CD reviews: African rhythms for the head and feet

Orchestra Baobab, back together after 20 years; Toumani Diabate's new solo kora offering; the 'best of' Tabu Ley Rochereau; and more.

ORCHESTRA BAOBAB: Made in Dakar (World Circuit/Nonesuch)

Named after a sturdy African tree with healing properties, this 11-piece Senegalese band proves as life-affirming as its namesake. Re-formed after a decades-long hiatus, they uncannily merge Caribbean rhythms, American soul mannerisms, and Congolese dance styles into a spectacular display of brash virtuosity. What distinguishes their style is fervent interplay emphasizing a thick-toned, inventive electric guitarist, a forceful soul-jazz saxophonist, and keening vocalists. Their lyrics focus on love, marriage, family, and avoiding muscle strain when dancing. Their instrumental sound evokes sultry romance.

TOUMANI DIABATE: The Mandé Variations (World Circuit/Nonesuch)

The kora is a West African harp from antiquity often used to accompany traditional recitations of family history. Now imagine a young kora player from Mali who radically rethinks the kora's potential as a world-class instrument, yet refuses to electrify the soft-sounding, nylon-stringed harp. He listens carefully to Jimi Hendrix, UB40's reggae-rock, blues, and flamenco. He invents a technique of playing bass lines and melodic embellishments that suggest hearing two or more musicians simultaneously. The result? An astonishing tour de force: a solo kora recital of exquisite delicacy, breathtaking improvisational skill, and elegiac stateliness.

VARIOUS ARTISTS: African Party (Putumayo)

This latest installment from a world-music label known for exceedingly pleasant and unadventurous compilations is a happy surprise. This 10-song collection offers an expected emphasis on dance beats propelled by sweet vocal harmonies – but with new discoveries who aren't afraid to introduce raucous fun into a party. Three young women from Guinea and Mali, with the prosaic moniker of "The Girls" (Les Go de Koteba), sound like a supersonically enthused African reincarnation of The Supremes. Chiwoniso is another new feminine voice with a distinctive tone, accompanying herself nimbly on an African thumb piano. A beguiling soundtrack for any gathering.

VARIOUS ARTISTS: The Rough Guide to African Street Party (World Music Network)

Suppose you're looking for a compilation of African party music that is edgy and electronic, punky, funky, or campy. This is the album for such an outré occasion. Eighty-one-year-old Nigerian vocalist Fatai Rolling Dollar, who has been recording since the 1950s, sings as if he has a ball of steel wool permanently lodged in his throat, yet has a winning vitality. Ricardo Lemvo, from L.A. via the Congo, masterfully fuses galloping Congolese dance rhythms with their Caribbean offshoots. Some selections falter. Mali's rising vocal star Vieux Farka Touré suffers a ham-handed remix. Yet this is provocative fare for the head and feet.

TABU LEY ROCHEREAU: The Voice of Lightness (Stern's)

This is one of the finest career retrospectives of a major African musician ever produced. This two-disc compilation cherrypicks key recordings from (arguably) the supreme African vocalist of the past 40 years. Tabu Ley Rochereau brought to Congolese music in the 1960s a sweet, lilting, tenor voice suggesting passionate intimacy. His original songwriting, encompassing topics as trivial as a pitch for bath soap and as serious as life's meaning, is carried by the cream of African guitarists and drummers. If you want to give a gift to someone unfamiliar with the riches of African pop music, start here.

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