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July 21, 1994|JIM WASHBURN

Manu Dibango

"Wakafrika"

Giant Records

On the cover of "Wakafrika," Cameroonian saxophonist Manu Dibango is posed so that his body forms the shape of the African continent, with a shoe removed to represent Madagascar. While the CD inside doesn't quite encompass the entire continent, it isn't for want of trying, and the result is one of the most adventurous musical atlases you're likely to find this year.

Dibango was one of the first African artists to take his music to an international audience, with 1972's "Soul Makossa." The makossa was a popular Cameroonian dance rhythm, and it ran through the song's percussion parts, as well as Dibango's sub-basement deep chants and his sax playing, which he used half as a staccato rhythm instrument and half as a honking homage to American soul master King Curtis. The song became a disco and pop hit around the world.

There's a remake of "Soul Makossa" here, and, like most of the album's other tracks, it's given a stellar spin. Dibango is joined on the song by Senegalese singing sensation Youssou N'Dour--who sends the melody spiraling with his passionate vocal--while other numbers boast South Africa's Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Ray Phiri, Nigeria's King Sunny Ade, Malian Salif Keita and even pale old Peter Gabriel, who appears on a relatively sanguine version of his "Biko." Gabriel's remarkable drummer, Manu Katche, propels most of the tracks, and a close listen will reveal Sinead O'Connor singing backup on four of them.

Dibango seems happy to play in the shadow of his guests, but when he steps forward there's some heated blowing. The standout number in the set is "Jingo," a song by drum master Babate Olatunji, the first artist to present African music to the West in the late 1950s. The number was popularized by Santana, whose stardom had been cemented by his propulsive Woodstock rendition of the song.

Here, "Jingo" is pushed even higher by the relentless cross-currents of Nigerian juju rhythms, over which rides one of Ade's more compelling vocals and some positively molten tenor playing from Dibango.

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