Sterling album mixes rhythms of Africa and America

Think of the music scene in the Northwest and you'll find that rock stars like Nirvana and Jimi Hendrix come to mind. But recent years have witnessed a remarkable upsurge in the number of tunes from traditional African musicians who have migrated to Seattle and Portland, Ore.

The musical riches of this migration have been little known to residents in the rest of the United States, but that obscurity is bound to change rapidly with the release of "Safarini in Transit: Music of African Immigrants," a CD on the Smithsonian Folkways label.

This first collection from five transplanted African musicians, now living in the Northwest, is more than a sterling entertainment. It's a powerful lesson on how African music has evolved on our soil.

Its origins have their beginning in songs carried by slaves to the New World in the 16th century. The 20th-century chapter is far sunnier.

Two nonprofit Seattle-based organizations have contributed to a happy reception for the musicians -from Ghana, Kenya, Republic of Congo, and Zimbabwe - and their bands. Seattle-based Rakumi Arts International promotes all African arts throughout the region by arranging concerts and lectures. Jack Straw Productions, also in Seattle, provided the recording studios for this album.

One listen to "Safarini's" dozen selections leaves an enlarged understanding of African music.

Many of the numbers on the 67-minute CD feature the powerful polyrhythmic drumming so identified with West African music, represented at its most rousing here by Obo Addy and his band. Other selections showcase gently picked acoustic guitar.

The opening song, "Tcheni, Tcheni," by vocalist Wawali Bonane and the Yoka Nzenze group, is a charming example of the fertile collision of Old and New World cultures. A hypnotically repeating guitar figure establishes the African dance rhythm known as soukous, a style heavily influenced by the Cuban rumba. Two singers darting about the rolling rhythms declare what sounds like an ancient African proverb that speaks to our present: "Don't worry, don't worry. Be strong in this life despite the misfortune you may encounter."

An even more direct sign of New World influence is heard on "Safarini," the song that lent itself to the title of this collection. It means being in transit, as on a safari. As recorded by Frank Ulwenya and Afrisound, the skittering lead guitar of Huit Kilo suggests a playful, yet intensely focused, forward movement that just won't quit.

Once again, the lyrics carry an air of old Africa - but as you listen to the words in a Kenyan language, suddenly the word "Seattle" rings loud and clear. Ulwenya advises his listeners to stay cool on life's long safari, a safari that includes the city of Seattle.

Obo Addy's "Oshi" mixes jazzy brass sounds into a frenzied percussion workout for a taste of Ghana-bred Portland-flavored African jazz. In "Ko," Ghana-born Kofi Anang utilizes a mix of traditional talking drum (a drum where the tautness of dual drum heads can be modified constantly through arm pressure) and electronic percussion to craft a gentle anthem to unspoiled forest beauty.

"Safarini" is exquisite proof that the story of African music continues to grow even when transported from African soil.

*For further information on 'Safarini,' log on to: Jack Straw Productions, www.jackstraw.org; Rakumi Arts International, www.rakumiarts.com; Smithsonian Folkways Mail Order, (800) 410-9815

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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