Love’s a Real Thing: The Funky Fuzzy Sounds of West Africa

(Luaka Bop/V2)

My mouth was watering when I read Ned Sublette’s book Cuba and Its Music and Gary Stewart’s astounding history of Congolese music, Rumba on the River–they can describe a great song so skillfully that the rest of your body reacts even when your ears aren’t in on the fun. But as satisfying as it is to learn about hard-to-find recordings–whether they went out of print, never got released in the U.S., or both–in the end it’s better to actually hear them. I want to see those albums reissued, and the sooner the better. Waiting for a label to do the job is a crapshoot: of all the tens of thousands of records that’ve fallen undeservedly into obscurity, which one will see the light of day next?

Successful marketing can iron out a lot of this apparent randomness, though, by helping sustain a reissue campaign that focuses on a specific style or on the music of a particular region. In 2000, when MCA began its series of stateside rereleases from Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the late Nigerian inventor of Afrobeat, it took great pains to make sure the albums would have an audience: after waiting till they’d already caused a buzz in Europe, the label released the first of the discs alongside the U.S. debut from Fela’s son, Femi Kuti, who was touring America and providing in-the-flesh testimony to the music’s staying power. The French imprint Buda originally planned to release only ten volumes in its superb “Ethiopiques” series–but, in part because the label did justice to the greatness of the music by investing in handsome packaging and informative liner notes, volume 19 just came out and there’s no end in sight. And two British imprints have capitalized on the demand for post-Fela Afrobeat, contributing to a healthy and still-growing stack of reissues and compilations: beginning in the late 90s the now defunct Strut Records put out several volumes of hard Nigerian funk, and in 2003 the Soundway label, owned by DJ and record collector Miles Cleret, kicked off its “Ghana Soundz” series.

When it comes to creating niches for different flavors of international music, though, David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label wrote the book. Luaka Bop’s collections of Brazilian pop laid the groundwork for the surge of interest in tropicalia in the late 90s. Nearly a decade ago The Soul of Black Peru introduced the world to Susana Baca and offered glimpses of artists who’ve since made tours of the States, like Eva Ayllon and Peru Negro. And Telling Stories to the Sea, a compilation of music from Lusophone Africa, helped launch or reinvigorate the Western careers of Cesaria Evora, Bonga, and Waldemar Bastos.

Now Luaka Bop is blowing the dust off a huge trove of music that’s been languishing for too long: Love’s a Real Thing: The Funky Fuzzy Sounds of West Africa, which came out on Tuesday, is perfectly designed to trigger another boomlet of reissues. Considering Soundway’s recent releases, it might look like Luaka Bop is jumping on the African bandwagon, not steering it, but in fact this compilation was nearly finished in 2002–in the interim the label changed distributors from Virgin to V2, which interrupted many of its regular activities.

Love’s a Real Thing casts a wider net than earlier African compilations, covering most of the 70s, a host of West African countries, and a mind-bending variety of styles–in the postcolonial period, a renewed interest in traditional African sounds produced all sorts of strange hybrids between indigenous pop and Western music. And the comp takes advantage of a preexisting (if somewhat dubious) organizing principle: it’s the third entry in the label’s “World Psychedelic Classics” series, preceded by discs devoted to Brazilian pop misfits Os Mutantes and San Francisco soul nutjob Shuggie Otis.

All the music on Love’s a Real Thing is wiggy in one way or another, and there are psychedelic sounds here and there, if by “psychedelic” you just mean “wah-wah guitar.” But it’s misleading to suggest that there was ever a widespread, self-conscious psychedelic movement in Africa. I don’t want to quibble with Luaka Bop’s marketing techniques, since any spin that tempts more people to check this stuff out is ultimately a good thing, but the best link between this music and American psych is political, not musical: acid rock flowered in the States during the late-60s counterculture boom, when all kinds of imagined futures seemed possible, and this collection reflects a similarly brief window of optimism in Africa’s postcolonial history, roughly the early to mid-70s. In the 60s, African performers routinely mimicked music from Europe and the Americas, from Afro-Cuban son to French ye-ye, sometimes going so far as to phonetically imitate Spanish or English lyrics they didn’t understand. But in the 70s that started to change, thanks in part to international pop festivals like Soul to Soul in Ghana in 1971 and the three-day Zaire 74, intended as a prelude to George Foreman and Muhammad Ali’s “Rumble in the Jungle.” Africans got to see the likes of James Brown, Santana, the Spinners, Ike and Tina Turner, the Staple Singers, and Wilson Pickett, and in many cases something rubbed off.

Gambia’s Super Eagles, for example, transformed secondhand military uniforms into ersatz Sgt. Pepper’s outfits and played a dazzling mixture of Afro-Cuban son, highlife, merengue, soul, and rock. They covered “Hey Jude” and wrote a number of originals in English. The band is represented on Love’s a Real Thing by the 1972 title track, where sweet vocal harmonies glide over an organ-soaked soul groove that climaxes in a stinging, twangy electric guitar solo that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Music Machine single. A Nigerian group called Ofo the Black Company contributes the 1972 tune “Allah Wakbarr,” one of three cuts on the disc that also appeared on the out-of-print 2001 Strut compilation Nigeria 70–it’s a sublimely heavy, ocean-deep surge of cowbell-driven funk rock, with nasty guitar stabs and writhing, acidic single-string lines that recall early Funkadelic.

But most of the music on Love’s a Real Thing isn’t so clearly beholden to Western pop, instead folding indigenous sounds more thoroughly into the mix. “Keleya,” a 1975 track by Mali’s Moussa Doumbia, takes Fela’s Afrobeat as a point of departure, adorning its expansive funk with wild, in-the-red yowls worthy of James Brown and a squalling, squeaking tenor saxophone solo. Percussionist Gasper Lawal, a London-based Nigerian who’s done session work with Ginger Baker, contributes “Awon-Ojise-Oluwa,” a 1980 cut that mellows the hard Afrobeat he mastered in the 70s with an infusion of the sashaying grace of juju, a laid-back dance music most famously exported by King Sunny Ade. The 1975 cut “Ifa,” by Tunji Oyelana & the Benders, creates its fierce, chugging groove by mixing and matching elements of juju and a related form called apala, less well-known outside Nigeria, that’s relatively stripped-down and punchy; after a vocal-and-percussion incantation, low-end bass and funky guitar licks bubble in and turn the piece into a dance workout.

Not every hybrid on the compilation is easily explained by postcolonial cross-pollination; some are just plain weird. The gentle polyrhythmic percussion on “Sanjina,” by Guinea’s Orchestre Regional de Kayes, is draped with murmuring tenor saxophone and studded with twangy, chattering, pointillistic guitar lines that evoke the repeating cycles of Arabic music. “Ceddo End Title,” by Cameroonian superstar Manu Dibango–who, in one of the biggest flukes in Billboard’s history, charted at number 35 in the States with “Soul Makossa” in 1973–is dialed down and heavy with cool marimba and muted guitar. The 1978 track “Better Change Your Mind,” by Nigeria’s William Onyeabor, sounds like an African counterpart to Shuggie Otis’s bedroom soul: a loping, stiff-legged beat, a chintzy electronic organ line, and an insistent guitar riff repeat endlessly as Onyeabor delivers his righteous political message, calling out the colonial powers by name in English. And Senegal’s great No. 1 de No. 1, who represent the guitar-heavy Afro-Cuban tradition that also includes the Star Band, Orchestra Baobab, and Youssou N’Dour’s Etoile de Dakar, contribute “Guajira Ven”; it’s a straight-up Cuban jam, with Spanish vocals and brassy trumpet lines, but the guitar solo is pure Santana.

Given that the tracks on Love’s a Real Thing were made between 1972 and 1980 in nine different countries–Nigeria, Benin, Mali, Senegal, Cameroon, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, and the UK–it’s a little silly for Luaka Bop to imply that they all came out of a single movement. And since no compilation can possibly map out the entire tangled genealogy of postcolonial African music, it’s pointless to complain that this one doesn’t–in fact, I’m glad it doesn’t, since that means we’ll need more reissues to complete the picture.