Presenting a comprehensive overview of traditional African music on a single album is an impossible task. Music on this vast continent defies easy categorization and description. Nonetheless, many have tried to equate the music of Africa with one thing and one thing only: rhythm. Though there is no doubt that rhythm has certainly been developed to an incredibly sophisticated degree in a large number of African music cultures, the Folkways release African Music deftly demonstrates that the traditional music of Africa is not reducible to rhythm alone, or to drums alone, or to any single concept or stereotype. Originally recorded in the 1930s by ethnomusicologist Laura C. Boulton, African Music includes diverse performance on balafons (a marimba), bulon batas (a harp), koras (a many-stringed harp-lute), tehardents (a three-stringed instrument resembling the ancient Egyptian lute), elephant tusk horns, vocals, musical bows, and a variety of drums. These field recordings were collected by Boulton while on the Straus West African Expedition for the Field Museum of National History, Chicago. Thus, though the tile of the LP may imply that these recordings are from all geographic regions in Africa, they were in actuality collected while Boulton was working in the then colonial territories of Benin, the Sudan (Timbuktu in particular), Cameroon, Nigeria, and French West Africa. The recordings themselves are of an exceptionally high quality considering the time period in which they were gathered. Published in 1939, Boulton's notes accompany these recordings and live up to the proud Folkways tradition of providing detailed and accurate information with their releases. For example, each track on African Music is accompanied by information about the instruments played, the social and/or religious significance of the music, and the geographic locale in which the recordings were made. Whether it is a marriage song from the nomadic Tuareg, a Bakwiri orphan's performance on the musical bow, or a Bambara flutist playing alongside of a trio of talking drum players, the accompanying booklet contributes a wealth of specifics (except for the names of the performers). Despite the fact that Boulton shows the biases of her generation by making several oversimplified generalizations about all "primitive musics" and by identifying Africans with terms that have since been abandoned, her writings do provide an overview of her project and communicate her respect for the "highly developed" cultures that are represented on the album. All in all, African Music is most definitely a must have for anyone who is interested in the historic and traditional roots of musics from Africa.
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AllMusic Review by John Vallier