CONGO CLASSICS PART 2

VERCKYS et l'Orchestre Vévé
Congolese Funk, Afrobeat & Psychedelic Rumba 1969-1978 (Analog Africa AA17 2014)

When you pull out all the stops on a church organ you get an almighty noise guaranteed to raise the roof. When Samy of Analog Africa does it, you get a killer album of rare tracks from one of the most rumbustious acts to come out of the Congo in the rip-roaring 70s. Georges Kiamuangana "Verckys" was a saxophonist with OK Jazz from 1963 but didn't always see eye-to-eye with his boss and finally, in 1969, broke away to create his own band, his own studio, and even his own label (in 1970) from where he threw hit after hit onto turntables across Africa, from Lagos to Nairobi. Though the sax was his main instrument (his nickname came from mishearing King "Kurtis" as "Verckys") he was soon to jettison the horns and feature the stripped-down acts of the generation Langa Langa which replaced the older dance bands of Franco and Rochereau. Verckys had monster smashes with his own band, Orch Vévé, as well as the numerous bands he nurtured like Orchestres Bella Bella, Kiam, Les Kamale, Empire Bakuba, Lipua Lipua, Les Grands Maquisards, Zaiko Langa Langa and Stukas. His first three albums were put out by Ngoma before he started his own state-of-the-art studio, to which he added a record-pressing plant. He then signed Rochereau and recorded four very successful albums, including Maze. In 1977-8 Sonafric issued a nine volume series of Grands Succès, Direction Verckys. Because of the great passion for Congolese rumba and cavacha in East Africa, Verckys went on tour to Uganda and Kenya. He struck a deal to reissue albums in Nairobi and recorded the smoking "Nitarudia" with Orch Vévé Star (So far, I've found a dozen albums released in Nairobi in those golden years 1983-5.) The audiences went wild. Any talented bass player was compared to Vévé's Shaba Kahamba. Some Vévé musicians decided to stay behind and formed Orchestre Bana Ngenge. The Vévé sound was so pervasive (and portable) that many Congolese acts moved East and played the stripped-down music with sax and multiple lead guitars. Other aspects of Verckys' career and his productions appeared periodically on Sonodisc in Paris. In the 1990s Sonodisc issued a couple of greatest hits CDs and RetroAfrica leaned heavily on them for its reissue called Vintage Verckys. Since I maintain the collaborative Vévé discography (elsewhere on this site) I can quickly pinpoint the source of these tunes, and it is really startling. Samy has had a fresh look, and only taken tracks from a couple of known albums: the rest are 45s and quite a few of them - six - obscure B-sides. Needless to say he has come up with the goods: every track on here is a revelation. Yes, I think the entire output of Verckys should be reissued & this first step in that direction makes a good case for that.

The CD kicks off with a sax-led funk track (with pidgin English lyrics), "Bassala hot," which was featured on Grands Succès vol 2 and reflects particularly the Nigerian passion for James Brown. But then we kick into the cavacha sound that became the high watermark in East Africa, with wild dueling guitars, snapping snare drums and sweet vocals harmonies. I am guessing Roxy Tshimpika is on lead guitar, but there was no info on individual tracks in my digital copy. I would love to know who is singing on here, and even the sax which I think is Moro Beya Maduma. I heard a shout-out to Aladji who is the rhythm, or mi-solo guitarist with the alluring name Aladji Baba. "Cheka sana" returns to the funk, this time with twin saxes (Matalanza or Verckys himself with Moro Beya?). "Oui Verckys" follows: this time organ-led and highly reminiscent of "Mother Popcorn" by James Brown. Enough with the funk, back to the mellow rumba with "Nakobala yo Denise," a love-song with lyrical sax and a kick-around seben at the midpoint of the 4-minute nugget. Organ returns with jazzy sax and a more psychedelic groove for "Sex Vévé," which brings to mind "Sex Madjesi" and Sosoliso, the splinter group from Verckys headed by his original trio of singers. This shows off his jazz sax while the guitars churn out blues chords. Back to the cavacha sound next (not sure this sequencing works, it jumps about a lot) for the lovely "Sisa Motema," then back to Famous Flames for the B-side of "Cheka sana," called "Talali Talala," another funk instrumental. According to Ben Redjeb three of the tracks were recorded in Nairobi. I don't know them and don't see any sign of them on kentanzavinyl either, so the originals must be pretty obscure. We strike a happy medium with "Zonga vonvon," which I would classify as a "rave-up," a speedy romp with shrill vocals and shouted chorus as well as some honking from the leader. The lovely high tenor voice on echo, launched by Tabu Ley and carried on by Nyboma was also a big thing in East Africa, with artists like Lovy Longomba and Nguashi Ntimbo. Here we get a taste of it on "Nakomi Paralise" (which may or may not be a typo for "Paradise"); singers unidentified. Actually my unease at the arrangement may be that we start with two long ten-minute tracks then have a real smorgasbord of seven varied styles until we get back into a groove with the 6 minutes and 41 seconds of extended bliss that is this guitar- and horn-driven workout. The shortest track is a charanga-style blowout called "Matinda comono" in pidgin Spanish. Then there are three bonus tracks (which I guess are not on the vinyl): "Nitarudia" is outstanding with sax and piano (a rarity) and a tight arrangement. I wish we had personnel listings on these cuts. Still it is a monumental set and bodes well for future reissues, from Analog Africa, with their faultless track record, and also for more from Mr Dynamite: Verckys.

EDITION VEVE (Sono African 360 049 - digital release via Stern's)

In one concise disc, this album tells the story of the successful beginnings of the Vévé label. The boss himself -- Verckys -- kicks it off with a two-sided epic about death, "Olingi nakufa." Bella Bella are up next, with Pepe Kalle singing on "Lipua Lipua," a song that gave birth to a new splinter group with the young Nyboma (Pepe Kalle didn't go along, but started his own band) when the Soki brothers decide to quit the label. Someone yells out "Chicken!" -- my favorite shout-out in this set. "Onassis," presumably a reference to the wealthy Greek shipping magnate, was an early hit for Zaiko from 1973. Zaiko signaled a new direction in Congolese music, getting away from the big band sound of OK Jazz with fewer guitars and no horns. It was a bold move, especially for the renowned saxophonist Verckys. Another over-miked scorcher is up next, "Diamile" also by orchestre Vévé: two minutes of a choral intro then the twin saxes kick it up for a concise blast off from the mothership. Side two (of the original LP) is another two-parter and one of the label's biggest hits, "Sola," a 9-minute monster by Bella Bella (written by Mulembu Tshibau, who also moved from this band to Lipua Lipua then to Les Kamale with Nyboma) that features a fanfare of horns at the start. The horns balance the vocals all the way to the bridge when we get a snappy snare and a mi-solo guitar (Kinzunga Ricos?) twisting and turning: the very quintessence of the sound that swept all of Africa in the mid-70s. The bass is high in the mix again for "Massamba" sung by Dilu Dilumona and Empire des Bakuba, who quickly assembled out of the break-up of Bella Bella and stuck together until the death of Pepe Kalle in 1998. Having heard Bella Bella's "Lipua Lipua" on side one, we now hear Lipua Lipua's "Kamale" another hit song, written and sung by Nyboma, that once again gave birth to a new band.

VERCKYS PRESENTE NYBOMA
LA VOIX QUI CONSOLE (EVVI 145 - digital release via Stern's)

This Lipua-Lipua release has a preface which doesn't tell you about the band and their career or ask you to cast your mind back to the golden age of Congolese rumba, surprisingly, is a legal statement of the producer's rights to the music. In it, Kiamuangana Mateta (a.k.a. Georges "Verckys") says that he has noticed the publications of Glenn and Ngoyarto, in contravention of the various statutes covering Intellectual Property. One wonders what took him so long ("Verckys" was ill for a while), but now he is working with Stern's to put his considerable achievements as a producer back on the market. And we, the mélomanes or fans, have been waiting a long time for this, if only to sophisticate our thrashed copies of much-worn albums and cassettes. I suspect the master tapes were lost somewhere in Kinshasa during some civil unrest or military coup, or borrowed and never returned, so these reissues sound like they were taken from earlier CD reissues. But to true fans like myself this early work of Nyboma and Vata Mombasa is a piece of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The opening cut "Mombasa" is about the lead guitarist (rather than the seaport), and was included on a Sonodisc compilation in 1974 (as well as a Glenn bootleg in 1998). "Lemba-Lemba," "Matoba," "Mbonda" have not been collected on CD elsewhere and that is a treat (The latter were included on a very hard-to-find Sono LP L'Afrique danse avec Sakumuna Vévé 360 091 from 1975). "Amba" is on four other CDs that I have; this track and "Nouvelle Génération" were both on a King Jimmy release called Greatest Hits volume 2, but I suspect few people got hold of that one. The last cut "Masele" was also included on a Sonodisc CD Lipwa Lipwa de Nyboma, but I figured they had gathered all the extant tracks since they reused the same ones over and over. The group issued two dozen singles on the Vévé label, most of which were reissued on the Sono African label in Paris. But there is often a randomness to what gets collected. The best singles may not get anthologized because they were so well-loved no one can find a clean copy (though rumor has it the latest owners of the Sono catalogue are digitizing what they have). So it is a bonus to have three obscure but wonderful songs brought back to us in this compilation. Also, this is the order they were compiled in originally. It is always gratifying to hear a properly sequenced set from one band. The longest track on here, "Mbondo," clocks in at 12 and a half minutes. I can't stop playing it. The complex, creative and lengthy break-down on rhythm guitar by Vata Mombasa is outrageous. He does another tour-de-force solo in the next song "Nouvelle Génération," then in dialogue with the second guitarist Mongo Ley, accompanied by the bassist and the snare. To sweeten the deal even more, Stern's have also licensed a few stray singles, including two more by Lipua Lipua not included here: "Tika kosaboter motema" b/w "Kuelo" (from 1978) and "Nala 1 & 2" from 1975, and the elusive Orch Kiam's "Memi" (Sakumuna 15). For the record, Nyboma and co (Mulembu Tshibau and guitarist Kinzunga Ricos) felt they were being exploited by Verckys so left in 1972 to form Les Kamale, while Lipua-Lipua was reformed around Nzaya Nzayadio, Mbudi Malanda and guitarist Mongo Ley by the label boss. Nevertheless Kamale also recorded on the Vévé label. I guess he was the only game in town and while he assumed the rights, he did have the distribution, and paid them to record.

VERCKYS PRESENTE EMPIRE BAKUBA
LA BELLE ETOILE (EVVI REM 360 - digital release via Stern's)

I didn't get this from Sterns' because, perversely, I like the (slight) snap crackle and pop on the copy I have taken from vinyl. Two of my favorite voices, Papy Tex and Pepe Kallé, harmonize beautifully on these four songs. The big man, Pepe Kallé, is credited with all compositions, though Tex sings lead on the title track and Dilu Dilu Mona is also singing harmony. There is sparkling guitar from Boeing 707 and Doris, fierce drumming from Samy Maracas and the rock solid bass of M.P. Cherie. It's a familiar set-up: an exposition of sweet singing for a minute or two, then the seben or turn-around where everything kicks up a gear and we go into a frenzied 7 or 8 minute workout. There's an added airhorn on these which is really unnecessary (actually it becomes irritating), given the explosive nature of the band in full flight. Maybe a kid with a vuvuzela snuck into the studio to join in. They sound like live recordings, as if they rehearsed then did it all in one take, singing and playing live without multi-tracking, which is probably the case, and adds to the immediacy. I believe this was released circa 1984. I can hear a Flanger on the guitar (which was first introduced by Boss in 1977, but Roland had effects pedals from the mid-seventies). There's a shout-out to "Pecos," a good Indu-Bill name for an animateur.

YOULOU MABIALA & OK JAZZ
LE VERDICT (EVVI 999 - digital release via Stern's)

This is an interesting entry in the Verckys catalogue. Verckys the sax player had quit OK Jazz in the late sixties. In 1970 singer Youlou Mabiala quit OK Jazz and sang with Lovy du Zaire, but when lead guitarist Mose Se Fan Fan also departed OK Jazz, they formed Somo Somo (the great Syran Mbenza also played guitar in those two breakaway bands). It was a low point for Franco and it took him years to recover (his brother died to compound the pain). Though Youlou returned and scored a massive hit for OK Jazz with "Kamikaze" in 1975, it was just a temporary move (Sam Mangwana also had a revolving door to the band's front line when he needed it). In 1977 Youlou used the popular song title to create Kamikaze Loningisa. After Franco's death in the late '80s the band struggled: various attempts were made to revive it with Simaro (main songwriter), and singers Josky and Madilu System fronting the remaining players. Though the band functioned fine without his input, Franco had never been more important than in his absence. In 1994 Bana OK rose from the ashes, but until now I did not know there was a 2000 recording. The good news is it sounds like classic OK Jazz (no syndrums, lots of singers and horns creating harmonies). It's a nice long session, no personnel are listed though Verckys himself is leading the sax players. It was originally released by Andrew Crawford in Kenya, so may have been recorded there.

VERCKYS PRESENTE VICTORIA ELEISON
SANGO MABALA COMMISSION (EVVI39/REM370 - digital release via Stern's)

Now that Stern's is involved in these reissues there is every hope they will be around long enough for fans to delve into them and expand their collection of great Congolo-Zairois music. If you look through my African reviews you will see many rare albums that appeared for a while, either on CD or digitally, and then went out of print. Many of the Verckys albums didn't make it further beyond Paris than Brussels. This branch of the Zaiko family with Jo Kester Emeneya, Bongo Wende and Joly Mubiala recorded in the mid-80s. The ten members had deserted Viva la Musica in 1982 after feeling they were getting short shrift from Papa Wemba. They were the mainstays of the Verckys label along with Langa Langa Stars, which was the branch led by Bozi Boziana, Dindo Yogo & Evoloko Jocker. It's pre-programmation so there is no drum machine and no synthesizers to mar the vibes: just great guitar-driven soukous to fill the dancefloor. The guitars were ably handled by old pals Huit Kilos, Safro Manzangi and Mongo Ley who had worked their way through many bands, including African Fiesta and Lipua Lipua. The leader, college-educated Emeneya had as much style and presence as Wemba but with his long hair and beard and the name of his new band sounding vaguely hymn-like he appeared more like Jesus to his followers, according to Gary Stewart, who also tells us Verckys loaned the band instruments in return for a four-year contract. Victoria Eleison was one of the most solid of the Clan Langa bands, others came and went, but eventually Rochereau's Afrisa lured away Huit Kilos the guitarist. Still, under Emeneya they went from strength to strength. In 1986 Emenya's "Kimpiatu" was voted song of the year, eclipsing Franco and his "Mario." A lot of this mid-80s soukous still stands up and you can sample much of it through Stern's reissues.

EDITION VEVE 1969-78

Lately I have been binging on my favorite music. Of the four "new" Edition Vévé compilations assembled by Sterns to celebrate Verckys, I chose number 3 as the volume containing the most songs I did not have. The first of the series appeared as Bankoko Baboyi from Sono in 1998 and that is a fabulous collection of Orchestre Vévé material. Similarly volume 2 features the label boss in charge of his own band and includes blockbusters like "Ah! ngai Matinda," "Bilobela," "Baluti," Vivita," and "Nakomitunaka," some of which were also on the Sono release 36599 (originally three of them were collected on Grands Succès des Eds Vévé volume 3.) It is essential listening. I concur with Gary Stewart that the ballad "Nakomitunaka," which asks why God is white, is Verckys' masterpiece. Volume three kicks off with two songs by Gilbert Youlou Mabiala from 1968 or 9 before he rose to legendary status fronting OK Jazz. There is a rare cut from Makina Loca (the original band, not the modern band with the same name fronted by Ricardo Lemvo). Equally obscure and brilliant Orchestre Kiam give us "Baya Baya part 2." You can get the whole single as a separate download, which you will want once you hear this (It was on a Sonodisc release 360 062). Two cuts from Bella Bella may seem more familiar, "Mbuta" and "Sofele," as they appeared on a Sono compilation of les freres Soki, CD36602. This is from the earliest incarnation of the band with Pepe Kallé & Nyboma singing and the great Shaba Kahamba on bass. Fataki, Bitchou, Ricos, and Bissikita all get shout-outs on "Mbuta"-- what a line-up! The three Empire Bakuba tracks were collected on an Ngoyarto CD La Naissance de l'orchestre Empire Bakuba (NG085), each features one of the singers: Pepe Kallé on "Nazoki," Dilu Mona on "Kanu," and Papy Tex on "Nakoluka yo Sabina." Two cuts from Lipua Lipua round out the set. You can also get them separately from Stern's though I don't think they have gone as far as making repro 45s (as some reggae labels now do), which would appeal to a lot of folks I know. These two songs were so popular they were reissued in Nigeria on a Soundpoint album, Music from Zaire volume 6. If you are a collector frustrated at never finding those Soundpoint albums in good condition, never fear, all the tracks they licensed can now be enjoyed on download or via recent CD reissues. All we are missing now are a few Lipua Lipua tracks that appeared on Grands Succès des Editions Vévé volume 4 and the work of Orchestres Kiam and Engunduka, much of which has fallen through the cracks.