Luke Bassuener has never been much of a purist in his love for African music. "I thought Ali Farka Touré and Fugazi made perfect sense together," he tells The A.V. Club, which explains the basic mix of sounds at work in his own band, This Bright Apocalypse.
But his latest project is a much more unlikely interaction. During his stints working as a volunteer teacher in the village of Zebilla in northern Ghana, Bassuener used his portable four-track recorder to document obscure musicians from around the country's Bawku West District playing in different local traditions—a church choir, a young man named Azubire riffing on a one-stringed instrument called the kone, a group called Saka Boys combining vocals with traditional percussion and gonje (a violin-like gourd instrument).
The resulting 10-track compilation, Bawku West Collective Vol. 1, which he's selling (through MySpace, local record stores, and soon iTunes) to raise money for the district's musicians, isn't a simple field recording. Bassuener takes liberties to bring a disparate group of Ghanan players into conversation with one another and with himself, sometimes mixing loops of recordings made separately, and adding his own instruments to every track.
The results are understandably uneven, but in a way that makes Vol. 1 more compelling. On "Young Boy Take Time," Bassuener's bass line nudges into Saka Boys' vocal chant and circular, repetitive gonje sawing, slowly building up a chord progression and melody that might not have been there in the first place. "I wouldn't want it to sound like—well, no matter how hard I tried it would never sound like a pop record," Bassuener says. "But I guess I'm trying to give it something to grab onto." These are, after all, mostly subsistence farmers who play funerals and church services. Bassuener recorded them playing in a local church, a high school, and the Zebilla market.
Most of the album's a bit more subtle than "Ti Ba Winaam," on which the St. Charles Lwanga Choir collides in a fuzzy clatter with the distorted sounds of Bassuener's kalimba. His use of this instrument, a melodic yet distinctly percussive thumb piano, humbly echoes the sounds of Congotronics, a series of records that showcase "electrified traditional artists" from the Congo. Some of these artists, like Konono No. 1 and Kasai Allstars, fatten up their traditional instruments with amps made from old car parts, which Bassuener's home recording attempts to mimic. "The sound of me playing the kalimba is, like, nominally okay through a bad mic," he says, "but if you throw a little distortion on it, you can get some of that swirling, dirty sound."
Vol. 1 offers an introduction to this handful of artists, with some modifications for perspective and flow, though sometimes it's too easy to separate the original recordings from the later overdubs (like on Savanna Drummers Club's "Ghana"). But "Disappear Or Fly" fits together so smoothly that it sounds like Bassuener actually co-wrote it and played it in the same room with the group M'Ba Saka Naba. Bassuener layers acoustic guitar and bass over their percussion while whistle melodies flit up and down through the mix.
It could even go over nicely with people who've been discovering artists like Mali's Vieux Farka Touré (Ali's son) via National Public Radio (or last summer's Marquette Waterfront Festival). The title of "Choppin' Money" is a Ghanan idiom that refers to political corruption, but it's Bassuener doing the actual chopping here: He recorded Zebilla musician Aluta's satirical political wordplay and Azubire's kone melodies more than a year apart, then made loops of both and matched their rhythms. It's one of several attempts here to make different musicians "work together," even if they normally wouldn't get together to jam.
The compilation contains a few hints of what Bassuener considers the devolving popular music of the region, highlife. The festive, guitar- and horn-driven sound's most recent incarnation is a hip-hop fusion called hiplife, but Bassuener's tracks with the Savanna Drummers Club ("Ghana" and "So'o Woo") strip highlife down to hand percussion and group vocals. Bassuener wants to get at the charms of a genre he thinks has "turned into more beats spit out of a computer and synthesizer."
Granted, he has also taken a chance here to make the source material more digestible to modern Western ears, and sometimes the sounds he adds are a little distracting. Yet Bawku West Collective Vol. 1 never confines the music or condescends to it, instead reaching a good balance of hands-on and hands-off.
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