For many of us in The West, Rokia Traoré may be the most recognisable name featured on African Café, the latest compilation released by Putumayo World Music. The Malian singer-songwriter was featured on many "best of" lists in 2013 when she released her aptly titled LP Beautiful Africa, and her contribution to the compilation, "Laidu," is rife with finger-picked guitar notes that provide an alluring contrast to her full bodied singing. But Traoré is by no means the only musician here worthy of mainstream attention.
Numerous other featured artists on African Café reach that high bar set by Traoré. Chief among them is veteran Zimbabwean songsmith and activist Oliver Mtukudzi. His voice is like rich, dark, long-cultivated soil from which xylophone, guitar, deftly tapped drums and other elements blossom to vibrant effect on the midway track "Mukana." Then there's Winyo's "Odongo," which finds the reedy voiced Kenyan bluesman holding his high notes until they tremble like a bird's fluttering wings, which suits his band's gentle yet upbeat playing. Congolese songwriter Ray Lema's "Leila" is also a standout, thanks to featured performers like Ballou Canta, Fredy Massamba and Rodrigo Viana, who are all clearly having a laid-back gas on this bluesy yet lounge-y number.
Those tracks all remain somewhat mid-tempo, fitting the low-key café vibe from which the LP takes its name. And while the album's other tracks sometimes adhere a little too faithfully to that mellow manifesto, African Café remains an alluring listen throughout, even if it could've used more distinctive selections from the likes of Traoré, Mtukudzi, Winyo, and Lema to spice up the proceedings. (Putumayo)