Nonesuch Explorer Series


 indexedited from BANNING EYRE  (

The return of the Nonesuch Explorer Series

In 1975, I was a freshman at Wesleyan University, which had recently begun offering postgraduate studies in ethnomusicology. Although the marketing term “world music” had yet to be invented by a cabal of globally minded London trend setters, we at Wesleyan already had a World Music Hall and a small world-music library.

I used to take vinyl LPs out and copy the best tracks onto cassettes, which I listened to obsessively. This is how I discovered African music, in large measure thanks to the Nonesuch Explorer Series, whose volumes were accumulating year after year on the shelves of Wesleyan’s music library. The entire series, some 91 CDs, is now being re-released, starting with the 12 original Africa volumes and a new Africa compilation.

I was a guitar player, not a percussionist, and though I loved a good African drum blowout as much as the next ’70s college kid, I derived a deeper pleasure from the polyphony of a reed-flute ensemble from Burundi (on the Music from the Heart of Africa Explorer Series volume), a funky, lone lute thrumming away on the savanna of Niger (on West Africa: Drum, Chant & Instrumental Music), or the intertwining, polyrhythmic melodies of the mbiras on what remains my favorite volume, The Soul of Mbira: Traditions of the Shona People, which was recorded by ethnomusicologist Paul Berliner in 1972.

“In those days,” Berliner told me recently, “the mbira was largely regarded as a toy in this country. The small, Hugh Tracey kalimba had made it here, but it was initially sold by Creative Playthings.” In his book The Soul of Mbira (University of Chicago Press) and on his two Nonesuch Explorer reissues — the other being Shona Mbira Music — Berliner aims to introduce listeners to the stunning subtlety and surprising complexity of traditional Shona music made with the simple mbira.

He also delves into the mbira’s ceremonial importance: far from being a plaything, it has deep spiritual value to the Shona. And as a college student, I fell under its spell. Indeed, nothing so dramatizes the impact these seminal Nonesuch recordings had in the West as the worldwide network of mbira and marimba players that began to emerge in the early ’70s. On the West Coast there are now mbira camps, Shona-music retreats, and popular ensembles who play hybrids of Zimbabwean traditional music.  When you ask veteran American mbira players where they first heard Shona music, the answer almost invariably includes Nonesuch’s Explorer Series.

The Africa volumes were initially released between 1969 and 1983. It was in 1984 that I first attended a concert by King Sunny Adé and his Nigerian juju orchestra. That experience triggered the fascination with contemporary African music that has largely determined the direction of my life and work as a critic and a musician.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s