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African Sounds Tapes, CDs and Videos is situated across the street from Bayland Park in a ramshackle strip mall that's home to no fewer than three storefront churches. The surrounding neighborhood, once blue-collar/lower-middle Anglo, is now a riot of south-of-the-border culture mixed with stuff from further afield: a couple of Salvadoran pupuserías sit next to a trio of Cuban cafes, which are hard by the Moo Hive honey ice cream parlor and La Tropicana Guatemalan restaurant. Down the street is a church for Filipino Baptists, which, in turn, is pretty close to the Tat Dat Azz Tattoo Parlor.
This area once was also home to many West African immigrants and lots of record stores, but most of the Africans have moved farther west down Bissonnet or all the way out to Fort Bend County. Most of the record stores have bitten the dust.
Felicité Bosson, the Ivorian proprietor of African Sounds, will tell you all about that. Clad in the brightly colored traditional garb of her native country, she'll tell you about how the African bodegas down on Wilcrest and out in Alief sell pirate versions of the hot new releases under the counter while she's left mainly with the slower-selling oldies. And a lot of her non-African clientele has either moved out of the area or begun downloading what she sells.
And that's a pity, because this is the kind of music-shopping experience we'd hate to lose. Bosson arranges her inventory into regions of Africa -- you've got your Central section, dominated by stuff from the Congo; a Western section full of releases from Nigeria, Senegal, Cameroon and Mali; an Eastern section dominated by Kenyan music; and a Southern section with everything in it from Soweto jazz to Zimbabwean and Mozambican mbira music from the likes of Oliver Mtukudzi and Thomas Mapfumo.
She's also got lots and lots of African films on video for rent and for sale -- their lurid letterboxes advertise gritty-looking action-adventures from Douala and slapstick comedies and love stories from Lagos -- popular genre flicks seldom screened on African-themed nights at the Museum of Fine Arts.
Bosson is happy to talk music with any curious strangers who walk in. Or to gossip about musicians: She'll tell you about the secular Congolese star who wallowed in a life of sin, contracted HIV and turned to gospel. "He's not sick anymore," she insists, smiling. "God has cured him!"
But more important, she'll make you feel at home in her store even if you walk in there not knowing the difference between Angelique Kidjo and Miriam Makeba, or if you don't know a kora from a balafon. If you want to hear what's climbing the charts in the Côte d'Ivoire metropolis of Abidjan, she'll play you some of that, but she's no blind booster of her native country's music -- especially the newer stuff. As cheap synths blurt and canned beats clank from the speakers, she'll frown and mutter something about the old music being better. And she'll put on a new collection from rumba Congo masters Kékélé. As a singer's high tenor weaves his Lingala words through strands of sinuous acoustic guitar, call-and-response chants, burbling stand-up bass and crisp percussion, and she watches the smile spread across her customer's face, she'll agree that, yes, the old music is often better.
Just as the old way of buying music -- going to a record store and talking about the stuff with the person behind the counter -- was better than pointing and clicking at home.