Like virtually all products of American culture, hip-hop has traveled on globalism's winds to take root in the unlikeliest of places from Serbia to São Paulo. Africa Raps: Senegal, Mali, and the Gambia, a compilation on German label Trikont, brings rap's Afrocentric tendencies full circle, collecting recent material from thousands of regional releases flooding West Africa's shops.
While a few of the album's artists, such as Paris-based Djoloff, have released records outside Africa, most of these previously tape-only tracks never have been heard outside the Sahel. Curated by the Munich-based journalist Jay Rutledge, the collection makes for an ideal primer, and not only because of its detailed liner notes, which contextualize the music in relation to religious, political and socioeconomic issues. Debunking Western stereotypes of the Third World as the source of many a third-rate knockoff, Africa Raps uncovers some startlingly good material: deftly produced, tuneful and surprisingly diverse.
The least interesting tracks here hew closest to American styles. C.B.V.'s "Art. 158" relies on punchy bass lines, grating strings, keyboard stabs and ray gun effects hallmarks of lo-fi production that wouldn't be out of place on college radio, although the stutter-step French rapping would have a hard time finding airtime stateside. The songs in regional languages like Wolof or Malinka stand even less chance of being heard, much less understood, by American ears. But even when the tunes' meanings usually "conscious" critiques of society's ills, according to the liner notes are totally opaque, the unfamiliar cadences of the local tongues carry their own sonic thrill. Gokh-Bi Soundsystem's "Xaesal" inveighs against the skin-bleaching tonic of the same name, and nothing's really lost in translation: The MCs' diatribes spit and spin in insistent circles while a female chorus reels off a mournful counterpoint. The number's background track a whirl of hand drums and string cadences reminiscent of traditional West African artists such as Ali Farka Touré is barely recognizable as hip-hop, which is precisely what makes it so fascinating.
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Likewise, Mali's Tata Pound expands considerably the definition of rap music, winding frenetic, double-time delivery into a dense and joyful mash-up of salsa, electro and African guitars. Pee Froiss' "Jalgaty," on the other hand, hardly sounds alien; in fact, the track's funky keyboards and auctioneer-paced rapping draw a direct line to Atlanta's OutKast. But that reference alone begs the question of how such a particular, regional American style made its way to West Africa and into an unfamiliar tongue. The success of Africa Raps is the way it traces these weird travels and trade-offs. Such unimagined mutations are a testament to the way every "margin" creates its own center of gravity.