Motherload: Dust to Digital’s Awesome African Compilation

Opika Pende (Stand Firm): Africa At 78 RPM

Dust To Digital #22, 2011. Four discs

Jonathan Ward: co-producer, notes, source material, audio transfers.

Debbie Berne: design (Hey! Oakland banjo player!)


     I have been in rapturous awe for two weeks, listening to practically nothing except the five hours of music in this infinite garden of African delights. A neat 100 sides, the earliest from the turn of the 20th century, about twenty from the 20s and 30s, almost none from the 40s (WWII), a few from the 60s, and the rest from the 50s. The sound is incredible: clean, detailed, rich and satisfying; despite the ultra-rarity of these discs, you never feel like you are listening to scratchy old 78s. Of course, listening to CD compilations of scratchy old 78s is pretty much what I do every night, but I don’t fetishize noise for its own sake.

    Jonathan Ward, the producer, is the host of, an exemplary website of historic ethnic music on 78s that I frequented a couple of years ago. In an effort to trim online audio collecting obsessions, I let this particular rabbit hole go. With all my classical, jazz and rock and roll collecting, I feel that if I let anything more in through the gates, that’s all I would do.

     On the other hand, I pretty much feel like I could listen to nothing but these four discs for the rest of my life. The whole tapestry of life is here: the Muslim call to prayer, elegant urbane jazz-highlife, folkloric field recordings, and records that were regional African popular hits in the fifties and early sixties. Solo vocal recordings to huge massed choirs. Solo instrumental recordings to huge ensembles. A handful of the tracks were recorded in London or Paris, the rest on location in Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Madagascar, Cameroon, Togo, Benin, Senegal, South Africa, etc. Some bear a marked influence of the Caribbean and the West, others seem like a glimpse into something very ancient and totally African (although what do I know?).

     There are many astonishing instrumental performances here. A solo on a bowed one string fiddle from Niger, recorded in 1950, brings to mind the high lonesome fiddling of Gaither Carleton and the ornamentation and circular breathing of Free Jazz saxophonist Evan Parker. The great Congolese fingerstyle guitarist Jean Bosco is represented by a virtuoso solo performance that will make guitarists swoon. A whirling, pulsing rosewood flute accompanies a part spoken, part chanted recitation, and you can imagine this music ringing through a cave by firelight fifteen thousand years ago. If complex yet deeply grooving rhythmic polyphony is your thing – and by gosh, don’t ya think it should it be? – tracks 5, 6, and 7 on disc two ought to keep you occupied for a few years.

     And while you’re on disc two check out Yeboa’s Band, recorded in Ghana in 1937. They were a professional dance band, with saxophone, clarinet, piano, percussion, and vocal trio. It took me several times before I grasped the way the squirrely melody, in vocal harmony (reminds me of Franco and TPOK Jazz), lays over the rolling ¾ meter.(Of course “meter” isn’t really an African concept, but this is certainly a Caribbean-influenced recording, and so perhaps not so irrelevant in this case). 

     The sequencing is organized according to region of Africa, but this in no way makes the songs clump into similar sounding chunks. The four discs are utterly similar in their astonishing diversity, if you’ll pardon the expression. Like the fabled Anthology of American Folk Music, I want to listen to the whole thing every time I listen to any of it. Every song of the 100 here sounds like a whole country unto itself.

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