various artists,
African Playground
(Putumayo, 2003)

Is it possible to purchase a bad compilation CD from Putumayo? At this point, with at least a dozen of their CDs in my collection, I would have to say "No!" When I first popped African Playground on the CD player, I barely glanced at the cover art -- just long enough to note there were a bunch of cartoonish-looking kids amid various wild animals from that continent. It was only when I paused to look at the liner notes to see who sang track 3 (which I will get to in a moment) that I noted the cover stated "Putumayo Kids Presents." For a brief second I was concerned that I was grooving to music aimed at children! Then it dawned on me how clever Putumayo was in presenting these tracks as way of introducing children to the various musical styles of Africa -- yet select music that would appeal to adults as well, even if they didn't have youngsters of their own.

The reason track 3 grabbed me was that "Mbube," performed by the Mahotella Queens of South Africa, sounded very familiar. I thought this was a decent cover of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," which most people in the West have heard. Little did I realize that this song was first written in the Zulu language back in 1939 and that it was actually ripped off by an American band several decades ago! See what you can learn by reading the liner notes? For those of you unfamiliar with Putumayo, their liner notes are usually quite informative. In the case of African Playground, there are 32 pages of information about Africa and the 13 artists/bands on this CD.

Angelique Kidjo from Benin (a small country in West Africa that borders Nigeria) opens the compilation with "Battu." This previously unreleased song immediately grabs you with its tribal beat and repetitive (and easy to sing along with) vocals. The song basically states that one doesn't need money to be happy. As an interesting side note, Benin is where voodoo (called Vodoun in Benin) originated.

I think "Hoya Hoye," by Ethiopian Seleshe Damassae, sounds the most traditional. He sings this children's song accompanied by a group of kids who shout "oh-a-oh" or "ho" at strategic points in the song. Occasionally, Seleshe will sing a line followed by the kids singing the same line. The accompanying percussion sounds very primitive. The only unfortunate thing about this simple track is that it is the shortest one on the CD at less than a minute and a half!

There are a few songs with English lyrics. "Laba Laba," by Baba' Ken Okulolo and the Nigerian Brothers, is a song about a butterfly. Most of the song is sung in their native tongue, but towards the end, Baba' switches to English and asks his audience to flap their arms like the wings of a butterfly. One can easily see the target audience of African Playground being children when they hear this track. (Thus far, I have resisted the temptation to imitate flight).

Other artists on African Playground include Them Mushrooms (Kenya), Mose Fan Fan (Congo), Vieux Diop (Senegal), Dr. Victor (South Africa), Tarika Sammy (Madagascar), Samite (Uganda), Bakithi Kumalo (South Africa), Tete Alhinho (Cape Verde) and Aura Msimang (South Africa). While there are four tracks from South Africa, I think the CD still does a great job of showcasing the range of musical styles from across a vast continent that consists of more than 50 countries. I also feel that Putumayo has done children a great service by banding music together in an accessible way for them to get a feel for part of other cultures. Most importantly, though, don't feel like you have to have kids of your own to purchase this compilation. Children of ALL ages will enjoy it!

- Rambles
written by Wil Owen
published 5 July 2003

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