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November 17, 1994|JIM WASHBURN

Various Artists

"Kwanzaa Music"

Rounder Records

Kwanzaa, a Swahili term meaning "first fruits of the harvest," is the name given to an increasingly popular African-American holiday, which annually unfolds from Dec. 26 through Jan. 1. Though aspects of it are synthesized from African tradition, it is an infant as holidays go. Kwanzaa was originated in 1965 by Dr. Maulana Karenga (now Chairman of Black Studies at CSU Long Beach).

It is a blessing that this holiday hasn't yet been targeted by the mawkish tunesmiths who have buried Christmas in confectioners sugar. But what's a holiday without music? Much as Dr. Karenga appropriated existing traditions for his holiday, this album compiles existing music from "the African diaspora," as the liner notes put it. And it makes for one funky holiday.

There is a tremendous variety here: contemporary African music from its Arab regions to its South African tip; American soul and funk songs, as well as New Orleans carnival music; Caribbean and South American music; and a pan-cultural rap-jazz hybrid. Yet, for all the diversity, there are also connections in the music, and it all pulses with the rhythms of life.

Despite the presence of such giants as Aretha Franklin and James Brown, the real delights here are the tracks by unknowns and lesser legends. Among them, the late Clifton Chenier gives a Louisiana accordion workout to "Bon Ton Roulet," while ethereal yet earthy Malian singer Oumou Sangare plays an enticing call-and-response with a violin and a vocal chorus on "Ko Sira." The Baha Men mix their island pop with a lowrider bass line on "Back to the Island."

"I Am So Glad" by Bahamian singers Bruce Green, Tweedie Gibson and Clifton Green sounds like a haunting cross between American gospel and South African choral music. And, as ever, South Africa's Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens deliver a spirited mix of modern African pop and traditional "groaner" vocals on "Thokozile."

The only quibble with this album is that there should have been more volumes. In the amount of space afforded here, blues is underrepresented--with one less-than-spectacular Gatemouth Brown track--reggae gets short shrift and jazz is all-but overlooked. On the plus side, the extensive liner notes include a recipe for black-eyed pea salad.

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