Various Artists

Putumayo Presents: South Africa

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It's so easy to underestimate these Putumayo compilations. They have that little hint of smugness about them, that whiff of Starbucks multiculturalism -- the kind that suggests you're a slightly bad person if you fail to buy. You see the faux-naïve cover art, the simplistic representations of other cultures, the faintly imperialist "Putumayo Presents" album title, and you think "This collection is going to consist of nothing but touristy ethno-pop." But then, as often as not, you end up surprised. Putumayo Presents: South Africa is one of the best entries in this long series of compilations. Yes, there are some familiar names: Miriam Makeba is here (singing something other than "Pata Pata," to the compilers' credit) and so are mbaqanga pioneers the Soul Brothers. But there are also fine contributions from the up-and-coming Swaziland crooner Bholoja (whose "Mbombela" is a lovely example of the emerging "Swazi soul" sound), anti-apartheid folksinger Johannes Kerkorrel, soul-reggae artist Zoro, and rapper/beatboxer Blk Sonshine. Inevitably, there are some clunkers: Nibs van der Spuy's "Beautiful Feet" is anemic acoustic reggae, and Steve Dyer's "Mananga" is pleasant but boring three-chord jazz. The album's 44-minute length also feels skimpy, and in a few cases seems to have been achieved by premature fadeouts (why give us only 2:40 of Makeba singing the wonderful "Orlando"?). But overall, this album is much more triumph than failure.

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