Mr. Richard’s Reviews: Anthology of Music of Black Africa

Anthology of Music of Black Africa (compiled by Melo Kane and Sonar Senghor and performed and produced by Sonar Senghor and his Troupe)

Where do I start? In another life, I must have been a prolific drummer and an ethnomusicologist. This is definitely a Mr. Richard pick as I’m not sure Erica would have been as quick to pick this up while crate digging. I did feel a little guilty when I grabbed it as it’s a three disc set with a lot of short songs that often have non-English titles. I’m pretty sure that I apologized to her as she was cataloguing this gem for almost 45 minutes…

I’m still on the hunt for some Coretta Scott King or Martin Luther King Jr. on vinyl, but I’ve only got one 45. So in honor of Black History Month, I chose something from our collection that was unique and really upholds the principles of studying other cultures. This set is a tribute really to the traditional tribal and popular folk music of several important regions of Africa. Essentially, it’s a heavily percussion based, drums and vocal, assemblage of west coast, French Equatorial songs. I find it beautifully meditative and excellent to make art to. Also, it turns out that Sonar Senghor who made this project possible is an important figure in African history.

There are far too many songs in this collection to through one-by-one. As a whole and for how beautiful it is, this is an important study that many students, music or otherwise, could benefit from listening to. It’s a showcase of characteristic African values of plot, variety of mood, and dramatic content to be enacted in dancing and gesture in traditional songs. It is organized by country or region and then rhythmical and topical matter. Obviously, there are many more African rhythms that exist than are played on this record. Even within small areas, certain villages may have their own distinctive meters. The rhythms of this record set are generally older than the songs. In fact, the popular tunes known throughout the countries represented here are considered modern. Those countries include Senegal, Guinea, Sudan, Cameroon, Ivory Coast and British Gambia but are known beyond those borders.

As for the rhythms highlighted, sicco originated in French Guinea and is a very practical, simple dance. The sicco rhythm is not played with the bongo drums. Instead, only the rectangular and square drums are used along with maraccas, cowbells, sticks, and either a ridged gourd rubbed by a wooden drumstick or a bottle that is struck with an iron pestle. The French Cameroon produced two, the ibonga and sibi saba celebrated in the southern part of French West Africa. The walof, which is a rhythm as well as the name of a tongue, is from Senegal. The sammsamounn and sabar are another product of Senegal. The miva rhythm was born in Dahomey in French West Africa.

Sonar Senghor and his Troupe, with help, sing in two popular languages of commerce. There are many languages spoken, a vast variety of dialects, and even specific village “patois” which can’t be understood by another tribe living just a few miles away in this region. However, one of the languages utilized is Wolof, the same name as the rhythm, which originated in Senegal. The other is Bambara, born in the Sudan. Generally, these languages at the time of the recording was understood along most of coastal, west Africa. Both are mesmerizing. The songs themselves concern a variety of tribal affairs including feasts, hunting and fishing, canoeing, “wars”, incantations, human sacrifice, and even love. Each selection was chosen based on it being free of any European influences on the African culture. Also each track calls for a ritualistic dance, with the exception of the boat song, as traditionally Africans commemorate every sort of occasion with singing and dancing, be it a birth, a meal, or a funeral. Sonar Senghor said, “… an event takes place in a village and that night a song will be made up about it. The next day everyone in the village knows of it and sings the song. If the event is of great enough importance, or the words are beautiful poetry it will, in time, spread to other villages and, in a greater length of time, be known throughout the length and breadth of Africa.”

Mr. Senghor himself has an amazing backstory. He is the son of an aristocratic family from Senegal. Africa’s best known poet was his uncle, Sadi Senghor. Feral-Benga, another one of Sonar’s uncles, performed at the Folies Bergeres in Paris and the French Casino in New York. Later he owned the Paris cabaret Rose Rouge in the Latin Quarter. Senghor’s father was a descendent of one of the former district kings and sent Sonar off to law school in France in 1946. Following a family tradition, he enrolled in at Lycée Buffon, Paris, where he earned his baccalaureate. Family plans called for Senghor to continue studying for a law degree and return to Africa in order to practice. However, Sonar had different ideas and wrote to his father about his passion for theater. He gave up the idea of studying law saying that he was studying all phases of acting and then to return to Africa to establish the first theater.

As a result, Sonar Senghor’s father disowned and disinherited him. Nothing daunted, although deeply pained, he enrolled in drama classes at René Simon, a top notch institution for training actors. A friend of Senghor, Melo Kane was enthused when he suggested that they form a troupe to present the native dances and songs of Africa in Paris. Kane had arrived in France at the same time as Senghor in order to study ethnology. With another emigrant, Moka Bock, they formed a trio, and in 1948 they opened at the Rose Rouge. Their repertoire consisted of African songs, two or three dances, and recitations of African poetry. An immediate success, they were soon joined by two other African students in Paris. Fara Diagne was engineering and Tio Tio Basse was studying music. Then in 1952, they opened at the Folies Bergeres in “Une Vraie Folie”. Still using the Rose Rouge as a sort of home-base headquarters, the troupe toured all over Europe and even performed for many audiences of the American Army.

My apologies if this review seems lengthy, but I am really excited about this collection in our catalogue. Additionally I felt that this review deserved as much heart as went into making it. No justice would’ve be served without doing the research because I learned quite a bit through the process and I wanted to share the best parts with you. I also hope that I did Black History Month fairly with something that I assume that only a tiny percentage of the population even cares about. I’m going to continue my own ethnomusicology studies whether it warps my listening and reviewing practices or not. Ashe selah.

– Mr. Richard

Check out the original post HERE and look for more Black History Month posts every Monday this month.

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