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The Boston Phoenix Africa Mixed

Sono's 12-CD Rendez Vous series

By Banning Eyre

MAY 17, 1999:  Record companies out to sell African music seem more interested in concept compilations than individual artists. Compilations are cheap, and they avoid the mess of managing musical careers. So we get Shanachie Records' four-CD African Heartbeat set and Putumayo's "odyssey" series, both of which reveal as much about the compilers as the compiled, especially since the producers are non-Africans aiming to please a particular foreign market. But the newest player in the game -- Sono Africa's 12-CD Rendez Vous series -- tells a different story, one about the history of Africans selling African pop to Africans.

Sono Africa (also known as Sonodisc) is the most powerful distributor of West and Central African music in the modern era. Based in Paris, it caters both to Africa and to sizable communities of African expatriates throughout Europe. The mind behind Rendez Vous is Senegalese producer Ibrahima (a/k/a Bailo) Sylla. Sylla has produced landmark crossover records for renowned African musicians, including Salif Keita and Baaba Maal, but his bread and butter has always been the home market. He has an uncanny sense of what will sell in Dakar, Bamako, Abidjan, and other African hubs.

Rendez Vous's 12 discs are limited to Sylla productions and the contents of the Sonodisc vault. There is no music from north, east, or southern Africa because Sonodisc is not a player in those markets. Major artists are conspicuous by their absence -- what other compilation of Senegalese music would neglect Youssou N'Dour, who, as it happens, never worked with the Sylla/Sono cabal? Nevertheless, the series provides a revealing sample of local music tastes in west and central Africa. And its strengths and weaknesses help to explain why particular African styles have fared better or worse in the outside world.

Take the Latin-tinged styles. Rendez Vous handles them in three volumes. African Salsa-Rumba is a fine history of African bands playing Latin sounds, especially rich for its classic material from Congo, Mali, and Guinea. The Latin influence has done much to extend Afropop's universality, especially in the Congo region, which has produced Africa's biggest international sellers.

Rendez Vous's Congo Compil concentrates on the modern music of Kinshasa (the Congolese capital), whereas Soukous Paris samples European productions of the Congo sound. The Kinshasa material is quirkier and more fun, the Paris tracks are more polished; both volumes show a ravenous appetite for technology in the form of drum machines and synthesizers. High-tech Congo dance music sold big during the 1970s and '80s, but to listen to all three CDs is to understand why the Congo sound is now in decline. It sacrificed much of its warmth to become something wild and frothy but ultimately disposable.

The Mali, Guinea, and Senegal compilations offer more enduring music. Superstars Baaba Maal and Salif Keita rate just a single track each, but these CDs greatly enlarge our view of the locales that produced such outstanding talent. Blending acoustic and electric instruments has become a trend in contemporary Afropop. The tracks here by artists like Sekouba Bambino Diabate (Guinea) and Kasse Mady (Mali) probably paved the way for that development. The kind of majesty and drama they convey is undiminished by the years, suggesting that the influence of this music may still be ascendant. Perhaps sensing that, Sylla includes an additional volume drawn from these countries, Royaume du Mande. This collection of elegant songs about the Manding Empire is the gem of the Rendez Vous series.

The Côte d'Ivoire compilation proves unexpectedly rewarding. Many West African stars record in the cosmopolitan Ivoirean capital, Abidjan, but no Ivoirean artist has yet earned much of an international profile -- a mystery given the originality and energy on these tracks. Sonodisc's weakness in Cape Verdean music becomes obvious on that country's volume, which can't hold a candle to two brilliant Cape Verde compilations from Tinder Records.

Sylla also tries his hand at standard African themes: women and reggae. African Queens is peculiarly flat and disappointing given all there is to draw upon, but Reggae Times in Africa offers a number of engaging tracks by virtually unknown artists.

Which brings us back to where we started. As useful as it is to have the complexities of African pop boiled down to handy concepts, the artists who make the music tend to get lost in the shuffle. The scant notes in the Rendez Vous series (all in French) focus on styles and trends and on Sylla's production brilliance, revealing little about the musicians. Most of these artists signed away their rights to this material the day they recorded it, so even if one of these volumes sells big, they won't profit. But the sad truth is that a slot on one of these compilations may still represent the best publicity available to the yet-to-be-discovered African musician.

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