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West Africa's music enchants the West

Bluesy, trancelike melodies pull in wider audiences in the US and Europe, as the music's exotic rhythms move mainstream.

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The region's high profile is evident on the tour circuit. American stages have welcomed the likes of songwriter Habib Koité and fellow Malians Salif Keita – known as "the golden voice of Africa" – and Vieux Farka Touré, whose father, Ali, was Africa's most famous guitarist. It's significant, too, that Amadou & Mariam, a blind Malian couple whose joyous pop has been feted by publications such as Entertainment Weekly, are playing Chicago's Lollapalooza festival. Another sign that "desert guitar" groups such as Etran Finatawa, Tinariwen, and Toumast are überhip: Online-music magazine Pitchfork recently posted a primer to "Rebel Blues in Africa."

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There's a limit to such popularity, of course. It's fanciful to imagine Ryan Seacrest playing Orchestra Baobab on his radio show just because the Senegalese band garnered a glowing write up in Rolling Stone.

But the iPod generation is so attuned to diverse genres that many listeners are discovering world-music artists through other avenues. The soundtracks of films set in Africa, such as "The Constant Gardener" and "Blood Diamond," have played a role. New-media outlets ranging from MySpace to Afropop.org offer sound clips for curious explorers. On iTunes, numerous regional offerings include Oumou Sangare, Mali's top female singer. And, increasingly, the sounds of instruments such as the kora, djembe, calabash, and njurka violin aren't just confined to National Public Radio. Nowadays, Koité and Benin's Angélique Kidjo can be heard on adult alternative radio stations.

"What we've seen in the US, because we're less exposed to African music and world music [than Europe], is a growing awareness of music from other countries," says Jacob Edgar, an ethnomusicologist who founded Cumbancha, the record label that is home to artists such as Koité. "The more we learn, the more people are open to it. A lot of radio stations that never used to play African music and world music are starting to play it."

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