16 Sept 2016

Urgent Jumping! - East African Musiki Wa Dansi Classics

“We’ll offer work to three of them. That third drummer’s been listening to the records, and the last two singers know the lyrics well.”

It’s mid-August 1993, and I’m sitting in a deserted club in Dar es Salaam with Congolese soukous star Kanda Bongo Man and Kanda’s longtime guitarist and arranger, Nene Tchakou. The mid-afternoon sun slants across the beer glasses on the tables, still unwashed from the night before.

Why don’t you bring a full band from Paris when you tour East Africa?” I ask Kanda. There’s no point,” he replies. “These East African musicians and singers are probably the best on the continent. They know what’s expected, the singers and drummers especially, so we just hire and rehearse when we get here. I only need Nene to come; he MDs the shows.” And, apart from the last-minute addition to the frontline of the legendary Congolese vocalist Tchico Tchicaya, who happens to be in Dar at the time, that‘s how the shows are performed over the next few weeks.

I’m the resident DJ for a series of Kanda Bongo Man gigs in Dar, mainly at two clubs, one an old-school ‘hooch ‘n’ hookers’ joint, the other state-of-the-art modern beachside. The latter is to be opened by the Prime Minister and his wife, both keen music-lovers. I’ve come with four boxes of records (1993, so all vinyl), two of which overshoot Nairobi airport, travel on to Johannesburg, and return to Kenya on a flight two days later, unharmed and undiminished. Luckily, the returnees include my batch of classic Congolese-style rumba, the music loved and revered by the older generation of East Africans, called zilizopendwa in Kenya and zilipendwa in Tanzania, both terms loosely translated as ‘golden oldies’.

Kanda’s words will be familiar to all musicians who have recorded or toured in East Africa. That afternoon in rehearsal, we hear maybe eight or nine singers, and every one of them is either very good or outstanding. It’s one of the reasons why the mighty Congolese orchestras – TPOK Jazz, Afrisa, Johnny Bokelo and so many others – particularly enjoy touring in Kenya and Tanzania. Things are well-organised, almost everyone understands his job description, gigs start on time, the audiences are appreciative of and familiar with the music, and they dance serebuka (literally ‘blissful expressive dance’) using graceful moves, mtindo, that seem to fit everything from ‘50s Kenyan guitar-twist and Cuban-influenced rumba to modern R&B.

Almost a quarter-century later, even the youth, obsessed with the individualistic style of hip-hop and R&B-based bongo flava (Tanzania), genge and kapuka (Kenya), still respect and sample the classic zilipendwa bands in preference to the more ethnically-based Luo benga and Kamba guitar bands, whose ten-minute 140 BPM workouts are bizarrely but serendipitously, supremely popular with the picós de champeta (Colombian carnival sound-systems) on the other side of the Atlantic, the old vinyl having initially reached South America via a network of visiting sailors and smuggling routes.

There was a strong and skilled recording industry in Nairobi in the early ‘60s, with many local entrepreneurs and investment from multinational recording labels. This was made all the more vibrant with Kenyan independence and the consequent inward flow of resources and talent from all over sub-Saharan Africa.

East Africa had a unique and exciting mixture of artistic collaboration in the ‘60s and ‘70s. There was an urban studio elite, a group of musicians from various ethnic backgrounds performing in ‘non-tribalised’ Swahili and recruited by English record producers. Then there was a separate group of outstanding Luhya musicians also performing in Swahili but professing allegiance to the Indian-owned River Road studio and record labels. And finally there were the more vernacular-based musicians who were spearheading the nascent benga and Kamba Stratocaster/percussion workouts. Put that all together and you had a perfect storm of international and parochial musical genius, with the focus on the 45-rpm vinyl format.

The feverish musical activity in clubs, hotels, private functions and recording studios in Nairobi, Dar, Mombasa, Arusha, Kisumu, Mwanza, Tanga and elsewhere became a magnet for the Congolese big bands, whose limited domestic work opportunities were a constant source of frustration. It also attracted kwela combos from southern Africa, whose influence in the early ‘60s could be found in Zambia, Rhodesia, Botswana, Malawi and Kenya, and not to forget the work of ‘dry’ guitarists Peter Tsotsi, a Nairobi-based Zambian, and John Mwale, and also John Nzenze whose playing helped found the Kenyan ‘twist’ craze.

With its large professional and middle-class Asian, Arabic and Indian population, East Africa’s coastal and island regions provided yet another destination for ‘beach party’ music consumers, including – before Idi Amin expulsions started to bite – weekend safari parties from Uganda.

Much has been written of Zanzibar’s taarab music, its blend of accordions, violins and voices providing the perfect fusion of Bollywood filmscore with African rhythmic sensibility, and of the erotic 6/8 chakacha music of the Mombasa coastal region, a sort of traditional East African ‘girls’ night out’ genre whose popularity lives on in the work of today’s pop stars such as Diamond Platnumz and Nasema Nawe. At least in part, from British marching bands has grown beni music, an all-purpose Africanised taarab for street parades and wedding parties, as well as Sidi Sufi music, the recently reinvented Afro-Indian trance music of Gujarat. All are easily heard today in Zanzibar.

And let’s not even get started on one Farrokh Bulsara, a Zanzibar-born Parsi Indian, whose controversial legacy is still felt in the region. (He was better known by Westerners, and much better loved, as Freddie Mercury.)

So, back to Dar, 1993. The club’s full, the Prime Minister and his wife and entourage have arrived, and I’ve been spinning my favourite Lingala and Swahili rumbas for nearly an hour, but no-one’s dancing. Then the honoured guests take to the floor as a couple, and immediately everyone’s up and dancing too. Relief. It was simply an issue of traditional deference, and serebuka has finally deigned to bless our zilipendwa party.


East African Musiki Wa Dansi Classics 1972 - 1982

Sterns has been fortunate in securing access to one of the most valuable and extensive mastertape libraries of classic East African popular music. Much of the material has never seen the light of day since first issued more than four decades ago, and many of the selections command three-figure auction prices in their original 7-inch 45-rpm format. For this compilation I have made no attempt to segregate Kenyan and Tanzanian artists; Tanzanians play in Kenyan bands, Kenyans in Tanzanian, and Congolese and other Central and Southern African musicians in both.

Uganda would be included in any compilation of today’s East African popular music, but in the ‘70s and early ‘80s (the era of these performances) Kampala’s version of zilipendwa semadongo (‘master of many big musics’) – was, with the honourable exception of The Afrigo Band, still in its infancy.

There is no taarab as such here – that would need at least two CDs’ worth by itself – but there is music with that distinctive Indian Ocean flavour. Slim Ali, usually an Anglophone funk performer, teams up with a taarab group for a distinctive chakacha shuffle. The same 6/8 Mombasa tempo is imaginatively exploited by the criminally under-recorded (one LP, a handful of 45s) Sunburst – or, perhaps, taking into account the several different mastertape spellings – Sunbust Band. The Zairean, Zambian and Tanzanian players in this afro-rock ensemble called their sound kitoto and epitomized how pointless it is to compartmentalise ‘70s East African music.

But the main thrust of the music is benga and zilipendwa, the dominant mainstream sounds of the era. Benga can be full-throttle (The Kauma Boys, Peter Owino Rachar’s Golden Kings), but it can also have poise and grace (Victoria Jazz, Sega Sega Band). Zilipendwa is generally more commodious than benga, not only to languages but also to various stylistic influences, both local and imported.

Starting in the early ‘60s, Congolese bands flooded East Africa. They brought with them Cuban influences along with the latest Kinshasa and Brazzaville dance crazes: kavacha, kwasa kwasa and so on. Like Kanda Bongo Man twenty years later, they recruited Swahili vocalists and instrumentalists, and rapidly learnt Swahili themselves, their sets comprising songs in the region’s main languages and several dialects.

Sterns customers will be familiar with the outstanding compilation Sister Pili + 2, featuring the prolific singer Batamba Wendo Morris, aka Moreno, who had been a lead vocalist with Safari Sound, Virunga, Les Noirs and several other bands. In 1980 he co-founded L’Orchestre Moja One in Nairobi, where “Dunia Ni Duara” was recorded, later to become a Colombian champeta sound-system classic, ‘covered up’ as “La Gallinita”. Sides A and B of the original 45 have here been deftly interwoven into a ten-minute blast more suited to modern ears. Piqueros and champeteros, time to update your playlists!

Stax soul singers – Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Arthur Conley and the rest – were of course massively popular all over Africa, with Kenya and Tanzania being no exception, and Maquis De Zaire’s horn arranger pays ample tribute to the Memphis sound in “Denise”.

Johnny Bokelo
Congolese-naturalised guitarist and bandleader Johnny Bokelo (born João Botelho in Luanda) remains one of the great untold stories of African music, a modernizer and arranger on par with Manu Dibango and Fela Kuti and an astonishingly prolific recording artist under a bewildering array of aliases, including L’Orchestre Congo International. The opening bars of “Nakupenda Sana” suggest a double-speed Benin-style afrobeat, but repeated listening yields an altogether different Mandingue-funk flavour, especially in the guitars, which suggest Ousmane Kouyaté or Djelimady Tounkara.

Orchestre Special Liwanza delivers “Vicky”, nearly 10 minutes of driving, Prince Youlou-style Congo-mambo, featuring leader and vocalist Jimmy Moninambo and guitarist Tabu Frantal plus a sharp horn section. Liwanza once backed Ivorian salsero Laba Sosseh on a Sacodis recording session in Abidjan, as Alastair Johnston conjectures, so they were clearly flexible musicians.

Three legendary East African bands make multiple appearances. After running The Safari Trippers successfully for many years, singer-songwriter Marijani Rajabu formed the mighty Orchestre Dar es Salaam International. Rajabu has been called ‘the Bob Dylan of zilipendwa’, and there are few Tanzanians of a certain age who don’t know the lyrics to at least several of his hundreds of compositions – short stories of love, jealousy, poverty, tragedy and the misuses of power and authority. The band on the four songs here is on top form, “Rufaa Ya Kiko” starting as a ‘weekend shuffle’, resolving at around 3’14” into a relentless mambo, with “Rudi Nyumbani” following a similar trajectory. “Rafiki Sina” shows the band on a gentle savannah-style ballad, the only one in this compilation.

The 2004 funeral of Patrick Balisidya, founder and, for four decades, the driving force of Afro 70, halted the traffic in downtown Dar for an entire morning. The band’s two tracks here show exceptional versatility, from soul-funk to rumba without a flicker.

Though the various Super Mambo groups suffered a bewildering number of name changes over the years, their basic personnel remained roughly consistent throughout. Their speciality was a sort of Latinate, Hawaiian-influenced guitar rumba and cha cha cha followed by several tempo-changing sebenes. Their sought-after singles regularly fetch serious money on eBay from Latin music fans looking for something different. If you get the chance, check out Super Mambo Jazz 69’s sole RCA Victor LP, which includes another Colombian champeta hit, “Maria Ayebi” (retitled “El Mambotazo”).

This is just the tip of the iceberg. I started off with more than 1000 tracks, shuffled and reshuffled to a shortlist of around 60, reducing to 27 for this first volume by means of little more than a blindfold, a drawing-pin and instinct. There are at least another 27 more tracks earmarked for a possible Volume 2, and it’s my hope that the many excellent and knowledgeable old-school Afro DJs worldwide will now start to add a little more zilipendwa to their usual afrobeat, highlife, soukous and makossa playlists.


* * *

John Armstrong


12 Sept 2016

Vieux Kanté: The Young Man's Harp

Vieux Kanté is not an uncommon name in Mali, but it can get very confusing when, such is your fame, your name is adopted by others to help them get a gig. This, anecdotally, is exactly what happened to Noumoussa Soumaoro aka Vieux Kanté. As Afropop Worldwide editor Banning Eyre writes:-

Vieux Kante was born in 1974 in Niesmala in the Sikasso region of Mali. Though blind from childhood, he participated in musical activities like other kids, starting at the age of seven on djembe drum. Vieux’s talent was immediately obvious to all. When he was eleven his brothers would go out to work in the fields, leaving him alone in the house. Vieux took to borrowing his brothers’ six-string harp, the kamale n’goni (youth harp), and learned to play the things he had heard on the radio and at local parties, where the kamale n’goni was then king.

This instrument was not restricted by the secrecy and taboo surrounding hunter’s culture and, in fact, was something of a youth itself, having only been invented in the 1960s. But in a few short years it had transformed village recreation throughout the Wassoulou region. So Vieux tapped into a deep vein of popular emotion when he emerged as one of the hottest young players.”

Towards the end of the 90s and by some accounts, aided by a Dutch hotel owner, Vieux Kanté visited Europe where he recorded with saxophonist Hans Dulfer, and also made a cameo appearance on ‘Mali Jazz’, the 1999 album by pioneering big band, Fra Fra Sound, where he’s credited as “Moussa ‘Vieux’ Kanté”. From 1997, a grainy YouTube clip shows him sharing a stage with both the Fra Fra Big Band and Lester Bowie.

Back in Bamako he proved an innovator who helped to develop the instrument, and by 2000 his kamale n’goni boasted 12 strings. As Banning writes “These modifications gave him more than an octave and a complete major or minor scale. As for the remaining notes, the “jazz notes,” Vieux said that although they are not on the instrument, he could play them - ”You have to do those yourself,” he said, “using your own head.” “

By this time Vieux Kanté’s fame in the villages and fields of the Wassoulou region that extends across southern Mali, northern Guinea and parts of the Ivory Coast, was assured. Songs were written in his name and, as noted, other performers either already had, or had adopted, his name. 

When we met Vieux (Banning notes) he demonstrated amazing techniques … (and) it was obvious why he was considered one of the most dynamic and accomplished solo players in the country. At the time, he was leading his own group and word was they had recorded a cassette, but it had yet to hit the market. Then, just a few months later,

we heard that Vieux had died after a sudden illness.”

It’s been a long wait, but finally that Mali-produced cassette finds an international audience on Sterns Africa as “The Young Man’s Harp” 

The following is from an interview with Kabadjan Diakite by Abdramane Fall and Modibo Diarra in early 2016

MD: Good morning, can you introduce yourself?

KD: My name is Kabadjan Diakite. I was in the Orchestre National of Guinea, ‘Les Badial’. When I came to Mali to see my senior brother Sékou Kanté who was with the ‘Rail Band’, I first met Vieux whom I naturally admired.

MD: As a matter of fact, let us talk about Vieux. How did you come across him?

KD: My senior brother Sékou asked me to accompany him to Zani Diabaté’s so that he could introduce me to him. That was when Vieux entered and I immediately noticed him and said ‘Nkoro, who is the person who has just entered?’. He answered that it was Vieux but made no other comment. And without seeking to understand, I told my senior brother that I wanted to work with that man.

I went to him at Torokorobougou, but could not meet him then and so asked his sisters to give him a message. When I finally did speak to him, I said that I’d seen him on television and admired him greatly. I let him know that I came from Guinea Conakry but lived in Mali and that, absolutely, I wanted to work with him.

At that time he was performing at the ‘Hotel Les Arbres’ and I was performing at ‘Mande Hotel’, and so I often went to see him at sessions in ‘Les Arbres’ which continued until the early hours. It was there he suggested that he come to visit me in my house, and so we became friends. Later he proposed that I accompany him on at the ‘Hotel Les Arbres’ and the important ladies who came to watch us meant we could really do great things.

And me, filled with wonder about his talent, I asked him if there was a ghost in his kamalé ngoni, because I knew other guitar, kora and ngoni players, but I had never met anyone like Vieux. 

He was the head of the band, I was his deputy. My senior brother even suggested I leave ‘Le Super Diatabande’ so that I could work with Vieux, but I couldn’t as I considered this a kind of betrayal. Nevertheless I continued working with Vieux and we recorded at the studio of Salif Keita at Dielibougou. We recorded seven songs, of which he sang four such as

Tènè tounou tchinnou,
Haaannnn loni deni fari ne wala di ...”

and I sang three among which were ‘Kono’

Hééééé kônô kônô kônô
Mande Kalou la Kônô bôlén dé Guinée
Djin djin djin ...”

and ‘Sinamon’

Karamô Kê nana
O ki yala kounngo le kônô
Sina mousso ni djou dô wilila
Ka fô kara mô ke yé

The wicked co-wife who wanted to set a dangerous snake against another wife, but the snake bit her and she herself died. The moral of the song is that when you want to harm somebody you may possibly harm yourself.

He said that I had a golden voice, and I told him “Heeee Vieux, me I am afraid of your talent, and now you want to be afraid of me?!”. He then suggested that I should become the head of the band because I am experienced and have been to foreign countries, but I refused saying that to lead is a matter of destiny.

MD: Did you tour together?

KD: Yes, thanks to Mr Zalé, the ex-mayor of the district V of Bamako, we toured almost throughout the whole Mali (Timbuktu, Gao and Bandiagara) as well as Burkina Faso.

MD: Can you tell us about when Vieux died?

KD: If I have a good memory, he died between 2005 and 2006, for our collaboration started in 1998, the year of the African Cup of Nation in Ouaga. His wife died a year before him and they left behind a son bearing the name of Mamadou.

His death really shocked me. But despite all, I continue performing. I perform very well with the musical band, even at present.

MD: What is your conclusion?

KD: I thank you journalists for having come over so that we can talk about the death of my friend and brother. I equally greet all the artists, who all know me more or less directly, either by my name or by my work. I greet you and confide in you for the future. I thank you.