From Brazil to the Pacific coast of Ecuador and Peru, from the island Caribbean to the ports of Central and South America, from the mines of Honduras and Mexico to the plantations of the American south, African-descent peoples have sustained a collective diasporic consciousness and a unifying sense of aesthetics and cultural identity via music and dance. Slavery obliterated neither the cultural forms carried from West Africa nor an enduring sense of transatlantic connection with a living African past. Música Negra, an astute two-CD survey of African musics in the Americas, reveals the dynamic, fundamentally communal character of diaspora music making and enjoyment, and the inexorable linkage of African musical performance with dance, virtuoso display and community celebration.
In 33 searing tracks from 19 countries, Música Negra documents the New World flowering of hybrid African, European and indigenous musical traditions. But simultaneously, it underscores the uniquely durable stylistic features that characterize a coherent body of African American musics: a cyclical, open-ended kinetic structure that encourages community participation via interlocking patterns of call-and-response; a polyrhythmic sense of movement manifest in the dominance of percussion; the off-beat phrasing of melodic accents known as syncopation; a polyphonic, overlapping denseness of sound; and a conception of music as entailing the tension between an essential core and its unfettered elaboration, a lively process in which variation, improvisation and individual virtuosity are basic values.
The liner notes are informed, the packaging attractive, and the musical coverage remarkably comprehensive, although the powerful roots traditions of important African populations in Guyana, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Mexico regrettably escape notice. But the selection is uniformly superb, showcasing a surprising array of robust if relatively unknown artists, and moving beyond such obvious sites as Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica, Peru, Puerto Rico, Trinidad, Venezuela and the United States. Hence, many listeners will encounter for the first time the vital musical traditions of important African enclaves in Surinam, Curaçao, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Belize, Guatemala Honduras, and Ecuador.
Opinions will vary as to highlights, but it is impossible to resist the haunting sound of the Garifuna paranderos of Caribbean Honduras, Guatemala and Belize, the Abyssinians' classic "Satta Massagana," the infectious jazzy swing of Martinique pianist Mario Canoge, the ringing vocal chorus and percussive pulse of Venezuela's Los Vasallos Del Sol, the percussive marimba-driven muzik di zumbi of Curaçao's Issoco, and the Jackson Singers' other-worldly gospel vocal harmonies on "Down in Mississippi." Until now, the only comparable anthology was Africa en America, an elusive three-CD set on the Mexican label Corason. A timely release, Música Negra promises to further listener awareness of the range of New World African genres that have long and thoroughly influenced music and culture throughout the Americas. - Michael Stone
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