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Music Review: The Rough Guide To African Blues

There's no longer anyway anybody can dispute the influence that African Americans have had on North American popular music. Blues, Jazz, Pop, Rock & Roll, and even Country music have all been touched by the influence of those who were stolen from their homes to build the Western Hemisphere.

North, Central, and South America, the Caribbean Islands, and anywhere else there were European settlements you were sure to find slaves. They brought with them their various musical styles, cultures and stories, all of which have become seamlessly entangled with our European heritage over the years. But it has been primarily music where the influence has been felt and continues to be felt to this day.

But if we were to go back to Africa today and listen to the music that is being played, what would we hear? Would we by listening closely hear where our music came from, or would we only hear echoes of what changes have been effected by the music's stay in North America?

The music that's closest to what came from Africa that we still listen to today would be the Blues in its purest form. Delta Mississippi Blues music is only one step removed, if that sometimes, from the holler music that the slaves sang as work songs. Those songs are in turn not far removed from tribal songs that would have been, and could be still to this day, performed in the villages and towns of Africa.
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The Rough Guide To African Blues takes us on a trip through the birthplace of our music to hear what today's performers are playing. Have they incorporated the Blues that they have heard from North America into their sound? Are we hearing the Blue as it's been sung for centuries and what we recognise are only the elements that have survived the journey down the years from the arrival of the slaves in the New World? Or is it both – a cross-pollination that has been blown across the ocean on winds of sound?

While it's true that some of the African musicians are making use of some of the chording and structure that creates the sound of the Blues as we know it, they are using them in such a manner as to render a unique sound. Whether it's the instruments they use or their vocal styling, aside from the songs featuring North Americans Bob Brozman and Corey Harris the music is so much more then copies of North American music.

Mariem Hassan is from the Western Sahara, but now lives in Algeria. Her voice is a haunting reminder that the singing the Blues is an emotional state of mind, just as much a musical genre. The song she sings on African Blues< "La Tunchi Anni", (Don't Desert Me) is about the instability in her adapted home land.

Her people have already been forced from one homeland by the winds of African politics and warfare and the worry about being made homeless again must pervade their thoughts. You don't have to understand her lyrics to feel the emotion that drives the voice as it soars over the guitar and percussion accompaniment, the passion behind it is sufficient to translate her feelings. As if to underline the reality of her situation, the three musicians accompanying her on the song, including her brother, all live in the refugee camp of Tinduf

Mariem's song is the opening track on the disc and to my mind is emblematic of the music and that has been gathered together by Phil Stanton the co-founder of the World Music Network. Although I've heard some of the performers represented here before, Daby Balde and Baaba Maal for instance, I've never listened to them in terms of how they relate to the Blues.

Listening to a singer like the Sudanese woman Rasha sing about the plight of women and children in her country that's being torn to shreds by civil war makes you realize that if any continent is home to the Blues right now Africa has as much claim as any. Look at the strife that has been a daily part of so many people's existence for the past century or more.

From the North in Egypt to the Southern tip of South Africa the continent has been occupied by invaders and torn apart by war since the 1800s. The slave trade predated that time period stretching back to the 1600s when the Portuguese and the British first started plucking people from her shores.

Colonial powers created artificial borders that ignored tribal boundaries and created the circumstances that has allowed some of the worst ethnic violence on the planet. Listening to the music on this disc you can hear echoes of that past resounding throughout almost every song. Today's strife is the backdrop against which even the love song "Iriarer" by the group Etran Finatawa is played out.

Blues is more than just a musical style; it is a means of expression that rises from deep-seated passions and experiences of the heart. To say that this music originated here or began there denies that essential component. The music we call the Blues in North America has the same tribal roots for its origins as the music of Africa.

Each region's music has evolved in its own manner according to circumstances and environment. Of course the blues of Africa has been influenced by what they've heard on the radio originating in the United States, just as the music of people like the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds were in Great Britain. But the people of Africa have been singing their versions of the Blues for centuries now, no matter where they are living in the world.

The Rough Guide To African Blues is a collection of music that depicts the myriad ways in which the Blues can be expressed. While others may argue over whether the Blues were born in Mali or on the Mississippi mud flats, I personally think it's irrelevant where they originated. What matters is that the music is played, and is played with passion and beauty. What could be more important than that?

As with all the Rough Guide titles it seems, the disc's is well packaged. The information booklet gives details about each act and some information about the culture of their country of origin The CD itself, if inserted in the CD Rom drive of a computer, has even more information. That includes excerpts from the travel guide for the region, an interview with Phil Stanton the man who compiled the collection and links to the Rough Guide web site and radio station.

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