, more than enough to satisfy the needs of the casual listener–though it should be said that it’s pretty hard to stay just a casual listener of Franco.

Last year Sterns also continued its invaluable Authenticité series, named after a state policy in post-independence Guinea that, beginning in 1959, attempted to encourage homegrown culture. The Syliphone Years is a double-CD set from Balla et Ses Balladins, led by Balla Onivogui, a member of the first authenticité band, the Syli Orchestre National, which doubled as a sort of music school, training young players and helping them form other groups to represent each of the country’s 34 regions. Onivogui and bandmate Kélétigui Traoré broke off to start their own sanctioned groups (a double CD by Kélétigui et Ses Tambourinis is coming soon on Sterns), and The Syliphone Years contains a superb selection of the music Onivogui made between 1968-1980. The sound of Cuba is inescapable–in fact the disproportionate influence of such outside cultures was one reason president Sékou Touré launched the program–but the dominant rhythms, melodic ideas, and lyrical themes are indeed indigenous, drawn from Malinké and Fula traditions.

Germany’s Analog Africa imprint released a knockout 14-track collection by Benin’s Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou called The Vodoun Effect–super-rare material originally released on tiny local labels between 1972 and 1975. This is the third reissue CD by this band, which was hugely popular in West Africa during its lifetime, following equally great but very different releases on Soundway and Popular African Music, and it proves how consistent the group was across a variety of styles. Here Orchestre Poly-Rythmo works with local rhythmic manifestations of vodoun called sata and sakpata, combined with the heavy funk that characterizes most of the band’s music. The grooves are the first thing you’ll notice, but there’s no missing the fiery guitar that crackles above the beat. The set also includes a beautiful 44-page booklet packed with band shots, label photos, record sleeves, and studio logs–to say nothing of the extensive background info researched by label honcho Samy Ben Redjeb, who conducted lengthy interviews with surviving members of the band. (Full disclosure: I did some minor, unpaid copyediting of these notes.)

Finally, moving north a bit, we come to 1970’s Algerian Proto-Rai Underground, an amazing vinyl-only release from Sublime Frequencies. The eight tunes here aren’t truly proto-rai–the form dates back to the 30s, when women would sing racy songs in bars accompanied by sparse hand percussion and gasba flutes–but this music clearly served as a model for the modern rai sound popularized by singers like Khaled and Cheb Mami. Percussion, organ, and trumpet are the main instruments, and the beat is more frantic and dance oriented than in the earliest examples of the genre. Two of the best tracks are by Bellemou & Benfissa, a duo featuring Bellemou Messaoud, often called “the Father of Rai,” who introduced his trumpet into the mix–he’s no doubt a big reason that so much of the synthesized rai from the late 70s and onward clearly tries to mimic the sound of the trumpet. Nothing against that chintzy electronic rai–I actually love the stuff–but these tracks are really outstanding, and Sublime Frequencies deserves big ups for digging them up.

Some other terrific African reissues:

Various artists, Highlife Time: Nigerian & Ghanaian Sound (Vampi Soul)
Rail Band, Mansa (Sterns)
Fela Ransome Kuti & Africa 70, Alagbon Close/Why Black Man Dey Suffer (Wrasse)
Ry-Co Jazz, Bon Voyage!! (RetroAfric)
Sir Victor Uwaifo, Guitar-Boy Superstar 1970-76 (Soundway)

OK, I’m through. On to 2009!

Today’s playlist:

Eli Degibri Trio, Live at Louis 649 (Anzic)
Lotte Anker, Sylvie Courvoisier, and Ikue Mori, Alien Huddle (Intakt)
Kenneth Gaburo, Lingua II: Maledetto/Antiphony VIII (Pogus Productions)
Magnus Broo Quartet, Painbody (Moserobie)
Gang Gang Dance, Saint Dymphna (Social Registry)