NPR : Fresh Air

Filed Under:

A Sure-Footed Collection Of 'African Blues'

Play associated audio

I have to hand it to the Putumayo label. Since it started as a soundtrack-provider to a clothing store in the early '90s, the operation has placed racks of CDs with friendly-primitivist art by Nicola Heindl into Starbucks and Whole Foods everywhere. Putumayo is as responsible as anything for making music buyers ask "Where's the world music section?" in shops or online. Unfortunately, way too many Putumayo anthologies, even when they have promising themes, are too sweet, tame and too satisfied with murmuring in the background — which makes them hard to enjoy in a setting without a cash register.

There are several exceptions, of course. But what makes Putumayo Presents African Blues particularly fascinating is that it's a type of frequently attempted fusion that often ends up drab. I would describe this set as delicate, airy, sure-footed and strong all the way through.

The blues sounds to me like a profoundly American music, and to make too much of its connections to African modes is both dubious and even obnoxious. What cannot be denied is that many African performers are open to playing with foreign musicians who have a different style. On occasion, the efforts click as well as they do here. The tracks collected for Putumayo Presents African Blues are wisely varied in that the collaborations are often just vaguely bluesy, though two or three offer quite explicit blues flavor.

Blues back to Africa and blues out of Africa is a longstanding theme — singer and guitarist Johnny Copeland oversaw a delightful meeting in 1985 called Bringing It All Back Home. But the modern originator of the international bluesman has to be Taj Mahal. He delivers a highlight of the African Blues collection smack in the middle with the only track in English, "Dhow Countries." It's a survey-the-landscape-and-the-people narrative blues with the Culture Musical Club of Zanzibar. But it feels like a panorama of the Mississippi Delta.

Putumayo Presents African Blues hangs loose about what unifies blues and Africa, which may be no more than forceful handclaps, seductive repetitions and tart guitar tones. Best to keep the subject matter broad, as well: Titles include "Camel Shuffle," "Mali" and "Groove in G." I'm not sure how many more cuts by any of these collaborators would work, but that's the beauty of single-track greatness as a format — assemble enough, and you have an album's worth of lovelies.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NPR

Ricky Gervais On Controversial Jokes, Celebrities And 'Special Correspondents'

"I didn't go out there to ruin everyone's day or undermine the moral fabric of America. I was making jokes." Gervais talked with NPR's Rachel Martin about his new movie and how he approaches humor.
NPR

When It Came To Food, Neanderthals Weren't Exactly Picky Eaters

During the Ice Age, it seems Neanderthals tended to chow down on whatever was most readily available. Early humans, on the other hand, maintained a consistent diet regardless of environmental changes.
NPR

Trump And Cruz Campaign At California GOP Convention

The remaining Republican presidential candidates have been making their case at the party's state convention. Capital Public Radio's Ben Adler explains the divisions on display among Republicans.
NPR

'The Guardian' Launches New Series Examining Online Abuse

A video was released this week where female sports journalists were read abusive online comments to their face. It's an issue that reaches far beyond that group, and The Guardian is taking it on in a series called "The Web We Want." NPR's Audie Cornish speaks with series editor Becky Gardiner and writer Nesrine Malik, who receives a lot of online abuse.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.