The complex rhythmic interplay and inherent structural and aesthetic underpinnings of Yoruba and Igbo music are a big part of the reason why Nigerian Highlife and Juju were able to blend so perfectly with “imported” funk grooves in the 1960s and ’70s. Afro Baby, a welcome collection of material from this era, provides not only pure listening pleasure, but some illumination of musical history: the selection of music here could serve as an essay and evidence attesting to the truth that there was much more to the West African soul/funk movement than Fela’s Afro-beat. Indeed, one of the great thrills to be gained from immersion in the classic era of African pop is the chance to experience a plethora of approaches and stylistic blends, each as original, viable, and fully-realized as the other, yet still rooted in the essence and energy of African traditional music. Afro Baby delivers more than enough examples to begin such an immersion.
For this particular feast, compiler Miles Cleret has done a superb job of laying out the table with tasty surprises. Most other collections of this ilk tend toward the Fela-centric, but Afro Baby, while giving the Afro-beat master his due, is careful to go out of the way and offer a selection of rarer grooves and sounds. Old-school dance band highlife, rich in Cuban-inflected trumpet shakes and sweet/tart electric guitar, walks a funky line on the early (1970) “Afro Baby” by Stephen Osita Amaechi & his Afro-Rhythm-Skies. Punchy reggae-ish horns and clean disco scratch guitars propel Fred Fisher’s “Asa-sa.” Party down saxophone exuberance and raw energy are at the heart of “Ochonma” by the Martin Brothers Dance Band.
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