CRIMES OF RUMBA (Xlibris Us)
Reviewed by Alan Brain
According to scholarly writing about Congolese music by Manda Tchebwa, Kazadi Wa Mukuna and Andre Yoka Lye Mudaba, modern urban Congolese music or what we know as Congolese Rumba was born in Léopoldville, after the Second World War, out of a combination of several influences such as French music from the movies of Tino Rossi, Ghanaian Highlife music, indigenous Congolese music, an intertribal popular African dance music called Maringa, and Cuban music. This last one came to Léopoldville around the 1940s in the form of a specific series of 78 rpm shellac records from His Master's Voice. Their "G.V." series contained Cuban or Latin songs with rhythms such as Cha Cha, Bolero, Guaracha, Guaguanco, Merengue, etc. Congolese musicians soon fell in love with Cuban music and started playing it. In the beginning, Congolese musicians recorded songs trying to mimic those Cuban rhythms that came with the "G.V." Later, little by little, the flavors of Cuban music mixed with all the other influences and gave birth to a new style, Congolese Rumba.
The main hypothesis in Mr. Antha's book is that, around the 1950s, Congolese musicians started recording Cuban rhythms and incorporating Cuban musical styles in Congolese music, not because they freely fell in love with Cuban music but because they were obliged by the Belgian authorities. According to Mr. Antha, the Belgian administration decided that Cuban musical genres were profitable. So, they forced the Léopoldville music label owners and their musicians to record a minimum monthly quota of Cuban music or face justice. Mr Antha calls these quotas "musical cash crops". Supposedly, these Léopoldville-produced Cuban records were going to be sold outside of Congo to enlarge a particular European record label empire.
This is an extraordinary claim that does not fit at all with the narrative of the already significant body of scholarly work about Congolese Rumba by acknowledged sources of authority. I know personally most of the scholars and journalists that have written about Congolese Rumba such as Clément Ossinonde, Manda Tchebwa, Jean Pierre Nimy, Kazadi Wa Mukuna, Gary Stewart, Maitre Yoka, Alastair Johnston, Ken Braun. None of them has ever mentioned anything remotely similar to what Mr. Antha tries to advance in his book.
Also, and contrary to Mr. Antha's claims, during the 1950s the sales of Congolese records outside of Congo were never significant enough to enrich any record label.
Unfortunately, Mr. Antha does not present any hard evidence to support his theory. There are no official documents from the Belgian administration that support his theories. Nor are there any official documents from the main Léopoldville studio labels (Esengo, Loningisa, Opika) to provide proof for his claims.
To support his theory, Mr. Antha relies on a myriad of testimonies from some of the most famous Congolese musicians ever, such as Franco Luambo, Joseph Kabasele "le Grand Kalle", Tabu Ley Rochereau and Augustin Moniania "Roitelet". Unfortunately for us, there is no way to confirm these testimonies since all the musicians quoted are now dead. The problem for Mr. Antha is that there are many audio and/or video recorded interviews with Franco Luambo and Tabu Ley Rochereau and while some of these interviews are long and exhaustive, there is not even one interview where Franco or Tabu Ley mention what Mr. Antha has quoted them saying. Furthermore, one of the other musicians quoted in Mr. Antha's book was a friend of mine, Moniania Roitelet. I met Roitelet in Kinshasa while making a documentary film. I have spent several afternoons with Roitelet and I have interviewed him on film many times (sometimes for more than 2 hours). He never ever mentioned anything along the lines of what Mr. Antha claims. I actually asked Roitelet several times why Congolese musicians started playing Cuban rhythms? His answer was always the same: "Because, at that time, everybody loved Cuban music in Léopoldville, and the musicians loved it too. So, we started playing it."
For my documentary film, which is about Congolese Rumba, I have interviewed, on film, more than 40 musicians and Congolese Rumba experts, I have even met with the sons and daughters of the Léopoldville studio owners of the 1950s and, again, nobody has ever mentioned what Mr. Antha tries to advance. So, unless Mr. Antha provides solid evidence to support his extraordinary claims, this book advances a false theory that only serves to stain the legacy of Congolese Rumba by making it a byproduct of forced labor.
HIGHLIFE GIANTS: WEST AFRICAN DANCE BAND PIONEERS (Cassava Republic)
200 years ago the English poet John Keats wrote in a letter to his brother in America about the discovery of the Ashantee, a "lost" kingdom in Africa, with gold window frames, a standing army of 100,000 and human sacrifices: "all rather Bluebeardish but I hope it is true," he adds... There certainly was European contact with this kingdom two centuries ago: a combination of visiting sailors and explorers. Then returning Africans from Brasil and the Caribbean in the late nineteenth-century brought waves of musical inspiration. In this engaging book, John Collins sets forth the story of West African Highlife. What makes it particularly compelling is the use of first-hand accounts. The chapters are small and each one is relevant to a particular topic, personality or group of musicians. The book relies on interviews and commentary collected by Collins who grew up in Ghana, started a recording studio and is now a professor of music at the University of Ghana as well as founder of Bokoor African Popular Music Archives Foundation. By interviewing old-timers on the scene, as well as fellow musicians, he was able to trace the story back to the 1920s from eye-witness statements and, far beyond the usual "When Satchmo came to town" stories, fills in a lot of background on how the music evolved and spread. Early colonial dance bands developed out of military drum-&-fife bands all along the West Coast of Africa. By the 1920s some of these, particularly those from the West Indian regiments, were picking up local songs as well as Western music and would even play ballroom music for Krio elite dances. Marching bands with home-made drums and the few brass instruments they could gather soon imitated the military model. These percussion-based "konkoma" groups became a craze in the 1930s created by "school drop-outs and ruffian boys." They even had uniforms with lots of pockets for colored handkerchiefs. The next component was the guitar that came with Kru sailors and swept West Africa between 1885 and 1908. Juju in Nigeria, Makossa in Cameroun and even the dry guitar of Congo all evolved from this style which became known as "palm wine" when it reached the heart of Ghana. The Kru sailor used a thumb and first finger plucking technique on the Spanish guitar that was adapted from the traditional way of playing seperewa, an indigenous instrument.
The name "highlife" was coined in the 1920s when dance bands began playing popular street songs in their sets. Collins quotes a woman who remembers her childhood home overlooked the open-air courtyard of a night club where well-to-do Ghanaians danced in the 1930s. When the band struck up a highlife number the sedate dancers let fly, waving handkerchiefs and "letting their hair down."
During the Second World War Americans arrived in West Africa with sunglasses, records and "soundies" (short music films featuring the likes of Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller, Cab Calloway and the Nicholas Brothers). After the War key Ghanaian musicians went abroad: Guy Warren (Kofi Ghanaba) visited the US to soak up the new Afro-Cuban sound of jazz and London where he got into calypso. After the Second World War Cuban drums were brought into the highlife ensemble.
E.T. Mensah's career is considered in depth. In 1951 his Tempos went to Lagos for a week where their gigs were eagerly attended by Victor Olaiya and Bobby Benson. Further West African tours in 1953 were so successful the Tempos were able to turn professional. Rex Lawson in Nigeria set up his own band to play highlife, including Tempos' covers. Success led to rivalry and ultimately the Nigerian Musicians Union banned E.T.'s band from touring in 1958. However, in 1958 the Tempos made a very successful tour to Guinea, Liberia and Cote d'Ivoire. When Sekou Touré heard them play African music on western band instruments it gave him the idea to create six state-sponsored dance bands, including Les Amazones, Bembeya Jazz and the Syli National Orchestra. Mensah was close to Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana's first president, writing songs for him and playing at his rallies. One consequence of independence however, was increased taxes. There was a beer tax, an entertainment tax, even a concert ticket tax, so that in fact Mensah was forced to sell his club in 1957. But he kept going, constantly forming new bands. In 1961 he was keen on unionization, and ended up as first head of the Ghanaian musicians union. He wanted to protect royalties and managed to double the amount paid by the British record companies from 2d to 4d per sold disc, and also protect wages so there would be fewer defections from bands.
E.T.'s band the Tempos became a revolving door for talented musicians as he only hired the best, but the country was in turmoil after Independence. Starting in 1961 there was a series of right-wing assassination attempts on Nkrumah. Bombs were thrown at the Socialist president during rallies, injuring musicians. So a dusk-to-dawn curfew was imposed. Then bands were forced to play afternoon gigs, or go to nearby countries and play in Lomé, Togo or Cotonou, Benin.
Highlife took off in Nigeria until the civil war (1967-70) when musicians were drafted into the Nigerian army; afterwards Juju music took over. Victor Olaiya's career continues the story in Nigeria, although his started his first band in Birmingham, England while studying accounting. His Cool Cats were the first Nigerian band to score a platinum record. As well as trumpeter Rex Lawson, other graduates of his band include teenagers Fela Kuti and Victor Uwaifo. In 1969 Uwaifo got the first gold disc in Nigeria for "Joromi." His hit "Mammy Water" came from a late-night beach encounter with a mermaid who called out to the "Guitar Boy." He played to her until she floated off: "If you see Mammy Water, never run away." At art school he tried to learn guitar and used color as a notation system. Then he noticed musical rhythms woven in akwete cloth which he interpreted as a new sound. His Ekassa came from a traditional Benin City dance. "Five days a week love," using a reggae beat, earned him his second gold disc.
Like Olaiya, Ignace De Souza's business savvy led to a successful career in band management. As an aside the story of De Souza from Benin includes a fine 2-page exposition of the development of Congo jazz out of maringa music in the interwar years.
Jerry Hansen was influenced by the Ellington "soundies" and V-discs he heard in the 40s. He joined the Black Beats and led the band when King Bruce was absent. In 1961 the group splintered, with Hansen forming the Ramblers International. On a trip to the UK in 1968 they recorded their first stereo album for Decca. In all they recorded 20 albums but successive military governments in the late 70s made life hard for musicians and Hansen couldn't stock his musical instrument store. In 1984 he moved to Washington DC and worked as a security guard for the next 17 years. The political instability led Ghanaians like Kofi Sammy to move to Nigeria which was undergoing an oil boom. We read of many musicians forced into exile due to economic hardship and war. Nico Mbarga fled to Cameroun during the Nigerian civil war. In 1976 his "Sweet mother" sold more than 13 million copies. But this wild migratory pattern had been established by the Alien Compulsion Order after Nkrumah's overthrow in 1966 which expelled non-Ghanaians like Ignace de Souza and his band of Nigerian, Togolese, Beninese and Congolese. Then in 1983 Nigeria passed an Alien Expulsion Order. But by the 80s the youth had lost interest in highlife and favored canned music in discotheques.
There is, perhaps necessarily, duplication of information from chapter to chapter and the photos are murky for the most part, but this book will become an indispensable reference work for enthusiasts of West African popular music. My other criticisms are minor, mainly typographical errors like Jonas Pedro for Gnonnas, but calling Congolese rumba soukous is likely to confuse readers. And note you can still find the accompanying soundtrack on such albums as E.T. Mensah & the Tempos (4CD box from RetroAfric), King Bruce and the Black Beats (also from Retro); plus original artist reissues on the Soundways, Evergreen, Strut, Premier and Original Music labels.
Les Coulisses de la Musique Congolaise de l'African Jazz à l'Afrisa (Paris: Editions Paari, 2012; 228 pp., perfectbound paperback)
They say living long is the best revenge. It also gives you the last word. Faugus Izeidi is not a household name but he is a survivor. With Rochereau he is the last of the generation of African Jazz, the group that revolutionized Congolese music -- in fact all of African music -- in the 1950s, and brought the reinvigorated rumba to the rest of the world.
A few years ago, in 2009, King Kester Emeneya called him at home in Kinshasa one day and said, Hey old man, get ready. We are flying to Paris in 5 hours. Faugus was not quite prepared but made the plane with the young musician who admired his work and wanted him to arrange songs for his Olympia debut. However on the long journey he lost control of his bladder and on his arrival was rushed to hospital where he was diagnosed with cancer. So he missed the gig, but French doctors saved his life and he decided to spend his recuperation writing his memoirs, which he finished in June 2012. Here it is in 38 brief chapters: a version of the story of Congolese music by someone who actually lived it.
He starts off briefly with CEFA (Compagnie d'Enregistrement du Folklore Africain), who, in 1958, planned to record music from every corner of the Belgian Congo. At that point beguines were arriving from the French Antilles on 78 rpm discs. Two Belgians, Bill Alexandre (guitar) and Fud Candrix (sax), led the way in showing the natives how to play modern jazz. Alexandre in particular showed the guitarists the electric guitar, how to improvise and play solos.
Faugus co-wrote Rochereau's greatest hit "Mokolo na kokufa (the day I die)" -- despite Rochereau's claim to sole authorship -- but also claims to have invented mi-solo guitar, which was a breakthrough sound generally attributed to Nico and his brother Mwamba Dechaud of African Jazz, and later African Fiesta. When he states this as fact in chapter 3 I begin to question his credibility. (After all, Faugus is only mentioned in Michel Lonoh's definitive study of the roots of Congolese popular music, Essai de Commentaire sur la Musique Congolaise Moderne, Kinshasa: Imprimerie St Paul, 1969, as rhythm guitarist of African Fiesta National.) Faugus briefly mentions that Nico and Kabasele made a mess of the cha cha cha, and Rock'a mambo was better at it: "Kallé et Roger avaient compris ce besoin de diversification, après que l'orchestre Rock à Mambo leur avait 'damé le pion' avec les cha cha cha d'Essous et Dewayon, mal interprétés par Kabasele et Nico Kassanda au point que la qualité n'était pas bon." [Kallé & Roger understood the need for diversification after Rock'a Mambo trumped them with the cha chas of Essous and Dewayon; those of Kabasele and Nico were badly executed to the point where the quality was no good.] (p. 23) This is a bold statement and doesn't take into account the fact that instead of slavishly copying Cuban originals, Nico attempted to reinvigorate them with his own Congolese sensibility. (Sadly this is his only mention of Rock-a-mambo, though reading this book in French I realized their name may come from a pun on the word "rocambolesque," meaning "incredible.")
Faugus continues by explaining his position at the heart of the Kinshasa music scene. His elder brother Roger was the scene-maker: he repped groups, helped found a recording company (would eventually head the musicians' union), and played maracas alongside his old pal Kale Jeef, aka Joseph Kabasele, le Grand Kallé. The Kinshasa music scene, it seems, revolved around their living room. Meanwhile, Faugus, who was still a teenager in school, would play on borrowed guitars, imitating his hero Dr Nico, and even managed to swipe his brother's famous maracas to loan to visiting bands. One of these bands desperately needed the maracas to keep the beat, but were contracted to play out of town, and young Faugus went along, essentially running away from home, to bring the crucial shakers and hopefully appear on stage. Eventually he did get to play rhythm guitar and this convinced him he wanted to be a musician, but his attempt to form a band was short-lived.
He hung out across the street from the famous Vis-à-Vis club where the elite bands, such as OK Jazz and African Jazz, performed. These shows were costly but the patrons of the bar across the street could enjoy the music for the price of a cheap beer and no cover. When this neighboring bar's owner decide to start his own house band, Faugus put together a group called Orphée Negro, after the Brazilian film. But on the night of their debut the patron's wife went out into the yard to take a bucket shower. The lead singer followed her to spy on her and hopefully get a quick hook-up. The patron's friends saw this peeping tom and beat him up, throwing him out into the street and the band was stillborn.
Faugus next got a gig with a group called Mexico Jazz and gradually took over as bandleader. The great Tino Baroza paid him the compliment of saying he enjoyed his work from a distance (!) and with diligence he would go far (p. 61). The musicians often slept at his place and even the bar owner's daughter, a good convent girl, fell under his spell and would go home with him. Things came to a head when she refused to go back to the convent and it seemed as though their affair would become public, but Roger, who was a surrogate father in the family, told Faugus to pack his bag, he was moving to another house where he would be working with Manu Dibango. This was in 1961.
Roger had a girlfriend, Marie Josée, whom he had celebrated in song. Manu wrote a song for a Malian entrepreneur named Modibo-Keita and when the two song-subjects met they hit it off. This caused real problems for Roger because the Malian would buy drinks for the house and even order champagne to wash Marie Josée's feet during concerts. (A similar thing had happened to Nico when he had elevated his girlfriend Déesse to celebrity with an early composition and she too had been snatched away by a rich man.) So Roger quit the group, and Brazzos and Clery also left. Eventually Manu's African Soul Quintet, which had gone from soul to funk to the twist, fell apart. Faugus, who had been shifted to bass, longed to return to the rumba. He had an ally in Fracasseur who had been the drummer in Mexico Jazz and now was playing congas for Dibango.
Faugus lays out all his escapades, from his Shandyesque baptism (messed up by the priest), to various rakish affairs, including an incestuous liaison with a girl he didn't know was a cousin. He claims he was offered a position with Negro Succès but turned it down because he preferred the African Jazz style of music to that of the OK Jazz family, but furthermore he was having a secret affair with Bavon's girlfriend. (Of course there's no one alive to corroborate this story. This reminds me of some poets I know who write blurbs for the backs of their own books, and sign them Jack Kerouac, Charles Olson, or Frank Zappa!) In Cameroun, with Manu's group, he got involved with a girl named Marianne and they started a family. However, just before the birth of their baby, he decided to take a holiday in Kinshasa and was drafted back into the ranks of his brother's latest band, African Fiesta, leaving Marianne & child in the lurch. And his mother presented him with a young girl, saying this woman will be your wife (so he had to forget Marie-Rose, the convent girl, also). Joseph Mwena the bassist was suffering from hemorrhoids, so Faugus was called on to fill in. Then Dechaud, who oddly had the same condition, missed a gig, and again Faugus was called up, and fortunately knew the repertoire, though he did not use the open tuning that Dechaud had adopted.
Big brother Roger had written a tune called "Mama Egée," based on a Cuban original. Faugus listened to the original and thought that the lack of piano and violin parts in the Congolese version made it sound thin. Since Manu was not around to add piano he created a riff on his guitar that he thought filled the void. During a live show he plugged in his guitar during "Mama Egée" and started to play the additional part. Willy, the trumpeter, saw what he was doing and turned up his amp. Nico also recognized the innovation and brought him forward to play alongside him, and thus, says the author, the mi-solo was invented.
It seems more likely to me that this mi-solo guitar was the culmination of a long development in African music. Go back and listen to "Masanga" by Jean Bosco Mwenda, recorded by Hugh Tracey in 1952, a key encounter in African music. Yes it's only one man playing but he manages to play contrapuntal melodies simultaneously which was always explained by the influence of the likembe, or thumb piano (which has two voices). However, it's much more than that, Bosco is divinely inspired and picks like a Bach fugitive. For mere mortals to play like that requires two guitars and if they are sympathetic (like say two brothers who learn together) they will be weaving in and out of each other's playing. A good example is "Lolo wa ngai" by Tino Baroza from 1962, heard on Merveilles du Passé Grand Kalle vol 2, where Tino leads and Nico fills in with a great mi-solo (Three years before "Mama Egée"). Vincent Kenis, who is a far greater authority than me, writes: "the principles of the mi-solo guitar were laid down by Dechaud in the late 40s when trying to emulate the Trio Matamoros recordings. He also invented the mi-composé tuning to that end."
In 50 Ans de Musique du Congo-Zaïre (Paris: Presence Africain, 1984, pp. 132-3), Sylvain Bemba writes that the "Djangophile" Jerry Gérard joined the Bantous in 1964 to play midway between lead and rhythm guitar. "This mediator is called 'mi-solo' in Brazzaville, as well as in Léopoldville where the style was immediately adopted, where one spoke of the median guitar." He goes on: "In L'Afrisa, for example, Michel Mavatiku played this role between Pierre M'Bumba alias Attell (the soloist) and Denis Lokassa (accompaniment), before distinguishing himself in OK Jazz from 1975-6. Bazeta Pierre aka 'De la France' played the same part in African Fiesta between the two brothers Kasanda Nico and Mwamba Dechaud." (My translation.) There is no mention of Faugus anywhere in Bemba's work.
Things went swimmingly with African Fiesta for a couple of years. They traveled to Brussels in Summer 1964 to record as there was some urgency to get the new sound on vinyl. Rochereau, Nico and Faugus rehearsed constantly, almost in secret, to perfect the material. The debut of the mi-solo guitar part can be heard on "Café Rio" and "Mama Egée," says the author. But then a problem arose. Nico was taken with a Cuban pianist he met and therefore dispensed with Faugus' services. Faugus spent the day in a café across the street from the recording studio. The other musicians left one by one, until Jeef Mingiedi, the trumpeter, told him, You'd better go in there, Nico is having a melt-down. The pianist was trying to get Nico to play E flat minor 7th (the black keys on the piano!), but Nico couldn't read music. Faugus saved the day.
But right then the three back-up singers, Mujos, Flujos and Fotas quit the band. Paul Mizele would soon join and after him Pablito (aka Pamelo Mounka'a), but trouble was brewing. Faugus says it was because of ethnic differences (Nico & his brother were Luba; Roger, Faugus and Tabu Ley were Yanzi), but mainly (I think) because Roger drove a flashy car and had a fancy lifestyle whereas the rest of the band were struggling to get by. Nico thought Roger had sold songs to ASL in Kenya. (A glance at Tim Clifford's database confirms at least two titles, but many more after Sukisa was formed.) Roger stated that he had licensed the tracks to Fonior, and everything was above board, but Nico believed Roger had profited by this; even his brother Faugus wondered why Roger had the sole rights to all the music?
But African Fiesta was not a collective: the three founders, Roger, Nico and Rochereau had the final say, and when Roger and Rochereau decided to break from Nico they continued to control the group and its interests. Faugus noticed this and strongly objected, but went along with his brother. They recruited Guvano, a young guitarist who idolized Nico, and closeted him in Roger's office to learn the repertoire of the band.
The story of African Fiesta National reads like a burlesque Macbeth. With Roger mostly absent, Rochereau was running power plays to secure control of the musicians. According to Faugus, Rochereau had not minded the arrival of singer Kwamy in the earlier group but became very paranoid about Bombenga who had replaced him in African Jazz and Sam Mangwana, who came and went as he pleased, to the extent that Rochereau hired a West African feticheur to cast spells on the others. This seemingly led to disarray in Bombenga's Vox Africa and brought Mangwana back to the group for their trip to Expo '67 in Montreal. However, Mangwana soon left, taking Guvano and other members to form Le Festival des Maquisards. But every accident and even a death or two were attributed to Rochereau's witchcraft, leading to extreme paranoia in the ranks.
Even Roger and Rochereau were at odds, but had to maintain peace as the group was falling apart. They had a gig to play at a wedding but Rochereau was a no-show. The patron threatened to cancel their contract and play records instead, but they spotted one of their devoted followers, Ndombe Opetum, in the crowd and asked him to fill in for Rochereau. He knew the words and passed the audition brilliantly. Faugus realized that just as he could fill in for Dechaud in the old band, this new kid could cover for Rochereau, so the lead singer was not indispensable. They had a tour of West Africa lined up. Things went well until they got to Upper Volta and the promoter disappeared with all the takings leaving them high and dry. Rochereau had a plan: They got on the train from Ouagadougou to Abidjan and started playing their songs, unplugged. Soon people from all the other cars came to hear the famous Congolese hit-makers, to laugh and dance in the aisles, so the conductors couldn't get through. The conductors stood at the back of the crowd enjoying the music also, unaware that the musicians were traveling without tickets.
There are many rich stories: from a sordid account of the death of Bavon, to the triumph of Tabu Ley at Olympia (where he forgot to thank the band or acknowledge the fans, but instead ran around yelling "I've won! I've won!" like a kid), for which the old crooner fired Mwena, his long time acoustic bassist, for not being lively enough, and brought in an electric bass and trap drummer in order to create a "James Brown"-style excitement, and of course the Rocherettes (who would ultimately be his downfall) were to enliven the show. My favorite anecdote is about the Chadian head of state who promised the band thousands of French francs (10 million CFA francs) and instead gave them 500 monkeys (if I read that right!). The upshot is, after every triumphant gig, Roger and Rochereau were getting bigger cars and throwing money at mistresses while the band was being evicted from hotels for non-payment of bills. But they were also being summoned by Mobutu which sounds really ominous and added a new level of threat that Rochereau could hold over them if they asked for their backpay. When the disgruntled rhythm section (Seskain, Lokassa and Philo Kola) attempted to record their own album to generate some income, Rochereau used his political connections to have the Philips studio closed down and the staff expelled from the country!
Eventually Faugus was deemed a traitor and kicked out. He attempted to put together another band, Fiesta Populaire, but Josky and Bopol left with his ideas and started the very successful Orchestre Continental, he says. He had groomed Bopol, Madilu, Caen Madoka and many other famous musicians for stardom, but none of whom it seemed, wanted to be in his band.
All life stories have the potential to be picaresque, those of musicians perhaps more than other folks'. Faugus has had some "rocambolesque" adventures, from wild romances to being on a tour to Uganda when the plane caught fire. This book is an important first-person account of the history of Congolese music and gives us new (mostly unflattering) insight into the personalities of Roger, Kale Jeef, Nico, Rochereau and others. But then, are guitar-players the ones with the most reliable memories? Tabu Ley is still alive but in poor health. I believe Fracasseur and Paul Mizele are still living among those "originals" mentioned here, and I hope someone is getting their memoirs on paper.
The production of the book is pretty slack for such a high price (25 euros plus shipping): poor typography, cheap paper and the historic images are mostly jpegs found on the internet and converted to blurry mush. For English readers the definitive work remains Gary Stewart's Rumba on the River (London: Verso, 2000); nevertheless, devotees of the Congo sound will find this biography a useful adjunct to their library.
TRAVELS WITH HERODOTUS (Knopf)
It's sad to get news from a dustjacket. I eagerly grabbed the latest book by Ryszard Kapuscinski, perhaps my favourite contemporary writer, but no sooner had I opened it than I learned he died in 2007. I had always somehow imagined I would run into him somewhere and have a great conversation with him. Anyway I tore through it, recklessly. Now I will start over on his first book. TRAVELS WITH HERODOTUS covers familiar terrain, that is in terms of his life's work, stories you may have caught in GRANTA or the NEW YORKER about his early days as a reporter. In the 50s and 60s he was the only foreign correspondent for the Polish Press Agency, so was constantly being sent to Iran, Congo, China, or wherever there was a revolution or coup going on. He has a wonderful style of writing, very poetic for a journalist, but modest and full of keen observation. Whether he's describing snow and tramcars to Nigerians or detailing how he is in another fine fix, having been arrested as a spy and sentenced to be shot, it's all gripping.
I don't know how relevant this is to a music blog (He does describe seeing Louis Armstrong perform in Khartoum before a stone-faced crowd in a very engaging passage), but I think anyone with a passion for music of other lands also wants to go there and experience it first hand. I know I do. If I am in Africa, India, Haiti, or Brasil, or even Chicago or LA, I am thinking, Where's the music scene?
Kapuscinski's shelf is quite modest but every book is rewarding:
Another Day of Life (about the civil war in Angola: Cuban soldiers defend Shell oil platforms from CIA-funded South African mercenaries!)
Shah of Shahs (about the fall of the Shah of Iran)
The Emperor (scenes of terminal life at the court of Haile Selassie)
The Soccer War (a collection of shorter pieces: the title is about an actual war that erupted between Honduras and El Salvador after a world cup qualifying game)
Imperium (magisterial study of the break-up of the Soviet Union)
The Shadow of the Sun (RK covered 27 revolutions and coups in Africa. Gripping stuff!)
Here's a passage from IMPERIUM, where he stops to talk to a small girl called Tanya in Yakutsk, Siberia, about relative coldness:
"One can recognize a great cold, she explains to me, by the bright, shining mist that hangs in the air. When a person walks, a corridor forms in this mist. The corridor has the shape of that person's silhouette. The person passes, but the corridor remains, immobile in the mist. A large man makes a huge corridor, and a small child -- a small corridor. Tanya makes a narrow corridor because she is slender, but, for her age, it is a high one -- which is understandable; she is after all the tallest in her class. Walking out in the morning, Tanya can tell from these corridors whether her girlfriends have already gone to school -- they all know what the corridors of their closest neighbours and friends look like.
...If in the morning there are no corridors that correspond to the stature of students from the elementary school, it means that the cold is so great that classes have been canceled and the children are staying home.
Sometimes one sees a corridor that is very crooked and then abruptly stops. It means --Tanya lowers her voice -- that some drunk was walking, tripped, and fell. In a great cold, drunks frequently freeze to death. Then such a corridor looks like a dead-end street."
Compare that to Charles Dickens' descriptions of fog & mud at the opening of Bleak House and you will agree that here is another great writer worthy of the name.
At the end of TRAVELS WITH HERODOTUS we get an insight into what connects Kapuscinski with the ancient Greek: "But how could Herodotus, a Greek, know what the faraway Persians or Phoenicians are saying, or the inhabitants of Egypt or Libya? It was because he traveled to where they were, asked, observed and collected his information from what he himself saw and what others told him. His first act, therefore, was the journey. But is that not the case for all reporters? Is not our first thought to go on the road? The road is our source, our vault of treasures, our wealth. Only on the road does the reporter feel like himself, at home."
It's this rare passion to keep moving on and looking and recording that unites Kapuscinski with Herodotus. Most of us, truly, would rather sit home surrounded by our familiar things. Kapusinski didn't mind where he lay his head as long as Herodotus was under the pillow.