50 Essential African Albums (Part 1 of 3)
A special feature for paid subscribers to The Honest Broker
Here’s a special feature for paid subscribers to The Honest Broker. Over the course of a 3-part article, I plan to showcase 50 essential recordings of African music.
Below is part one, featuring 17 albums of superior merit. The list is in chronological order based on date of release (not recording date).
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1. Various Artists: African Music, collected by Laura C. Bolton (1957)
Ethnomusicologist Laura Bolton’s 1957 compilation of African music for the estimable Folkways label (now part of the Smithsonian) was a milestone recording, not just for the music but also the extensive liner notes—remember them!—with their track-by-track descriptions. Bolton, who devoted 50 years to her song-collecting expeditions, recorded these performances during trips to West and Central Africa, and they feature musicians from Benin, Cameroon, Liberia, Mali, Nigeria, and Sudan. But she mostly let the songs speak for themselves, not always a given on recordings of this sort, offering up translations of many lyrics. In every way, this album lives up to her stated intent to “capture, absorb, and bring back” the music of the people she met in her fieldwork. (By the way, I highly recommend her 1969 autobiography The Music Hunter.)
2. The Jazz Epistles: Verse 1 (1960)
This music was a half century ahead of its time—a genuine hard bop session, swinging and persuasive, coming out of South Africa in an era when black musicians weren’t making any recordings, let alone forward-looking modern jazz albums. Pianist Abdullah Ibrahim (then known as Dollar Brand) would later find himself mentored and championed by Duke Ellington, and continues to pursue a distinguished career today. Trumpeter Hugh Masekela would even enjoy a pop hit in the US with his 1968 song “Grazing in the Grass.” Saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi is less well-known, and died in poverty in 1983, but shows here why he was praised as the “South African Charlie Parker.” In the current moment, the South African jazz scene is flourishing, but this album laid the groundwork for today’s renaissance back in the worst days of apartheid.