This four-CD anthology features 100 tracks from 78 rpm discs that have never before been on compact disc. The Dust-to-Digital label excels in producing elaborate box sets of rare and culturally overlooked music, and to say that this is no exception is an understatement. All of the recordings originated in Africa and boast an astonishing diversity in not just time and place, but also in musical style. The performances span 1909 to the mid-'60s, about three-dozen countries, and genres from the most ancient and traditional folk music to cuts that verge on modern Afro-pop. Each CD does focus on a specific region or regions of the continent, generally working its way down from north to south. Yet even within each disc, numerous decades, languages, modern and traditional instruments, and singing styles are showcased, making it impossible to summarize in anything less than a 112-page book -- which, naturally, comes with the box, each track annotated in detail by compiler Jonathan Ward.
Like other ambitious boxes by Dust-to-Digital, Smithsonian Folkways, and some other labels, it straddles the lines between ethnographic/folkloric documents and music that might be of interest to the general adventurous listener. The sheer variety of sounds, as well as the sometimes primitive recording techniques (although the fidelity is good-to-excellent throughout, with the expected conscientious transfers from the original discs), does ensure that not many listeners will be enthusiastic or equally interested in everything. It also ensures, on the other hand, that very few open-minded listeners will find at least some material that intrigues and entertains them. Perhaps the more modern tracks will be more accessible to the average collector investigating this body of work, with some mid-20th century performances that date from the early days of highlife, and others that both reflect and probably influenced international jazz, gospel, and calypso. Some cuts here and there sound a bit like forms you wouldn't expect to have been played in Africa, such as rural blues (Orbert Nentambo Zahke from South Africa), country waltzes (the Seychelles United Band), and even zydeco.
Generally, the first disc contains the most traditional-minded performances, which can be stark in both their recording and execution, though they (like many of the tracks) often make use of instruments and singing that still sound exotic to many Western ears. Yet it's futile to make generalizations about any or all of the discs, or to try to point out too many highlights, so much will they vary according to individual tastes. At a guess, however, quite a few listeners will be struck by Dipela Tsabapedi's eerie high-pitched chant/vocals; the infectious rhumba of Adikwa Na Bana Loningisa Rumba; the political proto-highlife of Kenya's O.S. Africa Jazz Onema Pascal; Ssekinomu's breathlessly fast "Kayada," which finds him backed by a one-stringed Ugandan tube fiddle; Jean Bosco Mwenda's mellifluous acoustic guitar showcase "Masanga," and E.K's Band's plaintive highlife tune "Suro Onipa," with its haunting, keening vocals. Even with all the other examples that could be cited, this still doesn't (nor does it claim to) represent all styles played in Africa during this half-century or so, in part because little or no records were made in some regions, and some genres seldom or never put to disc. It still makes for a box that is amply challenging and rewarding for anyone interested in African music, or indeed interested in world music in general.