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Papa Wemba: Molokai

“Excuse Me,” the first track of Papa Wemba’s new Molokai (Real World 2373; 45:46), finds the Zairean singer singing, melancholically, a cappella. The rest of Wemba’s third album for Real World heads more into a zone where production values and westernized touches threaten to undermine his dynamic presence as a vocalist and songwriter, but not quite-the album percolates with dance-happy energy and melodic sweetness that allows us to overlook moments of cultural displacement. Wemba’s current band, also called Molokai, is a Euro-African project, and the mixture shows. Closing the album is the tune “Esclave” (Slave), an opus about the residue of slavery and other African tragedies. Sung ornately, mostly over a simple three-chord pattern on guitar, it serves as an anthemic plea for solidarity.

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