updated 1 December 2022

Movie of the Year

The Rumba Kings (directed by Alan Brain), which tells the story of the rise of Congolese rumba as a political force in the 1940s, up through Independence in 1960, won the Best Diaspora Documentary in the prestigious African Movie Academy Awards (November 2022); it also won Best Documentary at Doc'n'Roll (New York), Audience Award at Musical Ecran, Best Documentary at Cannes International Festival of Panafricain Film, Best Documentary in Melbourne, &c.

photo: Pharoah Sanders, Oakland
by AMJ

2022 in Concert

Live concert of the year: Oumou Sangare; honorable mention: Booker T. Jones
Virtual concert of the year: ADG7 from South Korea
Honorable Mention: Fiston Lusambo meets the Super Phoenix Band in Kenya

R.I.P.

Defao † Robbie Shakespeare † Vicente Fernández †

Nene Tchakou Tchakou † Elza Soares † James Mtume †

Mighty Bomber † Lata Mangeshkar † Doug Paterson †

Tabby Shaw † Papa Bikunda † José Luis "El Tosco" Cortés †

Orlando Julius Ekemode † Rudy Gomis † Siméon "Rikky" Malonga †

Ablaye Ndiaye Thiossane † Osayomore Joseph † A.B. Crentsil †

Pablo Moses † Cesar "Pupy" Pedroso † Sory Bamba † Pape Fall †

Lamont Dozier † Pharoah Sanders † Mikaben †

Kiamuangana Mateta "Verckys" † Gal Costa † Pablo Milanes †

Tshala Muana † Black Stalin † Passy Mermans †

Top Twelve New Releases of the Year 2022

ZEB - THE SPY FROM CAIRO
ANIMAMUNDI (Wonderwheel)

A great return to his classic sound: traditional arab music meets drum patterns and Echoplex, from the Spy from Cairo. The simplest way to describe it is Arabic tradi-modern in dub (though it also includes Turkish delights and Indian flavors) and it picks up from his previous albums Arabadub (2012) and Secretly Famous (2009). Though Style Scott (1956–2014), legendary Jamaican session drummer is no longer with us, his work on Gaudi's posthumous Nusrat album Dub Qawwali set a new bar for drumming on dub albums and we hear its effect here. Known variously as Zeb, or Zeb the Pleb, the spy is Moreno Visini, an Italian of Gypsy heritage, recently resident in New York, and he has been making downtempo electronica for two decades, mixing Jamaican-style dub with bhangra and Arabic instruments. He has been heard remixing Baaba Maal and Novalima. Here, once again, he is the main musician, playing oud, qanun (zither), bass, percussion (darbouka and tablas), woodwinds (ney and bansuri), with presumably tape samples for strings (unless those are synthesized). He takes the notion of a one-man band to new heights with deft layerings, avoiding what my late friend Cheb i Sabbah said was the bane of similar electronica where you don't hear the music, you hear the ProTools. In 2020 Zeb returned to his Italian village to take care of his mother during lockdown. He brought some recent collaborators into this project including Andalucian singer Carmen Estevez who adds eerie stereo vocals to a cumbia, "Extraterrestre," and Fatou Gozlan and Duo Darbar, like souls, who followed the gypsy trail picking up music in India, Turkey and Egypt.

OKUTE
OKUTE (Chulo Records)

This is a blast of pure Cuban music unlike any we have heard in ages. Produced by Jacob Plasse (Orquesta Akokán) it kicks off with a raucous tres over some serious rumba drumming from hard hands used to imprecating and summoning the orishas in centuries-old traditional Lucumi ceremonies in the hills of rural Cuba. While the drumming is exceptional (and beautifully recorded) and the tres evokes the great later spiritual workouts of no less than Arsenio himself (on, say, Primitivo), the vocals are the dominant element. Singer Pedro "Tata" Barriel is joined by a family of percussionists: the Vizcaíno, probably the finest rumberos you could find in Havana today. By the second track, a wailing organ is introduced, which is quite superfluous but compelling nonetheless. Okuté is the Yoruba god of the oceans so in some way behind the transportation of Africans, largely Yoruba from West Africa, to the Caribbean. They had nothing on them except their chains, but were able to fashion drums and even instruments like the marimbula. On the third track, "Chi chi Ribako," we hear "Sarabanda," as a bass takes up the lead and then the tres picks out a counterpoint, again over a thick bed of eight hands slapping. Rumba meets son montuno, but the result is greater than the sum of the parts: I thought a "Sarabande" was a langorous courtly dance associated with Handel, but apparently it originated in central America in the 16th century, was then adopted in Spain where it was considered disreputable! As this anti-sarabande builds, a horn section comes in and we wonder where they can possibly go next! Well, the answer is a delicate string section, over acoustic bass leading us into "Gaston's rumba," another languid piece which then goes quite cockeyed as the tresero, Coto, paints a wild Cubist portrait inviting the others to get in on the simple three-chord progression. The tres also animates another lyrical interlude "Orakinyongo," where again the strings float in on a cloud to show that it's not all hard hands and frantic declamations. These interludes break up the more traditional rumba, which you can imagine goes on much longer than the three or four minutes per track here. However the CD, which is only half an hour in length, is extremely well executed and sequenced and makes you want to put it on repeat.


SHIKAMOO JAZZ
EAST AFRICAN LEGENDS LIVE (RetroTan RT-006)

The Shikamoo Jazz album that came out on RetroAfric in 1995 quickly established itself in heavy rotation on my home speakers. Salum Zahoro guitarist of Kiko Kids, Juma Mrisho of Urafiki Jazz, Kassim Mponda from Western Jazz, and former members of Dar Jazz, NUTA Jazz (vocalist John Simon), Les Maquis (Bakari Majengo, sax and congas), Vijana Jazz (drummer Athumani Manitcho) and Les Wanyika (guitarist Mohammed Tungwa) bonded together to play music for fun and also to generate some income in their old age. They were bankrolled and set up by Ronnie Graham whose instinct, that age was no barrier to making music, proved right. He, of course, is the author of the two volumes of the indispensable Da Capo Guide to Contemporary African Music.
The eleven members had been bandleaders as well as top performers but meshed well and soon were a top social act in Dar. In 1995 they even toured to Kenya where mature fans well remembered their sound, and they were often joined on stage by other veterans, Kenyan singer-songwriter Fundi Konde and taraab singer Bi Kidude from Zanzibar. That album was titled Chela Chela vol 1 and I long entertained the hope that a sequel would appear. Well, all good things come to he who waits. In 1995 the band even made it to England where they appeared at WOMAD, bringing along their famous guest artists, and were joined on stage by Mose Se Sengo, aka "Fan Fan", the legendary Congolese guitarist who was resident in England. It was probably his idea that the National Sound Archive send along engineers to record the show (since I have seen some of his old cassettes housed there!). Unlike other festivals, no one gave them a time's up sign and they played for three hours, getting stronger as the show went on. Fundi Konde, whose career peaked half a century before the WOMAD show, was the first person to play electric guitar in East Africa. He steps up to perform "Mama Zowera" (the original is on his Retro CD) and the sublime Taraab-tinged "Nakuomba Radhi," recorded with his band Fundi Jazz about 1980, which was also reprised on the first Shikamoo CD. We hear the big ballroom sound that suits their music so well, with a haunting sax (the great Ally Rashid) glancing about behind the vocal and no urgency to get the song done in three minutes flat. Bi Kidude does some vocal improv causing the keyboard player and horn men to improvise also on a loose "Kijiti." The last two tracks are stone jams (most of the band were teetotal so don't get the wrong impression) with Fan Fan lighting up the night sky on "Nilole Halwandi."


BABA COMMANDANT & THE MANDINGO BAND
SONBONBELA (Sublime Frequencies)

This is one of two bands I would have gone to see live had I been at WOMAD in UK this year. The album, their third, captures the excitement of a live show and, as I am unlikely to get to Burkina Faso soon, I will settle for the buzz it generates. (Speaking of civil unrest, Mali, Chad, Guinea and Burkina Faso have all had military coups in the last two years.) The band is tight, powered by solid trap drumming from Abbas Kabore, but the effects on vocals and guitar allow those parts to overflow the rhythm creating a nice giddy imbalance like they are swinging on the verge of chaos. Issouf Diabaté is the guitar wizard on here, every bit as flashy and potent as Bombino or his Diabaté namesakes, that is Sekou "Bembeya" Diabaté ("Diamond Fingers"), Sekou "Bambino" Diabaté or Zani Diabaté. The traditional aspect of the band — the Mandingo part — is singer Mamadou Sanou who plans Doso ngoni and the balafon player, Nickie Dembélé, who doubles on percussion. The hype for the album mentions "dance floor bangers," "Fela-inspired groovers," and goes so far as to draw comparisons to Captain Beefheart's Magic Band. This reminds me of the story of Jimi Hendrix seeking out Docteur Nico in Paris (which is demonstrably false), but it suggests that to validate African musicians they have to be ranked alongside Western counterparts. So, I did not say Okaidja's acoustic guitar reminded me of John McLaughlin, because then you would demand more proof. It was just a feeling, and I no longer own The Inner Mounting Flame to verify the comparison. But I don't think I hear anything like the Magic Band in here. Some reviewer must have planted that notion in the label's head. Yes, Sanou has a gravelly voice, but his ngoni playing is clean and clear (unlike Van Vliet's free-form horn squawks), and while Beefheart had a marimba player (called Ed Marimba), he was more asymmetric than the keen continuo we get here. The percussion here is complex, with congas in counterpoint to the traps, and we might approach something like the Magic Band's forced disrhythmic vocabulary, but again Commandant's men are more accomplished in that department. Don't get me wrong, I am a huge Beefheart fan, I just feel there must be more apposite analogies for the music of this Mandingo Band. I certainly hear echoes of other West African bands, but then you would, wouldn't you? This is a great album, full of drive and the sense all of them are in control of their aspect of the sound and striving to push it to the max.


ORIENTAL BROTHERS
OKU NGWO – DI OCHO (Palenque Records)

It's like they never went away. Technically, they didn't, but we have not really heard from the Oriental Brothers since Original Music, Flametree and Afrodisia put together some compilations of their early albums. This Igbo Highlife group came from Eastern Nigeria, hence the "Orient" in their name. Established in 1973 by brothers Dan Satch Opara (lead guitar), Godwin Kabaka Opara (rhythm guitar), and Sir Warrior (singer) they ruled the airwaves, not only in West Africa, but as far way as Cartagena, Colombia where the sound system DJs idolized their bright polytonality. It's this transatlantic connection that has brought the group back to the studio, after a 20 year hiatus, to celebrate their 50th anniversary with a new album. The original line-up had a hit album on Decca in 1974 and then broke into three factions, all claiming the name. Dr Sir Warrior had the most popular band (Oriental Brothers International) until his death in 1999. Godwin Kabaka founded his own band in 1977, his lyrics were proverb-laden, his music combined traditional sounds with other influences from Ghana and even Congolese guitar. A classic collection of Kabaka's material was reissued by Palenque Records recently [see below], so this reunion is the logical next step. As the last man standing, guitar heavy Dan Satch now carries the mantle. There is great continuity in their sound, though only the original conga player has survived the five decades. Nevertheless we have the sweet insistent sound of 70s highlife on a thick layer of percussion, traps, congas and other percussion, wiry guitar, throbbing bass, and long discursive vocals. The ten-minute tracks expand outwards and blend together.


BKO
DJINE BORA (Self)

A strong return from BKO the Malian quintet, who summon a djinn (the title translates as "the appearance of the genie" — I just read the Norwegian equivalent of "speak of the devil" is "Mention a goblin and he's already in your hall") so we expect a spirited invocation and they deliver. Formed in 2012 their name is the call sign of the international airport in Bamako. The year they were formed the government declared a state of emergency and if you follow the news you know things have gone from bad to worse. The military government has now expelled the UN peace keepers who were chasing the Boko Haram insurgents. They and the derelict remnants of the Libyan incursion are now at the gates of the military compounds where the Malian army is hiding. But the music endures. The members of BKO come from divergent traditions: griots and Bambara hunters (who have different instruments and approaches to song). They merge in the family of BKO with two vocalists (Fassara Sacko, Khassonké Dunun), plus Adama Coulibaly and Nfaly Diakité on donso-ngonis, as well as vocals, Mamoutou Diabaté on djeli-ngoni, Ibrahima Sarr on djembe, and Aymeric Krol on drum kit. I hear electric guitar in there also. I have seen them in concert and they are explosive. Sacko, the lead singer on half the tracks has a great throaty voice, but sadly is going blind. Here he sings about infant mortality, poverty and problems of migrants. One song that jumped out at me is titled "Bamako": from the moment it started I heard "I will follow him" by Peggy March, an American pop song from 1963 with a catchy riff. Yes, you say, there are only so many chords in pop music, but when the riff and the rhythm coincide so forcefully, I am sure there's a connection. "BKO Kagni" the next track, is another example, it has what I call the "Baby please don't go" rhythm, heard on so many Ali Farka Touré tunes. There's great variety and a driving insistence to their music that will draw you in.

OUMOU SANGARE
TIMBUKTU (World Circuit WCD101)

The great Malian songbird is back with a strong set of traditional and rocking music from Wassoulou. Since the days when Ali Farka Toure coyly denied having ever listened to John Lee Hooker, Malians have come to embrace a strong R&B component in their sound. Her band features Mamadou Sidibé on ngoni, keyboards and backing vocals, Pascal Danaë on guitar, dobro and keyboards, Nicolas Quéré on clarinet, keyboards, percussion and mixing deck, Baptiste Brondy on drums, and Eliézer Oubda, from Burkina Faso, on keyboards and engineering. That's quite a set of diverse and cosmopolitan musical talents. Danaë, a wicked dobro player, is a Guadeloupean resident in Paris, known to me for his part in Delgrès, but also has backed Gilberto Gil, Peter Gabriel, Youssou, Neneh Cherry and many others. Baptiste Brondy, the drummer, is also one of the fierce Delgrès trio, so she has absorbed 2/3rds of that group into her tight unit. There is a long tradition of Antillean musicians in Paris when we think back to Eddy Gustave and his blends of African and Caribbean music, or further back to Ry-Co Jazz in the 60s. The musical envelope is a perfect container for Oumou's still-solidly Malian vocals, without falling into the big arena ponderousness that, for me, scuttled her compatriot Salif Keita's later recordings, after he moved to Paris. There is some of the "atmospherics" we associate with Salif and maybe this will eventually sound as dated, but I think these guys are really masters of their equipment. On "Kêlê Magni," which is a title I recognize from Bassekou Kouyate, I hear balafon and assume it's a keyboard sample, but there's definitely a kora in here. Or am I wrong? The sweetly stinging dobro is a strong element and a nice counterpoint to her plaintive vocals on the ballads.


MONTPARNASSE MUSIQUE
ARCHAEOLOGY (Real World Records RW247)

It's been 15 years since Björk invited the members of Konono No 1 to tour with her in 2007. She was among the first to use the gritty urban sounds (descendants of Zombo ritual music, originally played on elephant tusks) as a basis for her world music explorations. In the last two decades we have had some more or less successful forays into the trance genre of electric likembes with home-made percussion and rudimentary D-I-Y amplification serving as the basis for "world beat" improvisers. Now the Congotronix boom continues with another layer added due to a chance encounter in the Paris metro. Algerian DJ Nadjib ran into another DJ, Aero Manyelo from South Africa, in the musty Paris underground and as they chatted they discovered that their musical backgrounds from the top and bottom of Africa collided in the heart, Kinshasa, and their shared passion for the Congotronix sound. Manyelo cut his teeth in Jo'burg remixing Mahotella Queens while Nadjib was working with Gnawa Diffusion in Algeria. They found quite a few Congolese musicians, including members of Kasai All Stars, already in France and Belgium, willing to get involved. Taking tracks from recently disbanded Mbongwana Star they added flutes and beats. They created music in the studio, but also through jamming live in concert with their newfound friends from the Congo. Joining in are Wengu Waku, singer from Konono No 1, Muambuyi, singer of the Kasai All Stars and soukous guitarist Mopero Mopumba of Basokin. There are still strong folkloric strains in the vocals as the singers bring melodies from the bush, singing about animals and birds of the Kasai region in Tshiluba, or the need for community in Swahili. Their message is about survival in the midst of conflict and strife. I am not sure if the crackling on "Chibinda Ilunga" represents the fizzling surface of an old record (there is a Berber-sounding flute on here) or the sparking of a log fire. Here the ancient-to-future blend works well, though in large part because it is now quite familiar to us (In fact you will recognize the samples on "Bonjour"). This collaborative effort extends to art, photography and fashion as the two DJs present an entire aesthetic experience based around their explorations of Congolese traditions updated to the 21st century.

OWINO SIGOMA BAND
THE LOST TAPES (Brownswood Recordings)

Subtitled "Rough cuts, Re-edits and Rarities," this is an unusual collaboration. Some young Brits into the whole turntablist movement ventured into the bhundu in Kenya back in 2009, and met some real authentic old-time Luo musicians: Joseph Nyamungu singing and playing the nyatiti lyre and Charles Owoko on nydounge drum. On the part of the wazungu, Tom Skinner added rhythm tracks and Jesse Hackett and his brother Louis added bass and effects. Since then they have released four albums, a few dub plates and so on. Billed as the final installment of the collaboration (one of the African members having died), the group took it on the road to England and back to East Africa. They have added Lawrence Okelo from Uganda on xylophone and adungu (an arched harp) for even more layers of traditional sound. The result is fantastic: a wonderful light balance where the electronics and studio effects enhance the sound and complement it, showcasing it, rather than subsuming it (except when the Space Invaders zap the tune in "Deep Charles"). Coming in at the end of this creative project is not a problem, you can venture backwards into their earlier work via bandcamp. The nyatiti lyre and traditional drum never sounded so clear and I am sure the musicians enjoyed the respect their work garnered and were probably as thrilled to hear the recordings as their elders 7o years ago when Hugh Tracey came through with his massive reel-to-reel deck. I don't think Hugh would have applied the Space Echo and loops quite so determinedly, had he had them, but he would have appreciated the craft in the way the project has been presented so the complex layers are revealed as the album progresses. The final track, "Rumba," is a simple repeated riff propelled by trap drums and brings everyone together, showing the hypnotic power of a good hook.

BURKINA AZZA
WARI BO (Social Joy)

A great find from our Washington bureau chief, Ken, this is some deep roots music from Burkina Faso. The group is a griot collective consisting of percussionists and balafon players who continue to perfect and hand down their Bwa cultural patrimony. The label owner heard them by chance at a street drumming festival, posted on facebook, and managed, despite the pandemic to get them on record in Ouagadougou and then issued this stellar album. Four of them are named Koeta and one is a Koita and all are multi-instrumentalists. The line-up is simple, djembe, bara (a simple gourd drum with stretched goatskin head), and balafon. Fantastic playing: lyrical balafon, fierce percussion and soothing melodic singing in call and response style. I am guessing they shift around between instruments from track to track. This is the purest form of self-expression through music and a delight for 40 minutes.

MICHAEL BAIRD
THUMBS ON THE OUTSIDE (Sharp Wood Productions SWP067)

Michael Baird is best known as the head honcho of Sharp Wood Productions, the label that has reissued the foundational Hugh Tracey albums on CD, digitally restored, some with bonus tracks we never knew existed. He has also expanded on Tracey's fieldwork with more contemporary recordings from Zambia and his catalogue glitters with gems from top to bottom. Baird is also a percussionist and this album shows he shines in that department also. We are catapulted into a wild journey from "Baonoko Central Station" where relentless rhythms propel us into an aural landscape of moving machines in rapidly changing terrain. I hear train noises, whistles, steel wheels on rails stretching across the savannah. It's all percussion, and the pentatonic gamelan gongs (I think that's what they are) recall Harry Partch's experiments with his Gate 5 Ensemble in the 1950s, as he imagined cloud chambers with giant home-made glass bells. "Resurgent" has a passage that reminded me of Frank Zappa's band the Mothers of Invention. The album suggests myriad possible influences. Baird grew up in Zambia until he was ten, was "repatriated" to England, then moved to the Netherlands (aged 13) where he played in a blues rock band, but Africa is in his veins. This disc is more euro avant-jazz than Zamrock; he has guests on guitar, sax and flute but it's the deep echoing brass bells and marimba tones that make it for me. He also features Italian Pino Basile on cupaphone (I had to look it up), which is like an inside-out cuica. On "Ainu" I hear an electric keyboard and xylophone (again, I am guessing). The Ainu are indigenous Japanese from the deep north with no written culture, and their music has intrigued musicologists for generations as it has strong parallels to the epic songs of West African traditional griots. "Kasai neighbours" continues with a strong rhythmic thrust, suggesting the Congo's likembe rockers, without imitating them. There is tapped bottle percussion and some buzzing rattles and a wonderful distorted lead over marimba, all perfectly mixed into a trance groove. Another meditative track "Radius action" also creates a soothing dreamspace. There is great variety and compelling rhythms aplenty here.

BALKA SOUND (Strut)

To me the mid-80s in Congo-Zaire is one of the great eras of world music. Balka Sound were active in Brazzaville then, so I am surprised I have never heard of them. I have also never heard of the Beembe people, from whom the Balka musical style originates, so this album is not only a revelation it is also a great work that was missing from my consciousness. Their sound is similar to, but a little more polished than Ali & Tams, Sim-Sim Int'l, or Kawende et ses Copains, three bands that were recorded on Plainisphere in the mid-80s that I love. It's packaged as a digital album or double LP and contains 15 of their songs, starting with 1972's hit "Ah Lusiala," celebrating their singer Albert Nkibi who plays the 5-string ngonfi. (No, I am not making this up.) In addition to electric guitars and congas, there is an exciting trap drummer (Abro) who plays contrapuntal rhythms that really excite the proceedings. On top of that a superb clarinet and saxophonist (Vieux Paul), who leaves his mark on every track. A thumb piano (sanza) also appears. They are not the first group to modernize the rural sounds of Africa, by any means, but this is fresh and very engaging. You can hear that bush voice in Albert's vocals and melodies which contain parables and the trancelike reiterated choral rejoinders. Their first album was recorded in 1979 in one take after they won a cultural festival competition. In 1982 a second LP was recorded in Kinshasa. By the mid-80s they had regular gigs at tourist hotels in Brazza, but within a decade civil war engulfed the left bank country of the Congo. They regrouped to perform for a Fête Nationale in 1996 but strife broke out again and their studio and equipment were looted, forcing them to disband. Two of their LPs are listed on discogs at 200 and 400 euros each! Here we have the cream of their output, put together by Makila Nsika Nkaya (one of the vocalists) with the cooperation of the other band members, whose superb musicianship radiates from every track.

Top Ten reissues of the year


RAY PEREZ Y EL GRUPO CASABE (El Palmas Music)

From nowhere we have witnessed the emergence of Venezuelan bandleader Ray Perez. El Palmas continues to uncover his catalogue with this September 2022 release of a compilation of his 1970s work as a leading salsero. This is stately, confidently assured Latin music of the highest order. Perez has arranged vocals and horn charts in counterpoint, with a montuno piano to hold it all together. We now know, from recent releases, he was the force behind Los Dementes and Los Kenya and then had a brief round with two albums from Los Calvos, a reimagining of the earlier bands. This anthology was assembled by El Dragón Criollo & DJ El Palmas who were behind a fine series of Venezuelan reissues called Color de Tropico, also on the El Palmas label. Perez is a bandleader and pianist in the Palmieri mode, and of course when he went to New York in the late 60s he would have heard Eddie Palmieri's La Perfecta at their height. It's amazing that has stayed unknown as there are so many classic tracks on here; one presumes they had no international distribution. If he had stayed in NYC he would have ended up as a prominent musical figure. Casabe was his last major band, active from 1974-5. The fact he led so many successful outfits is due to label-hopping: he had to change band names for contractual reasons, so El Casabe was created when he moved to CBS. He brought along the drum kit, which was an unusual combination with traditional percussion in salsa, but now he relented and added saxes alongside the trumpets and trombones of his previous bands. And the new vocalist is the brother of El Negro Calaven from Los Calvos, Rodrigo Perdomo. But the main attraction is still his driving piano and the way the group waits, sitting back on the percussion, to pounce before slinging a load of molten brass into the mix. The album starts in medias res with a full-on driving groove, bouncing the different parts of the band, massed horns against vocal chorus, piano against guiro and tumba. The arrangements are superb: and it's not just salsa (a mix of mambo, cha cha, rumba, guaguanco, etc) because there are elements of rock (notably in the bass lines), boogaloo and son, in fact everything from a smoldering danzón ("La Reina") to surf music! Some tracks, like "Maria Antonia" are dynamite, waiting while the piano sits back on a I-IV vamp and hums along until the whole thing erupts volcanically. And it doesn't let up, but breaks into "Galeron con Maype" which might as well be called "Hell for Leather" as it tears off in a gallop. "El Bonche se formo" is another slow burner which just keeps smoldering teasingly for 4 minutes. "Adiós Bogota" send us off steaming. This is a great band and a great sequence of their best tracks, sadly the remaster was done from thrashed discs and so the sound quality leaves much to be desired. Ah well, twas ever thus!


LOS CALVOS
ESTOS SON LOS CALVOS (El Palmas Music)

The opening track of this reissue is a boogaloo called "El Kenya," which was the name given to his subsequent band, by pianist and arranger Ray Perez. As I said in reviewing the second album by Los Calvos last month, Perez went to New York where he came under the spell of Fania's stars such as Eddie Palmieri. He returned to Venezuela where he formed Los Calvos, or the Baldies. We now have all three of his best albums coming out at the same time and more promised later this summer (so you don't have to spent $255 on discogs for a copy). This first album shows the weirdly constructed bald-wigged singer on the cover. There are a dozen two- to three-minute cuts on this album, all of them high energy salsa with the distinctive strong vocals of Carlos Yanez a.k.a. El Negrito Calaven (which i think means the little black baldie). The aim of the band was to allow space for soloists to stretch out and in addition to the regular guaguanco and pachanga of then-current salsa bands they even had a taste for surf rock, apparently, and the Twist. The drummer Frank "El Pavo" Hernandez said it was "like wearing a dinner suit with flip flops." The piano and vocals are the most notably improvising, the latter, Negrito scatting over Perez's montuno vamps. Los Calvos recorded two albums but did not perform live (relying on friends in the studio to cheer them on). However the next band, Los Kenya, was an attempt to create a pop group that could perform and they generated hits like "Bailemos Kenya (The Kenya twist)" with a view to performing. I assume there were contractual problems leading to all these convoluted arrangements. After a powerful propulsive set, they end with a ballad, "Te vieron con otro (They saw you with another)," which would do credit to Beny More. Everyone has a fine part: the piano, the swelling trumpets, even the bongocero makes a strong statement.


CELESTINE UKWU
NO CONDITION IS PERMANENT (Mississippi Records MRI-136)

When you put on an album by Celestine Ukwu you really don't want it to end. There is nothing more relaxing than an hour of this celestial music; if you are ready for an indulgent treat, this is it. It's an immediate neuron balm. Starting out as the Music Royals, Ukwu's band began to reshape Highlife, which was dying at the end of the 1960s as Nigeria fell apart into civil war. Being from Enugu state, in the East, Ukwu was a supporter of the Biafran secession. Oil had just been discovered there and the military did not wish to let the revenue go to a small break-away state. Ukwu and Jim Lawson were ostracized for supporting the weaker side in the struggle, but fans returned after the hostilities ended. In Ukwu's hands, Highlife had slowed down: now the songs were philosophical musings on life's uncertainties; the instrumentation had changed dramatically also. Ukwu went for a highly layered sound. In one of his earlier bands he had toured Congo and been exposed to the music of Docteur Nico so he added a lap-steel guitar and you can hear the influence of the African Fiesta guitarist in his own playing. His songs are melancholy, but what stops them being mournful is the busy percussion, bongos and guitars, and the unexpected bright vibraphone trinkling away in continuo (or out of tune piano on his first album), played by Ukwu himself. Muted trumpet, and an endearing squeaky clarinet add a touch of pathos. Interestingly there are no guitar solos: everything is carefully orchestrated with only the horn-men and occasional keyboards indulging in flights of fancy. Four of the five tracks here were on the Greatest Hits CD put out by FlameTree in 1997. The album opens with "Ejina Uwa nya isi (Don't be arrogant)" which features discretely martial drum rolls behind the claves and congas. The haunting "Okwukwe Na N'chekwube" is one of my favorites: the muted trumpet, whining plaintive steel guitar swooping around like an owl in the studio, introduce the melody, first brightly on the guitar, then the vocal plaint of Celestine comes in at 3 and a half minutes, singing "For every beginning, there is an end / When something bad happens, it feels like it'll never come to an end / If something bad happens, let us leave it to God..." That was on the Ilo Abu Chi album, and that religious title song is also present. First recorded in 1971 as a single on Philips, it was redone for the 1974 LP. "Onwunwa (Temptation)" was on his first album True Philosophy, issued in 1971. The fifth track, "Tomorrow is so Uncertain," is a ten-minute rarity and it's great to hear it restored here. The sound is full and warm and improved over the most-likely scratchy LPs you may have, if you have them at all. (I only have a rip of the album, and not only is it scratchy, it was recorded a bit slow as I now discover!) This was the title track on his 1973 album. The 30-second horn chorus intro is fascinating and, set against the vibraphone and bass, is unlike anything else from Nigeria.
You might argue for inclusion of the heavily anthologized "Igede" or "Osondu," or another hit single "Elege," but nothing is lacking here: any slice of Ukwu's heavenly music is welcome. He recorded about 36 songs in total, excluding the early 45s. A completist like me would love to hear the half dozen singles recorded early in his career which were never gathered on any of his 6 LPs, but I am sure the continued interest in his music will bring them to light eventually. (If something is lost and forgotten it was either not very good to begin with, or conversely so good all copies were played to death!) His last hit was "Money Palava" in 1976. After his tragic death in a car crash at age 37 in 1977, two more albums appeared: one by his band, renamed the Celestine Ukwu Memorial Band, who recorded four tracks in tribute to him, and a greatest hits assembled by Polygram which included one vault rarity: an alternate take of "Igede."

AFRICA NEGRA
ANTOLOGIA VOL 1 (Bongo Joe BJR056)

Being a fanatic collector of all things to do with the Sao Tomense band, Africa Negra, I have around nine of the dozen tracks on here on the original albums (I say "around" since one is a crappy cassette). Ever since I first heard them, I have tried to find everything by them. From hard-driving numbers with a galloping air to languid ballads, everything about their sound enthralls me. Like Super Mama Djombo and a few other Lusophone bands, their minor key melodies and sometimes off-kilter guitar and percussion riffs get under your skin. I'm not sure but it may have been the song "Bo lega caco modebo (You let the dog bite you)" which I heard on the compilation Telling Stories to the Sea that drew me in. Through diligent searching I have found 15 albums by them: not always easy since their music is normally released in Portugal and for some reason it's nigh impossible to get CDs or LPs from there, short of going to Lisbon. And what of this compilation? Well, there's already a "Best of" series and an "Os Melhores," and it's not hard to go to each of their albums and cherry pick one or two brilliant tracks, as is the case here. They were formed in 1974 with lead singer João Seria and released their first album Aninha in 1981. From there we get the lead track "Vence Vitória" and what I assume is a political number "12 de Julho." We hear the title cut of 1983's Carambola, and another track from that album, "Epô Sá Cata Pabô Manda Mum," where we hear the breakdown to mi-solo and percussion characteristic of Congolese cavacha which they absorbed into their sound, mastering that essential break to show the inner workings of the band's guitars. The Cavacha breakdown is justly celebrated as far away as Colombian sound systems and it'a great to hear it in the context of this West African island music. There are also nice "roars" from Pacheco on bass. Meanwhile, from East African artists like Remmy Ongala they picked up the sound of the Boss Flanger which kicks in on "Pie can" which was on Que Colo de Anzu, which came out in the US in 2012, when the band was reformed. When it kicks into seben overdrive they shout out "bouger (move)," "niekese" and "danser, danser" which, obviously, are Lingala, not Portuguese. The two guitars are scorching against the reco-reco percussion. The pure crisp guitar sound of Emidio Portes on their 1983 album Alice is showcased on two tracks, "Quá naboa negafa" by rhythm guitarist Leonildo Barros and "Cumamo bivalemo." And many of the tracks stretch from six and a half to ten minutes. Their blend of music is described as the local Puxa rhythm added to Congolese rumba. The last cut, "Giná Mé Mú Môlé" (from Madalena meu Amor, 1996), adds wonky horns and a different singer, unless my copy has been affected by all the times it was re-copied and changed hands. According to the liner notes, they moved to cassettes in the 1990s until their reformation in 2012 since when they have put out three CDs. Their albums were recorded at the radio station which had the only studio on the island. The studio space was so small the band recorded outside "in the courtyard, facing the ocean and in front of their fans." Apart from getting better sounding versions of a couple of songs, I look forward to the ones I have not heard and also the sequel which promises to be a volume of unreleased material.

COCO LAGO Y SUS ORATES
DESCARGAS (Vampisoul 246)

Tell me if I have said this before: A classic album, forgotten for years, has been restored to our ears thanks to the great folks at Vampisoul. Well, here's another crate-digger special and it is so good I don't mind there's a vibraphone on it. Believe me, it has to be pretty special for me to get past the sound of the vibes. I love balafon, and also gamelan music, but normally I draw the line at vibes. Coco Lago is a tumba player from Peru and led an exciting session in Lima in 1967, captured here. The repertoire is some familiar dance favorites including "Mamblues" by Cal Tjader and two tracks originally penned by the "father of Boogaloo," Joe Cuba: "Brava Pachanga" and "El Hueso." Discogs has him as Coco Lagos (with an "s") under many (7) different guises, one of which says he is Luis Lagos Zegarra, a Peruvian percussionist. "La Juventud a Go Go" grabbed my attention because it's the opening riff of "Africa Mokili Mobimba" which, of course, is "Madre Rumba" by Celia Cruz and La Sonora Matancera, whose albums were reissued in Peru on the Mag label. Apart from the vibraphone, which occasionally sounds like sound effects from a 60s sci-fi movie, there is a lot of percussion (guiro, timbales, congas, bongo) as well as standard salsa instrumentation, piano (the great Alfredo Linares), bass, trumpet, and alto sax (Mario Escobar). They cut loose on tracks like "Guajireate," which is of course a guajira. There's also guaguanco ("El Hueso"), mambo, guaracha ("Busco una chiquita" with quotes from "El Manicero"), a pachanga, and loads of descargas, which means to throw down, download, discharge, or even "flush" under some circumstances! In other words, anything goes: but leave it here.


THE MOVERS
1970-76 (Analog Africa AACD035)

Africa in the 1970s was feeling the impact of American music like never before, through radio and the expansion of global travel: Africans felt they could be as sophisticated as Europeans and Americans, at least in their minds. We saw how the gospel of James Brown was brought back to Nigeria by Fela Kuti after his visits to the West, but a lesser-known influence was the Booker T sound, not to mention the whole of Memphis and Stax-Volt and it resonated in South Africa, where the Movers were a tight organ-led combo up to the task of emulating the Scallion Master. They achieve strong effects with simple chord progressions and tight playing. And they have soul. These are mostly two-and-a-half to three minute tunes with the driving organ to the fore and the tight bass and drums holding down the bottom. It's not until track 5, "Kudala Sithandana," that they show their ability to play what we came to know as Zulu Jive, or Mbaqanga, though doubtless it had many other aspects and names. But we are soon back in the "Midnight Hour" as the chords for "Oupa is Back" indicate. Oupa is guitarist Oupa Hlongwane, the organist and band leader was Sankie Chounyane, and vocalist Blondie Makhene. Instrumental music was a key to a band's success in Apartheid South Africa, so there are few vocals on here, but the music is jamming. "Six Mabone," (different from the version by Boyoyo Boys) has the same chords as the Troggs' "Love is all around," from 1967 — can there be a connection? The Movers' first album from Teal in 1969 sold half a million copies and they became the first band to cross over to the white radio stations, according to Samy Ben Redjeb's liner notes. He also tells us that they seem to have vanished from the face of the earth: not surprising given the ups and down of life as a musician. The original band members were all replaced over time, but Analog Africa presents the cream of their output here.


PEDRO LIMA
RECORDAR E VIVER: ANTOLOGIA VOL 1 (Bongo Joe)

Earlier this year Pedro Lima's Maguidala was reissued by Bongo Joe, and so it is a thrill to find more from this São Tomense artist who died in 2019. The sound of São Tomé is a sweet hybrid of Angolan semba and neighboring Congolese cavacha rhythms (both countries were part of the original Kingdom of Kongo before Europeans arrived), with sweet harmony vocals and intertwining guitars and complex puxa percussion from drum set, reco-reco and congas. This galloping rhythm will be familiar from the other great bands from those island, such as Sangazuza and Africa Negra. Formed in the 1970s, Os Leonenses made their first recording in Gabon in 1981. Their second album Maguidala came out in 1985, followed by a new disc every two years or so (on obscure labels). They often visited Luanda, Angola to record and once played for a crowd of 40,000 there. This compilation draws from 45s and also gathers unreleased material to fatten the offering. It's all first rate: the band are very assured and maintain their intensity with the occasional bridge where they take it down to to bass and percussion while the guitars fall back to the mi-solo (as in 70s Congolese and some Kenyan music) before returning for a "B-side" jam. Until the release of Maguidala we only had three songs on the Bongo Joe compilation Léve Léve, which also includes details of Lima's life and especially his outspoken leftist politics which found their way into his song lyrics. This is a rich compendium of some everlasting music from the small island with a big voice.


CROSSROADS KENYA
EAST AFRICAN BENGA AND RUMBA, 1980-85 (No Wahala Sounds)

This is a lively collection of 45s from the Golden age in Kenya when home-grown Benga music was spurred to greatness by the big influx of musicians from Uganda, Tanzania and Congo, looking for gigs and better recording opportunities in Nairobi. It was there that the nightclubs packed out crowds to hear these fluid bands and a time when people had enough disposable income to spend a few shillings on records or a night out. The names may be unfamiliar but the music is solid. New Gatanga Boys lead off with "Wanja ni wakwa," sounding as sharp today as it did 40 years ago. It's interesting to hear the Benga bands adopt the guitar breakdown from their neighbors just as the Cavacha bands incorporated the Benga-style drumming into their sound. After Boys from Nairobi, Nairobi Calling! and Kenya-Congo Connection, this is the fourth multi-group compilation from 1980s Kenya issued by No Wahala, with bands from near and far contributing. But it is the last release featuring the editorial hand and remastering skills of the late lamented Doug Paterson, who helped No Wahala by unearthing hidden gems from his own collection. This set, however, came entirely from Fred Lavik, of afro7. "Palipo na mameno" by Les Moto Moto, originally on the Mlima label, has the driving Cavacha sound I love and stretches out in the luxury of both sides of a 45 disc to 8 minutes and 46 seconds. They hail from Tanzanian, I think. Not surprisingly for such a successful act, there was also a Moto Moto label, based in Nairobi. Hamza Hassan appears to have been the author, according to discogs — there are no writing credits on the LP. Victoria "C" Kings are more familiar, as a prolific offshoot of the top Luo band the Victoria Kings. They close the first side with their rousing benga attack. Kikuyu group Banana Hill Band put out two albums, however I had never heard of them before, but now hear great guitar work on their single "Rakeri mama." The heart of the album features Les Volcano, the residue of Mbaraka Mwinshehe's band after his tragic death. Many bands become irrelevant after the death of a charismatic leader (Queen), but others (New Order) reinvent themselves and soldier on as did Les Volcano with Charles Ray Kasembe at the helm. The singing and sax on "Kwa Wasiojiweza (for the helpless)" are superb. Orchestre Zaituken (sounds like a Turducken) came from Zaire, Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya. Later they changed their name to Zaiken. This album is wonderfully sequenced and I cannot say enough about the packaging (though I should admit that is my photo on the front cover). I hope the series continues, even with the death of Doug which is a set back; I for one have more of such singles (& lots more photos)!

KABAKA INTERNATIONAL GUITAR BAND, LED BY GODWIN KABAKA OPARA (Palenque Records)

Palenque Records, the premium Colombian-based label, has now started going back to its roots, finding the African artists who influenced the early Picotero sound-systems back in the days when sailors would bring vinyl records to port for trade, and DJ collectors would try to keep them exclusive by scratching out the labels before spinning them in their sound systems, while eager fans would sneak tape decks into the shows to capture the elusive African tunes being highlighted. One such album is by the wonderful International Guitar Band of Nigeria, led by Godwin Kabaka Opara. As a young man in the 60s, Kabaka played trumpet in a brass band before taking up guitar. His family band was called the Oriental Brothers (not because their guitars were tuned to different keys and sounded Chinese, but because they came from Eastern Nigeria, the Ibo homeland). The last cut "Onye ikekwere meyeka" translates as "Do better if you can," and became the title of a reissue album by John Storm Roberts' Original Music label in 1995 (The first side of this album was included on the Original Music release). The band was formed in 1971 by three brothers, Christogonus a.k.a. Warrior (vocals), Dansatch and Godwin Opara. With proverb-laden lyrics and musical influences from both Ghanaian highlife and Congolese soukous, the music dominated the club scene in Nigeria in the 70s. Eventually the brothers split into separate bands in 1977. The Oriental Brothers were prolific and put out many wonderful albums throughout the 1980s, led either by Warrior or Dansatch. Mossiac Music of USA and Flametree of London reissued CD compilations leased from Afrodisia. After his break from the Oriental Brothers, Kabaka's first album (on Decca) was a huge hit, including the song "Mangala," a tribute to a former bandmate who had passed away. The brothers' guitar style has been called "relentless" and it is indeed a strong, driving component of the music. But they also break it down to the drums (traditional Ibo hand percussion of shekere and conga drums) with vocal declamation, almost like a sermon, while the guitars take a break. Taking advantage of the LP format they would stretch out and record songs that were 20 minutes long, filling the entire side of an album.

SATURNO 2000
LA REBAJADA DE LOS SONIDEROS 1962-83 (Analog Africa No 34)

Samy ben Redjeb of Analog Africa continues to knock them out of the park like the Babe Ruth of turntables. Now he brings us something we felt we needed but didn't fully realize it yet. After I saw the 2019 Mexican film Ya no estoy aquí (I'm no longer here), I became fascinated with the slowed-down music movement called "Rebajada." The Mexican kids who heard Colombian cumbia found it was too fast to dance to, unlike the tempo of Danzón etc they had grown up with, and someone had the idea of putting the brakes on. This allows you to keep up with it and hear a lot more sounds, and of course, since it lasts longer, you get more music for your peso. Taking a cue from the movie, I got a copy of Los Picapiedra's reissued Kabwlu (Vampisoul 217) & tried it (via time-stretching in Audacity) with "La Hossa" — it was great! But not all songs work, Samy warns, "I quickly realised that most songs sounded awful in rebajada and could only be tolerated if one is high as fuck." Not only is this a good warning but I can attest to having seen Deadheads dancing like they were drowning slowly in Jello. That is a fate to be avoided. So Samy brought Mexican DJ Lengua aboard and soon had a playlist of Mexican, Peruvian, Ecuadorian and Colombian slow jams. Rival DJs in Mexico City and Monterrey claim to have invented it: the latter nearly electrocuted himself, blew out his system at a party (a gruesomely familiar scenario) and from then on the turntables only went in slow motion, but the kids loved it. He was appalled when they begged him to make cassettes "in slow." "Cumbia has to be played at its original speed," he told them. His wife argued they could use the money and soon she was hawking the original Rebajada tapes. As the fad grew, sound systems became territorial, some scouting other countries for música tropical records and then furiously erasing labels on the best ones (as in Jamaica). Nevertheless such imported records from Colombia and Peru were quickly bootlegged and repackaged as "Hits" often with no information as to the original artist. The Garrard turntables (which you can switch between 78, 45, and 33 — and do I recall 16 rpm on my dad's Garrard?) had an auxiliary pitch control, and with some fiddling could be made to play 33 rpm records at 20 rpm. The 15 cuts here all work well, there is some singing and speech which sounds very gravelly but mostly they are instrumentals, like the elegant "Caprichio Egipcio" by Conjunto Tipico Contreras (the Duchess also thought it sounded "Egyptian") or the sprightly "Alegrate" by Junior y su Equipo, originally from Ecuador, 1979. The celebrated "Cumbia Sampuesana" of J.J. Bettín Martínez is the lead cut (I know of at least a dozen other versions); the other tracks are largely unknown to me. The title cut "Saturno 2000" by Los Santos from Peru was on Cumbia Beat vol 2 from Vampisoul (Vampi 143). There you can hear the original and compare it to the slowed-down version here which I personally prefer. This is loads of fun and, stoned or not, you will find yourself grooving to it.

[All writing on this website is Copyright 2004–2023 by Alastair M Johnston]

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