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Buddah/BMG 44659-97662 USA 2001
Decades after its conception, Harry Belafonte's enormously ambitious project has come to a rewarding fruition with the release of this lovingly produced and beautifully packaged collection. Between 1961 and 1971, Belafonte sought to create a comprehensive document of what he calls "African-matrixed music": "African rooted, Africa as origin, evolved from an original African form." The rough timeframe Belafonte follows begins with the arrival of blacks in America in the early 17th century and ends at the dawn of the recording age. Yet this five-disc set (with a bonus "making of" DVD) amounts to so much more than a musical history; it is, instead, a detailed sociopolitical history of the people who created this music and a journey following the evolution of black culture from the time that the diaspora left Africa for the New World.
Disc 1 offers tribal chants, shouts, and spirituals while the second disc explores the slavery era through the Civil War. Disc 3 looks at postwar sounds both urban and rural while the fourth disc crosses into the next century as the street cries and mountain hollers morph into folk ballads, gritty blues, and minstrel shows--the roots of popular music as we know it today. The final disc includes songs of work and songs of worship, the practical tools of survival for African Americans in troubled times. The sounds found across these discs are faithful re-creations featuring a large cast that includes the likes of Belafonte, Bessie Jones, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, and Joe Williams. The lovely 140-page hardbound book includes extensive notes and provocative essays, as well as stunning photos plus artwork by Charles White. To be sure, this is not easy listening and those looking for your basic "roots music" collection will be disappointed. Rather, this is really a fascinating exploration of the roots of roots music.