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[Off The Record]
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Various Artists

This intriguing compilation of African songs was funded by the Mercury Trust Fund, which was established by members of the band Queen following the death, from AIDS, of Freddie Mercury. Some of the songs take on the HIV/AIDS theme directly. South African township poet Mzwakhe Mbuli urges guys to use condoms, orating in Zulu over sunny, female gospel harmonies and lively jive backing. Senegalese singing star Omar Pene calls AIDS a "devil" while his sensational band crack out mbalax pop. And from Tanzania, Remy Ongala leads a swinging, guitar-driven African rumba extravaganza in which he encourages "Father’s team" to "play with socks." Folksier numbers from Ayub Ogada of Kenya and Bernard Kabanda of Uganda also use allegory and metaphor to put across the message.

Despite its heavy subject matter, this compilation is rich, and as uplifting as it can be. High-tech efforts by Algeria’s Hamid Baroudi and a heavily remixed Maryam Mursal of Somalia fall flattest; Michael Brook’s reworking of Hukwe Zawose’s village folklore fares better. Spare ballads by Papa Wemba, backed only by piano, and Youssou N’Dour, backed by string quartet, soar highest. In all, a powerful musical meditation on a problem whose cultural aspects are as deep and difficult to grasp as the tragic death toll itself.


Issue Date: November 1 - 8, 2001

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