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From tie-dyes to skinny ties, musical styles accompanied by a style of dress tend to persist longer than those lacking a fashion statement. In the late '70s, Papa Wemba kicked off the sapeur movement, which combined haute couture with even hotter music: the then-Zairean soukous that updated and re-Africanized Cuban charanga with electric instruments. A couple of decades later, Wemba's music is no less stylishly appointed.

Soukous at its infectious best is a melodious, quicksilver blend of slithering guitar lines, insistent snare beats and sweet call-and-response vocals. On Molokai, however, Wemba strives for a more international (as in Western pop) sound with a ten-piece band of five African and five European musicians. Recorded mostly live in the studio with a rock producer, the album ranges from the perfect, if far too brief, pure soukous of Bakwetu to the sentimental politics of If the Children Cry. Even when Wemba returns to his charanga-fan roots, as he does in Esclave, synthesizers now replace the string parts. Nothing on the album, in fact, matches the peerless beauty of its opening track, Excuse Me, which consists simply of Wemba singing unaccompanied in his mother tongue.

FromEscape(December 1999.) Subscriptions: $18/yr. (4 issues) from Box 462255, Escondido, CA 92046.

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