Africa 13: taster with a difference

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Rough Trade Shops Africa 13, out now on CD and mp3

Rough Trade Shops has released the perfect stocking-filler for newcomers to music from Africa with its Africa 13.

Seasoned fans will be familiar with some of the choices originally released in the UK on labels such as Crammed Discs, Awesome Tapes From Africa and Soundway.

Highlights include the hypnotic polyrhythms of Congo's Konono No. 1, the minimalist electro groove of the Owiny Sigoma Band and Staff Benda Bilili's dance-floor filler Osali Mabe.

The album is described as a taster, and unsurprisingly the flavours are hugely diverse. Moroccan gunbri players Jmimi, Lekbir and Fatma Anounya provide the traditional, while South Africa's Tshetsha Boys showcase the frenetic sounds of contemporary Shangaan music.

The 80s electro funk of the enigmatic William Onyeabor and the Hendrix tinged Zam-rock of Rikki Ililonga underline the fact that the dialogue between African artists and those of the US and Europe precedes Damon Albarn's Africa Express by many decades.

One of the most enchanting tracks comes from Ethiopian accordionist and keyboard player Hailu Mergia. Entitled Hari Meru Meru, it sounds as if Mergia's traditional plaintive accordion melodies have been joined by the dreamy analogue synth of Weather Report's Joe Zawinul.

In fact the beautiful and unexpected interplay was the sole creation of Mergia on his 1985 album Hailu Mergia and his Classical Instrument.

The scope and quality of the choices suggest the album is compiled by knowledgeable enthusiasts with the best of intentions. But does any attempt to represent so many diverse musical cultures in one collection inevitably reduce the music to a decontextualised and superficial snapshot?

Certainly "world music" compilations have always been politically fraught. At their worst they present an Orientalist, quasi-colonial view of the cultures of "others". Take for example the cover art of the best-selling Putumayo series. Though the music choices can seldom be faulted, the covers usually depict smiling curvaceous natives dancing in traditional dress - the perfect condescending cliche of Cuba, Colombia or Cape Verde to accompany a cappuccino in Hampstead.

Africa 13 is better than that. Its emphasis on diverse sounds is clearly an attempt to provoke, inspire and open minds rather than confirm comfortable stereotypes.

The two CDs come with detailed liner notes that provide an excellent starting point for further explorations. But for all its strengths, the compilation reflects a certain nostalgia on the part of its compilers which gives a misleading impression of music in Africa in 2013.

With some excellent exceptions, it favours the music of older African generations rather than the sounds you are most likely to hear on the streets of the continent's capital cities right now.

The new Ghanaian genres of hiplife and azonto are not included, but we are treated to the highlife veteran Ebo Taylor. 1970s afrobeat is represented but not contemporary Nigerian afrobeats - that 's' on the end signifies a whole new US rhythm and bass inspired genre.

There's nothing inherently wrong with this - highlife and afrobeat should be brought to a wider audience. But it's interesting to try to unravel that nostalgia. For some "world music" fans, it undoubtedly reflects an unwitting desire to exaggerate difference. For them, the function of African music is escape from the modern world to an imaginary place of authenticity and exoticism - the more "naive" or "primitive" the sounds, the better. For others it's a completely legitimate question of taste.

Either way, what we end up with is an excellent collection of tunes, but not one which meaningfully represents the music of Africa today. The real point is not what this collection misses, but the impossibility of the task - Africa is too big, its musical cultures too numerous and diverse.

It's a problem which is tacitly acknowledged in the liner notes which wisely begin with the disclaimer, "So what is African music today? Well, music from Africa. And that's about it. Forget any stereotypes or pre-conceptions - this compilation shows there is a huge musical diversity in Africa."

Compared with the times when African records were rarities in the record shops of London, compilations such as Rough Trade's Africa 13 are an enlightened leap forward.

But hopefully such compilations will in part create their own gravediggers. That is, when enough people, inspired by such tasters, have a chance to go beyond them; the idea that Africa can be reduced in this way will be abandoned. Until then this collection is as good a starting point as any.