Friday, December 16, 2011

Some brief observations on African music.

"Makes you want to dance, isn't it?"
Prologue:  I feel sorry for those travellers who are not affected by the music surrounding them on their travels. Either it means they aren’t very attentive or as travelers—just plain indifferent. I’ve met many travellers who have been affected by the physical geography of a place and its peoples but not by the music. Maybe you want that bubble of indifference to separate you from the other or maybe you are intolerant. If it’s the latter then you have missed out on a rather integral part of the culture you are supposed to be encountering—you are more to be pitied than blamed. If your reason for travelling is to “experience the other” then why not do so? I fear that the globalization of travelling is making us too similar in some ways and the specific cultural identifiers that once separated us into unique ethnicities are being eroded at an alarming rate in our modern world.

For me, music was the curiosity that killed the cat, the more I entered the world of African music the more I wanted to know about it—it is intoxicating and it is all part of the “African experience”. Okay I’ll get off my soapbox now and leave the preaching for another day.

One of these cultural identifiers that separate us into distinctive entities is music. Music is an expression of the African soul and part of its cultural identity—it embodies what being an African is and, more importantly, provides a cultural, if not linguistic link to an individuals ‘homeland’. In that respect, a Luo in Kenya without his or her music would be akin to a death sentence. The same could easily hold true for any African whether they are Congolese, Zulu, Sudanese, Wassalou, Yoruba, Ethiopian, or Nubian and so on. The music not only separates cultures by their individual language but also their customs and traditional musical instruments of which there is a plethora of regional differences. For instance, the thumb piano or mbira is an essential instrument in much of Zimbabwe’s chimurenga and jit music. The guitar style of the Congolese Lingala rhythm as played by maestro Diblo Dibala is particular to the DRC (Zaire) but that style has influenced many groups from Kass Kass to as far away as Samba Mapangula & his band Virungu in Kenya.

At no time, do I pretend to be the expert on African music but I have grown to appreciate some of the finer intricacies of African sounds and their polyrhythms. Because of my love of African music, I have collected a number of cassettes, albums and CDs over the years. I have mentioned just a few of them in this article. This is by no means and in-depth study just a taste. Should you wish to pursue this subject further I would be more than happy to provide any additional information? I must thank Brian Rose for his help over the years in tracking down some of these CDs when he was “the old disc jockey” at CKUA.  In order to fully appreciate this article I implore you to check out some of the tracks I mentioned in this story on You Tube. In writing this up, I have been listening to my various playlists on You Tube and between typing and clapping to the music; I just hope I have done the music and writing justice. If only I could dance and type at the same...

There were many sojourns to Africa during the 1980s for me and each trip was unique and each one had a different set of theme songs that accompanied my travels. Because my peregrinations usually began and terminated in Kenya, the capital city of Nairobi was where music started to percolate and saturate my soul. In 1982, I was a big fan of ‘roots reggae’ music of Jamaica and reggae had a pronounced impact on Kenya, especially while being played at high volumes in the mini-vans or matatus that piled their trade up and down the eastern Kenyan littoral. In particular, the small Islamic town of Lamu, referred to as “the Katmandu of Africa” in the Lonely Planet guide was in the throes of becoming a hippy backpacker’s haven and a Rastafarian backwater of East Africa. Many of the local ‘dhow boys’, as they were called, had taken the Rastafarian cult of Jamaica to heart along with its inherent reggae music and being cool just smoking the local dope called dagga. It would not be out of the ordinary to hear the skanky riddims and the nasty dread beats of Robert Nesta Marley or Burning Spear booming through some dilapidated speakers at Bush Garden’s shake shop. After all this was a ‘local hangout’ for the groovy people and you could slurp on tasty tropical fruit milkshakes whilst enjoying a gentle breeze that kept the mosquitoes at bay. Hippy Europeans and scantily clad Israeli gals were also checking out the groovy “dhow boys” and vice versa for a little brown sugar.

The 80s were heady and hedonistic times and this was when AIDS was starting to rear its ugly head on the African continent. To show their solidarity for their Caribbean brothers, many of the ‘dhow boys’ had coifed their hair in the dread-lock fashion associated with the Rastafarian movement of distant Jamaica. Outside of the east coast of Kenya, you would be hard-pressed to find any other African contemplating having dreadlocks as most Africans are quite conservative and I know for a fact, that regardless of gender and age, the wearing of dreads is not tolerated in schools or in businesses. The ‘dhow boys’ of Lamu and their newfound persona would not be complete without some of the lads adopting ‘Rasta’ and other groovy names, i.e. Livingstone Rasta, Rasta Banana, Captain Majik et al. In 1984, the reggae sounds of West Africa’s Rasta Alpha Blondy had made inroads into Kenya and most clubs, taxis, matatus and tourist hangouts in Lamu were playing his music. (Check out his 1985 album “Apartheid is Nazism” on You Tube.)

Moreover, I can chronicle each trip I’ve taken through Africa by the type of music that influenced me at that time I was travelling through the continent. It’s a musical benchmark if nothing else. And to play the music back in Canada, or many years later, evokes many memories and it is like reliving parts of the journey all over again. The years, 1982 -1983 saw the emergence of one of the better South African groups that quickly gained notoriety world wide in the captivating rhythms of Johnny Clegg and Jaluka in their fourth album— The “Scatterlings of Africa”. For me, apart from the earlier “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” hit, the music of Clegg and Jaluka was the first time that most North Americans had any real exposure to the infectious South African music. The track, “I’m sitting on the top of Kilimanjaro” soon became a radio and club favourite. (Check out “Scatterlings of Africa” and “Sitting on the top of Kilimanjaro” on You Tube.)  

In 1983, I read a music review article in Mother Jones which plugged for Malcolm McLaren’s new offering called “Duck Rock”. I had no idea who he was or what type of music he produced but the review mentioned that McLaren was sampling various music sources from South Africa. Check out the track to the right called "Double Dutch" which has the real "township jive" sound, tricky guitar and the Mahotella Queens singing backup and the Mahlathini groaning away. Initially, McLaren didn’t credit his South African sources that were unknown to the rest of the music world at the time. He famously borrowed the style of music from the Boyoyo Boys of Zimbabwe called jit and McLaren also sampled the mbqanqa music style of legendary South African groaner Mahlathini and his backup group the Mahotella Queens. I was particularly impressed by McLaren’s track “Soweto” with its intricate, yet haunting South African style of guitar picking. There is also the fiddle playing which is typical of a lot of  Township Jive music. (Check out McLaren’s tracks “Soweto” and “Buffalo Girls” on You Tube). As a result, this was a starting point for me to find out more about the music of southern African and the following year I went back to Africa to investigate this further.

Whether you are in Equatorial Africa or as far south as Botswana, one can always hear the Congolese hip-shaking rhythms and type of music called Lingala. It would not be out of the ordinary to hear familiar tunes of Zaire’s Franco or Tabu Ley & TPOK Orchestra playing Lingala music in Hallian’s Night Club or Florida 2000 club in Nairobi, or down on the coast at the Castle Hotel in Mombasa. Speaking of sweet sounds of Franco reminds me that I first heard his big hit song “Oh, Mario” in a smoky, crowded bar in Gaborone, Botswana in 1986. On this trip, I carried my beast of a cassette recorder, the Sony Walkman Pro, because it made decent bootleg recordings. I smuggled it into the bar with my travelling friend Klaus in the hopes of securing some live music—there wasn’t any but a gyrating disco. At any rate, whilst Klaus was chatting up his ‘girlfriends’ I was busy trying to make a recording. I just caught the tale end of a Lingala song which Klaus assured me was “one of the most famous songs on the continent”. As soon as it had started, everyone who had been sitting got up at once to dance; even two old spinsters who were sitting by themselves took to the floor—“Makes you want to dance, isn’t it?” 
I hadn’t a clue what song it was but liked it and everyone seemed to be moving their hips to it especially the ‘bump and grind’ of the Botswana gals from the Kalahari typing school. I had forgotten this song and had stored it in my mental library of ‘unknown African songs’. That was until 2000 when I was in a cheesy music store in Nairobi just around the corner from the Thorn Tree Café at the New Stanley Hotel. As I walked in, the Lingala sounds hit me and I knew this was the elusive hit I had been searching for since 1986 and I bought the cheap knock off cassette with the hit “Oh Mario” on it. Klaus had been right all those years before in that smoky Gabarone bar and I subsequently read that “Oh Mario” is one of the top five all time hits of African music ever—according to a BBC poll of African music. 

The year 1985 was a sort of coming out party for South African music, with the Shanachie label producing the best collection of contemporary South African artists in their 1985 album called “The Indestructible Beat of Soweto”. This album featured among other artists Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Mahlathini & the Mahotella Queens. This album pre-dated Paul Simon’s “Graceland ” by a year and some claim that the South African music weighed heavily on his own album.[1]

Another album that flew under the music world’s radar was a brilliant mélange of African sounds by the former drummer of the UK rock group—The Police. Stewart Copeland produced both a video and album of his musical travels in East Africa and collaboration with Congolese singer Ray Lema in “The Rhythmatist”. Nevertheless, Copeland’s seminal album featured the mixing of traditional sounds of Masaai, Giriama, Samburu, Kamba tribes of Kenya and the Aka Pygmies of the Congo with his own percussive works and accompanying ambient Africa sounds. I have just viewed “The Rhythmatist” video for the first time and it is a brilliant piece of cultural anthropology. 
Mark Holmes had told me about the video version of the album back in 1987 but I never believed him.  Copeland crafted a masterpiece “under the brutal African sky “ that the great ambient maestro Brian Eno would have envied. (Check out the four part video or separate tracks from the album called “Oh Bolilla” and “Liberte” on You Tube but make sure you get the cuts that have the black album cover with Stewart Copeland on them as their sound is better). BTW, part of the track for “Oh Bolilla” was filmed on the island of Lamu!

The following year, 1986 was also the time when Paul Simon’s collaborative album “Graceland” came out with a thunderous success worldwide. “Graceland” was #1 on the UK music charts and received Album of the Year Grammy award. On my African sojourns, I often stayed with an old kibbutznik friend, Mark Burns who was studying at Oxford Polytechnic at the time. Mark was a trumpet player and had a keen ear and was a budding aficionado of African jazz music, in particular Fela Kuti.[2] We both guffawed at an article in a recent London Time-Out magazine that proclaimed how Paul Simon had ‘discovered African music’ in his “Graceland” album. What annoyed me more than anything was the fact that the cover of the album was a copy of a parchment manuscript from an Ethiopian Coptic biblical text—it had nothing to do with the South African flavour of the music he had hijacked?

Ah well, it was also a time when the rest of the world was just beginning to discover what Southern Africans had known for a long time—their music was infectious and moving. The Zulu male choir called Ladysmith Black Mambazo had been around for ages, but they really only came to prominence because of their exposure from Simon’s “Graceland” tour and their famous song—“Homeless”. Their style of music is a cappella or in their mother tongue Zulu called isicathamiya. What’s even more remarkable about Ladysmith Black Mambazo and many of the Zulu choirs is the fact that many of them have had no formal voice training. (Check out the “Graceland” concert from Zimbabwe on You Tube)  

On a bus trip in 1986 from Johannesburg to Swaziland, I became acquainted with some of the new music emanating out of South Africa in the likes of Ray Phiri and his band Stimela plus the Zulu Holy Spirits Choir. (Check out Ray Phiri and Stimela’s “Whispers in the Deep” track on You Tube). 

It seemed that the South African bus only played these two cassettes so there was no way of avoiding it and I quite enjoyed the driver playing them endlessly on my Non-European bus trip from Joburg to Swaziland. At that time, most people didn’t know who Ray Phiri was but he was also the lead guitarist on Simon’s “Graceland” album and played on the subsequent world tour. (You can see Phiri playing guitar and doing back-up vocals to Simon on the ‘Graceland tour’ on You Tube).

During the same trip in 1986, once I left South Africa and ventured north of the Limpopo River, I became acquainted with the music of the “Lion of Zimbabwe” the former resistance singer Thomas Mapfumo’s and his band The Blacks Unlimited. I particularly liked the “Mr. Music” cassette but have enjoyed all his other albums especially the controversial one in 1988 called “Corruption”. In the track “Congress”, Mapfumo introduced horns along with trademark plucky guitar style. (Check out “Congress” or “Nyoka Musango” on You Tube)

I was smitten forever by the hypnotic, yet plucky sounds of the electrified thumb piano or mbira. The mbira was the traditional instrument played in Zimbabwe and basically it is a set of six or seven hammered steel tongs that were jammed under a fret board over top of a soundboard. When plucked, the tongs resonated through an opening in the sound board and was aided by a row of fixed discarded bottle caps which gave it its rattle and rhythm. Mapfumo incorporated the mbira in his music in its original form mounted inside a gourd and amplified. His guitarist, at the time, Jonah Sithole could also emulate the sound on his electric guitar. (Check out the tracks “Moyo Wangu” or “Marehwarewa” on You Tube to hear this style.)

 The style of music that Mapfumo and The Blacks Unlimited played was called Chimurenga—“We call this chimurenga music. The word means struggle and in my songs I speak against oppression and try to give voice to the people who cannot speak for themselves.” The ‘struggle’ he was referring to was the ‘resistance battle’ or Rhodesian Bush War against the white–led minority government of Prime Minister of Rhodesia Ian Smith. Smitty and the Rhodesians didn’t allow Mapfumo to sing in his native Shona language, so he went underground and through his music, implored young African men to join in the ‘struggle for independence’. In 1979, Mapfumo was eventually caught and imprisoned without charges by Smith’s regime for his revolutionary songs. His incarceration was overturned and he was released after spending just three months in Smith’s jails. I had the pleasure to see Mapfumo and the Black’s Unlimited live in 1986 at the legendary, if not dangerous Queen’s Hotel in Harare and lived to tell the tale but that is another story which is in my "Africa Quartet" series. (Listen to the track “Congress” on You Tube to get a feel for his music from my favourite album—“Mr. Music” where he incorporated horns and tricky guitar playing into his sound).
Soon after Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, Mapfumo became disillusioned with Comrade Mugabe’s cronyism and bankrupting of the former vibrant Zimbabwe economy. Mapfumo started to write songs about the growing corruption within Zimbabwe. During a later trip through Zimbabwe in 1989, Mapfumo and his Blacks Unlimited gained notoriety and the ire of Mugabe with their hit album—“Corruption”. (For some strange reason, the lead track “Corruption” is not available on You Tube and I wish someone would put it on).  Consequently, Mapfumo fell out of favour with fellow Shona big-man Prime Minister Mugabe and in the late 1990s; Mapfumo left Zimbabwe and went into exile in Oregon (of all places) for his own safety. [3]

During our 1989 trip through Kenya, my travelling companion Janine and I became enchanted with the Lingala beats of Congo’s favourite threesome—Kass Kass. The Kenyan taxi and matatu drivers were playing the Kass Tout cassette non-stop so I wanted to buy a copy. 
Naturally, the cassette was not available in Kenya and I would have to wait until I got back to London and found a copy at Stern’s Music Store.  I still have the cassette and quite often play it from time to time. Bon chance trying to find a CD of this cassette—believe me I’ve looked on line. (You can find some of Kass Kass tracks on You Tube and one of my favourites is “Mounga Nga).

Later on this trip and further south in Zimbabwe, we had the pleasure of attending an outdoor pungwe outside of Harare. The pungwe was a carry over from the ‘days of resistance’ and was actually a banned political meeting for the ZANLA/ZAPU freedom fighters. In independent Zimbabwe, a pungwe was an all-day music affair starting in the afternoon and running into the wee hours of the following day. From time to time throughout the day, various musicians from The Blacks Unlimited came on stage to play a few tunes then retire with Mapfumo coming on in dribs and drabs to sing the occasional song. Naturally there was a lot of chibuku or sorghum drink imbibed between mouthfuls of spicy tough corn cobs and plates of steaming mealie—all staples in Zimbabwe. Later on in the evening, after the crowds had swollen, Mapfumo and band brought the house down with the cover tune of the then famous song “Corruption”. I managed to record the event after getting approval from Mapfumo’s nervous European manager despite his earlier protestations.

During travels through Zimbabwe, there are many artists who were quite good but I will give special mention for two: Robson Banda and his New Black Eagles, and Paul Matavire of the Jairos Jiri Band. In 1986, I made a recording off the Zim 4 radio station of various hits and in particular the driving rhythms of the jit genre of music. The local announcer described lead singer Paul Matavire as “the blind but very talented”. Later on, I found out that Matavire had been the lead singer in the Jairos Jiri Band from Bulawayo. (Check out Paul Matavire’s track on You Tube called “Chando Chinouraya”). 

If you are serious about Zimbabwe music and want a collection of various artists then I would recommend any of the following:  “Viva Zimbabwe” (1983), “Take cover” (1985), “Goodbye Sandra” (1987) “Zimbabwe Frontline” (1989) and “Spirit of the Eagle” (1990).  In 1988, Robson Banda and his group gained notoriety with the very popular song “Soweto” which was played everywhere in Zimbabwe.  Janine and I managed to see Banda and his band live at the infamous Queen’s Hotel in Harare. I was able to buy the cassette in Harare and unfortunately gave it to Mr. Steven’s to play at his rest house at Cape Maclear in Malawi. He enjoyed it so much that he played it non-stop and I didn’t have the heart to take it back and besides, I thought I would always get a copy later on. Oddly enough, I would have to wait 22 years to hear this track “Soweto” when I found it on You Tube last year. (Check out “Soweto” on You Tube).

Epilogue: Unfortunately, trying to buy African music in Africa was another story as most music shops only sold cheap, pirated copies or had none at all (as was often the case). I usually waited until I was back in Canada or on many occasion, I went to Stern’s African music store in London. On our return trip to Canada in March 1989, Janine and I visited Stern’s store to buy the “Kass Kass” album and cassette, Mapfumo’s “Corruption” album and a Mozambican album, plus book tickets to see Zaire’s legendary Franco. As fate would have it, the concert was unexpectedly cancelled at the last minute because of his ill-health—he died sometime later from complications from AIDs. A great pity and another one of Africa’s best musicians lost to the ravages of AIDS. Many of the other African artists who I have come to enjoy over the years have also passed away notably legendary African jazz player Fela Kuti, Robson Banda and most of his band, Brenda Fassie, Miriam Makeba and the atomic bomb of Zaire—Pepe Kalle. Franco’s heir apparent and compatriot Pepe Kalle assumed the mantle of Congolese music that was passed onto to him but he died young too! (His “Pon Moun Paka Bouge” is a classic Congolese rhumba tune with Diblo Dibala on guitar so check it out on You Tube). 
For some reason, Pepe Kalle had a penchant for using midgets in his music videos with brought howls from my Kenyan wife and family but he is loved all over East Africa. In 2003, I was looking at the discography of Mapfumo’s Black Unlimited Band and many of his original musicians I saw at the Queen’s Hotel in 1986 and 1988 were no longer with us. From Banda’s group, there is only the guitarist left as the others all passed away in the 1990s, most likely succumbed to AIDs but can’t be certain. Even in Kenya, when someone dies from it, the obituary only reads either: “gone to the glory of god” or “succumbed to an illness”. 

Miriam Makeba aka “Mama Africa” died a few years back whilst on a tour from a heart problem but she had lived to an old age, still a singin' grandma and I was lucky to have seen her and Hugh Masekela live in concert twice in one year in Canada. In the 1987 "Graceland" concert in Harare ( which I was supposed to have gone to), Ray Phiri sings back up and is wearing the hat whilst playing lead guitar. There's some controversy about Paul Simon not giving Phiri credit on some of the songs and no financial benefit as a result.
There are many musicians I didn’t mention but I haven’t forgotten them—maybe another blog. I didn’t add Oliver Mutukudsi of Zimbabwe because I was never a big fan of his and never owned his music except in some of the collections I previously mentioned. For me, Thomas Mapfumo was always the ‘voice of Zimbabwe’. At any rate, it’s nearly thirty years since I bought some of the tapes, I still play them from time to time, but the majority of them are ‘out of print’ and unfortunately, they have not been re-mastered into the digital format. Nevertheless, they still sound as vibrant and crucial as if hearing them for the first time again and their spirit lives on—at least with me and I hope with you.

[1] In 1988, Earthworks produced the next in series “Thunder Before Dawn--Indestructible Beat of Soweto Volume Two” which really took off in the rest of the music world and won critical acclaim. A nice complement to that is the “Homeland 1 & 2”series by Rounder Records but not sure if they are available on You Tube.
[2] In fact, it was Mark who turned me onto the hypnotic jazz sounds of Nigeria’s number one son—Fela Kuti in his 1981 album—“The Black President”.
[3] The group still makes the North American tour circuit and I got to see him again after a 12 year
   hiatus at the Africa Festival in 2000.

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