Reviews Search

"Pop Makossa - The Invasive Dance Beat Of Cameroon 1976‚Äã-‚Äã1984"

cover imageA new Analog Africa compilation is almost always a major event for me, particularly since the general trend is that they seem to get both better and more imaginative with each passing year.  A significant reason for that success is that label head Samy Ben Redjeb has been increasingly drawn away from the heavily anthologized regions of Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, and Kenya and into less explored territories and more unusual, ephemeral microscenes.  Pop Makossa offers a bit of both, journeying into Cameroon and capturing the brief window in which the prevailing pop style absorbed the funk and disco sounds coming from the US.  If this collection is any indication, Redjeb and co-curator Déni Shain have found quite a rich and largely untapped vein, as these twelves pieces are a feast of fluid basslines, tight songcraft, strong hooks, and seductive grooves.

Analog Africa

The Dream Stars' opening "Pop Makossa Invasion" highlights a significant aspect of Analog Africa compilations and other international compilations in general: the curator is often doing quite a bit more than just finding some great songs, as they are retroactively defining (or creating) a movement or scene through the filter of their own taste.  That is not necessarily a bad thing at all, as I would certainly rather hear this music than not hear it and someone with great taste is the ideal person to guide me through it.  It presents an interesting issue though: it is important not to fall for the illusion that something like Pop Makossa is comprehensive or representative or that anyone who lives in Cameroon particularly romanticizes this era.  Case in point: "Pop Makossa Invasion" is a fine song, as it has a very cool snaking guitar line, a lazily stomping beat, and a charismatic singer, yet this is the first time that anyone anywhere is actually hearing it, as it was recorded for a radio station and never formally released (in fact, this compilation is the only Discogs entry for the band at all).  There are certainly some bigger names here as well, but Redjeb seems guided more by his statement that "Cameroonian bass players are some of the most revered in the world" than by any perceived need to illuminate his compilation with star power.  Of course, a few songs manage to cover both bases, particularly Bill Loko's amazing "Nen Lambo," which boasts a stellar disco bass line, a wonderfully propulsive groove, and hooks for days.  Apparently, Loko was a teen mega-star who only issued a couple of albums in the early '80s before leaving Cameroon and falling off the radar.  A mystery like that is just the sort of thing to secure Redjeb's curiosity.  Also, his tireless passion for finding the actual artists behind these songs goes a long way towards explaining why this album took eight long years to fully take shape and why Shain's involvement was so crucial, as he was the one actually in Cameroon doing all the detective work.

Aside from the aforementioned gem from Loko, my other favorite songs are sneakily tucked away at the end of the album, yet everything in between is invariably quite solid and occasionally even surprising ("Senaga Calypso" almost sounds like a Cameroonian reimagining of Baltimora's "Tarzan Boy").  In general, the degree of a song's success is almost entirely dictated by the greatness of the bass line, as all other factors tend to be consistently strong through Pop Makossa: all of these artists knew how to write tight pop songs and memorable hooks and each certainly had a formidable rhythm section backing them.  Bernard Ntone's "Mussoliki" is the no-frills zenith of that aesthetic, taking an absolutely killer bass line and just riding it for four minutes with wonderfully funky, jangly guitars and vibrantly rolling percussion.  "Mussoliki" also brings up yet another significant observation: while Ntone’s band may be stylistically indebted to the funkier and more soulful American artists of the time, they effortlessly transcend that influence in many ways.  In the case of "Mussoliki," I was particularly struck by the subtle and brilliant interplay between the lead and rhythm guitars.  Elsewhere, Pat' NDoye's "More Love" is yet another stunner, enhancing a smoldering and sexy groove with a call-and-response vocal hook with a female chorus and an absolutely smoking full band that unleashes an endless parade of stellar performances (NDoye’s percussion section is especially dazzling). In fact, "More Love" reminds me favorably of Fela Kuti (sans larger-than-life personality), as it is literally just a monster groove peppered with great solos, yet NDoye keeps things much tighter and more concise than Fela ever would have and sacrifices nothing in the process.

There are a few other songs that touch upon greatness as well, such as Clément Djimonge’s "Africa," but the most striking aspect of Pop Makossa is that there are absolutely no weak songs at all and very few that I would even consider average: this is an impressively vibrant, varied, and thoughtful selection all around.  Aside from attaining the highly coveted "all killer, no filler" success ratio, the highlights here can be quite revelatory.  Obviously, it is reductive to compare Pop Makossa to other recent African music compilations, but such a comparison is nevertheless relevant here: in my own fumbling and culturally ignorant way, I listen to a lot of funk and soul-influenced African music and the best songs on Pop Makossa either offer a fresh twist on a sound I already loved or stand among the best possible examples of that sound.  While I suspect 2012's Diablos Del Ritmo will reign forever as my favorite Analog Africa compilation, Pop Makossa is an impressively strong contender for that role.  In fact, it probably deserves it more, since Diablos was a detour into the African influence on Colombian music and everyone already knew that Colombia churned out some of the finest music on the planet–not exactly low-hanging fruit, but everyone at least knew where the damn tree was.  With this collection, Shain and Redjeb did some legitimately crucial digging in a place that sorely needed it and somehow managed to pare all their obscure finds down to an extremely fun and near-perfect collection.