I received this set about a week ago directly from Dust to Digital, and I take it as an honour and a privilege to be able to write the first review for such a splendid collection. That said, there is a lot to absorb here, and I know that my favourite songs today will differ from my choices tomorrow. In lieu of choosing favourites or delving into other subjectivities, here's a little bit of background for you to start things off:
This four disc set has been compiled and annotated by Jonathan Ward, longtime Excavated Shellac blogger extraordinaire. This guy really knows his stuff, and compiled all of the music in this boxed set from his own collection of African 78s. None of these songs have been released on CD prior to this, making this set doubly important as a document of early African music that may have otherwise never seen the light of day. Moreover, the set was produced by the good people at Dust to Digital, a label with a proven track record of putting the music, packaging and ultimately the customer, first.
The set is beautifully packaged in a hard box with one booklet containing all four discs, and a substantial book that provides thoughtful details and background information for every song. The discs are divided roughly by geographical region; North, West, East/Central and South Africa. Sound mastering is incredible given the age of some of this music, and while there are inevitable clicks and pops, the depth, dimension and dynamics of the music have been preserved beautifully. As for the music itself, the sheer variety and eclecticism that is able to flourish in a continent as large and varied as Africa (and any given country therein) maintains diversity and listener interest with ease. If I do have one complaint, it's that this set seeks to represent the 78 in Africa, popular from just after the turn of the century through to the 1960s. While I enjoy all of this music, it can be somewhat jarring to hear rural acoustic traditional music back to back with urban sounds and electric guitars. That said, I guess that's part of the diversity, and certainly part of the idiosyncrasy of Africa.
In all, this boxed set is a steal. The riches contained within are well worth the price and then some, especially considering the beauty and rarity of the music. I think I read Ward assert that he believes or hopes that this could appeal to just about anyone. While I do find it incredibly appealing and ceaselessly engaging, I am definitely already a convert to this sort of thing. I love early African music dearly, but can certainly acknowledge that it may be just a bit too eclectic, raw and "unpolished" for your average listener. Still, I do admire Ward's optimism, and sincerely hope that his set succeeds in spreading a love for this music. If it at least succeeds among those of us with a pre-established interest, and prompts more incredible releases of this calibre, Ward will have done much for vintage African music and for willing listeners everywhere.