Fly African Eagle: The Best of African Reggae

African reggae was the great late-'80s/early-'90s roots hope to counter the dancehall/ragamuffin "invasion" and domination of Jamaican music, but it never developed a distinctive musical tag because the style is so strongly associated with Jamaica. While Fly African Eagle was designed to celebrate African reggae as an alternative, the compilation is more revealing in showing why it foundered. Alpha Blondy's "Cocody Rock," for example, is a perfectly good reggae song but nothing more than that. But Jah roots in Africa, which makes the idea of African reggae so appealing, is only part of the equation, because reggae was also Jamaican pop music. And the missing link in Africa probably is the song hooks and craftsmanship of '60s U.S. soul songwriting (hello there, Curtis Mayfield). Virtually all the tracks groove convincingly enough, but the best ones are marked by a well-developed pop sensibility. "Prisoner," by Lucky Dube, melds an ear-grabbing collection of strange organ swirls, drum explosions, a killer deep vocal harmony hook, and serious truth lyrics that still apply: "They won't build no schools any more/They won't build no hospitals/All they build were me prison, prison." Touré Kunda's "Emma" is another good one, but reggae was only one element in the veteran group's Euro-Afro bag of pop tricks, and O'Yaba's "Fly Away" is exceptionally strong, with the music cutting through to groove central and brilliant vocal harmonies. But O'Yaba flamed out dramatically after a sensational debut disc and that's another pertinent point. Majek Fashek never delivered on his promising rock-flavored reggae, big-name Sonny Okosuns' track boasts good organ but goes on too long, and the Mandators deliver a strong message but never panned out as saviors. Jah Leak Roy makes energetic references to Jah and Babylon but that's it, Harley & the Rasta Family drift by singing about sweet reggae music, the Comforters lean to synths, and Ras Kimono shows Nigerians can do nyabinghi-style Rasta chants, too. Which is cool, but not really anything more than that. An energetic bassline throb and backbeat drumming give Adioa's song a distinctive edge and make the Senegalese group the one semi-discovery here, assuming you already know about Dube and Blondy. Fly African Eagle boasts some real standout tracks and groups that are major artists in their own countries, but ultimately it's a compilation of a style touted as an international contender that couldn't make the jump outside its home continent. ~ Don Snowden

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