HYPNOTIC GUITAR OF JOHN ONDOLO (Mississippi Records MRI-139 mono)

John Ondolo was a guitar-player from Tanzania who had a unique style that can easily be understood as hypnotic. He was one of the few from East Africa to use open tuning so his strumming creates a drone that is always in key. Born in 1917 in the Mara region which is just south of Kenya, He had a long and colorful life. At the time of his birth British East Africa encompassed Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda, so cross-border movement was easy and his family resettled in Kenya. He went to a Catholic school in Nairobi for a while where he was taught (European style) piano but he was expelled when his parents could not pay the fees. He continued to study guitar and used to imitate the nyatiti on it, as well as the various types of drums. His accompanist was typically someone tapping and scraping a Fanta bottle and he also introduced a flute player into the mix. During the Second World War Ondolo spent five years in the King's African Rifles and after being demobbed got a job in a music store. In 1959 his first record was issued by Gallotone in South Africa. His father died the same year and, as the eldest of the family, he had a responsibility to care for his siblings so began touring as a musician to make money. In the 60s he moved between Kenya and Tanzania wherever he could get gigs, and made more recordings with the Jolly Quartet, but these were sporadic. He married and had three kids and then landed a job at Radio Tanzania in Dar Es Salaam as a producer. Now secure, he was able to branch out and founded Vijana Jazz in 1972. He worked in film, providing music for documentaries and this led to a job with the Ministry of Culture as a mobile film projection unit touring the country. Sadly he wrecked the Landrover and lost his left hand. After this he opened an art and music center for youth. John Kitime (scholar and guitarist of the Kilimanjaro Band) interviewed surviving family members to write the liner notes. This lovingly curated and restored collection of his singles showcases his wonderful & inventive acoustic playing with percussion, such as tambourine or what sounds like tapping on a table, and slapped knees, with occasional other instruments like penny whistle ("Wazazi Musilie"). Wild tracks like "Kenya Style" and "Kenya Twist" demonstrate the energetic attack of his playing with equally driving percussion (I hear reco reco – the Fanta bottle – and spoons, I think) and a casual spoken delivery. When he jams with a trio or quartet you can hear him pick out very tasty guitar solos. The uncredited flute player also adds a lot to the sessions. The last cut, "Kwela Wangu" from 1967, features electric guitars and bass which end the set on an upbeat moment.


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."


John Kitime, guitarist with the Kilimanjaro Band, got a call in 2004 from the Norwegian embassy in Dar es Salaam, asking him if he could come that evening and perform, preferably in an acoustic duo, during a cocktail party. Well, a gig's a gig, he thought and brought along a friend, Anania Ngoliga, who played thumb piano, marimba and harmonica. Other embassy staff enjoyed the set and soon they were performing at one function or another on a regular basis. In 2005 they met Bela Fleck, an American musician who was exploring the roots of the banjo in Africa, and he spent a week in Bagamoyo with the duo, jamming and recording. In 2009 and 2010 Fleck invited them, along with Toumani Diabate, to join him on US tours and so the duo formally became Wahenga and have now laid down an album of ten traditional tracks. It's mellow and pleasant and the guitar works well with the kalimba and marimba. After a track called "Going to America" they sing a ballad, "Kukaye tana Kutambula," with the chorus in English, "I wanna go home!" So much for touring! And inevitably we get to a familiar jam when they play "Asante mungu kwa vipaji (Thank God for talent)" which has the well-worn "Twist & Shout" chords (D, G, A). The kalimba comes back to the fore for "Muziki wa asili (Original music)" which brought to mind those limpid, dreamy 1980s albums by Hukwe Zawose.

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)!

SONGS FOR THE POOR MAN (Real World Records RW006)

As noted above in the news section, Real World has chosen half a dozen classic African albums from the 90s to reissue. One of their great discoveries was Remmy Ongala: even before Real World was a label, when they were just the publishing arm of the World of Music & Dance festival (WOMAD), they put out his Nalilia Mwana, a beautiful, perfectly balanced LP. Being from Congo originally, his guitar playing is influenced by Franco but he has a warm, distinctive voice. And like Franco he perfected the art of spinning out a trance groove while he delivers his lyrics. I bought Mambo and this disc when they came out, only to discover (30 years later) that the CD had two extra tracks. Well, we always want more, or at least as much as we can get by an artist we love. These songs were certainly engrained in my brain back in 1989, from the start of "Nasikitika (Regret)" with its off-kilter drums and congas and the flanged guitar of Daktari Remmy, through "Karola," "Kipenda roho," all the way to "Mariam Wangu," the last cut. I heard he was a tyrant and fired band members for slight infractions, but he certainly got the results he wanted and the recording is sparkling in its clarity. Like Monk he had no problem repeating his tunes, so a couple of cuts reappear from his first album (1983); songs like "Kifo (Death)" were recorded in the Live on Stage tape (from Ahadi) and elsewhere, and many of them of course stayed in the repertoire to resurface on later albums, including the superb BBC Kershaw Sessions, which came out on CD from Strange Roots in 1994. That was an opportunity to get good sounding recordings of some of his best early material that had suffered from the poor quality recording of the 1988 Dance with Remmy Ongala: On Stage set and the bootleg cassette ABC 021 which had four of these songs. Many of those songs were redone for this Poor Man outing and of course had improved meanwhile through repeated performances by the band. It's nice looking back on those innocent days, when all we seemed to care about was great dance music.

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.

FIRST MODERN TAARAB VIBES FROM MOMBASA & TANGA, 1970-90 (Buda Musique 860354; 260317)

I admit to having very little knowledge of the rich history and development of Taarab: it has largely passed me by. I have been buying the odd numbered volumes of the excellent Zanzibara series from Buda Musique, compiled by Werner Graebner, because they contain Muziki wa Dansi which is close to my heart. This is volume ten, hence the fifth even numbered volume, which are the Taarab sets. But then last year I heard Siti Muharam's Siti of Unguja, which was not only brilliant but made me want to know more about the genre. Siti's granny, Siti Binti Saad, recorded before the era of this compilation, and Muharam is too young to fit the chronological constraints, as it spans only two decades in the evolution of the sound. Mombasa, Kenya, was the center of the music, rather than Zanzibar, but in the 1970s a new form emerged: Morning Star dispensed with the string section and replaced it with distorted organ sounds or amplified violin (an expedient perhaps, as early Taarab was often recorded in far-off Bombay with large chamber ensembles on hand). In the town of Tanga, electric guitars invaded the music. But then an economic downturn led to more changes. In the 90s, the insidious drum machines appeared, and the lyrics took on fractious aspects, adding insults or provocations. I am not totally in the dark about this sound, however, having long had the Original Music album Songs the Swahili Sing, a John Storm Roberts collection including some of the artist here: Matano Juma, Zein Musical Party, Black Star Music Club, Zuhura & Party, and of course like everyone else on the planet I danced to Culture Musical Club's "Do you really want to hurt me?" — or did I imagine that? And for me a little goes a long way. However I am glad to expand my holdings and enjoy the virtuoso oud with harmonium of Zein Musical Party on "Ya Fuadi." Zuhura sound very traditional, even "Eastern" to me, in contrast to the popping bass guitar strings on Zein's "Nisaidie Mpenzi." I had to research it, and the odd "Eastern" sound is in fact a Japanese Taishogoto, a kind of compact zither, playing with a clarinet. Malika and Party have a wonderful two-hands slapping rhythm underlying their "Si Bure Mambo," though it bears no resemblance to any mambo I know. This set exists as a CD or a 2-LP set (which has an added track); or a digital download of all 15 tracks.


Retrotan is a new label devoted to the music of Tanzania. However it is not a newcomer to music publishing. Ronnie Graham, the principal and author of the indispensable two-volume Da Capo Guide to Contemporary African Music, is also a former partner in RetroAfric, an English label which put out two dozen CDs of classic African albums. RetroTan started in the 1990s and issued local recordings in Dar Es Salaam but it too failed under economic pressure. However with the switch to streaming, their existence is once again viable and hopefully this new trio of issues bodes well for more of their catalogue (like Shikamoo Jazz! please please) to return to print. This first offering is the original 1929 recordings of Zanzibari singer Siti Saad, the first Taraab singer ever recorded. She was born a slave in 1880 and mastered the courtly Arabic of taraab, performing for leading families of the Swahili coastal elite. She switched to Swahili and added drums and tambourines to the oud and violin accompaniment. She and her troupe traveled to Mumbai to record and her songs became very popular in East Africa. The sound quality is predictably problematic on these remastered 78s, but fans of taraab, who have heard her name but never heard her sing, will delight in them. Her home became a community center and she would provoke discussion about the political and social topics of the day which then became fodder for her poet friend Mwalim Shaaban Umbaye to versify. (He sings on five tracks here.) Saad was so popular that Gramophone Company would release her discs a few at a time so sales would build up. 70,000 copies were in print by 1931. On her second trip to India to record in 1930 she met Umm Kulthum who organized a big reception for her. She may have recorded as many as 250 sides though only a couple of dozen still survive. However her songs are still well-known in Zanzibar, being kept alive by her great grand-daughter Siti Muharam on the excellent Siti of Unguja album, which came out in 2020, and in the work of the late Bi Kidude who was massive in the 1990s.

EXTRA DRY (RetroTan RT002)

Born in the backcountry of colonial Tanganyika in the 1920s, Francis Mwakatime started playing trumpet in the Catholic school brass band. He switched to accordion then quickly moved on to guitar, mandolin and ukelele. Influenced early on by imported 78s by the likes of Gene Autry and Jimmy Rodgers, he soon took his place alongside Fundi Konde and Losta Abelo. Hugh Tracey recorded in his village in Iringa in 1951, capturing a zither player, and commenting that the people were adept at the full heptatonic scale rather than the simpler pentatonic, found elsewhere in Southern Africa. Tracey found them rather an elusive people, however. In the 1970s Mwakitime was recorded by John Storm Roberts and John Low and finally RetroTan who issued a cassette in 1995. This cassette was recorded by his own son, John, rhythm guitarist with the legendary Vijana Jazz! While Swahili is the official language, members of the Hehe tribe still sing in their own language and these songs are full of folk history, lullabies and ancient traditions. Remarkably Mwakitime's memories span the pre-colonial era with handed-down memories from his father and grandfather. In "Lung'ulye" he sings "things are up to my neck," as he is feeling overwhelmed. The "A-hah-a-ha-ha" chorus belies the sentiment and it comes over as a ballad. Overall his voice is very gentle and his finger-picking most agile. Mwakitime was on the very first Original Music CD African Acoustic: Sounds Eastern & Southern, and his 4 tracks from another Original Music CD, Guitar Songs from Tanzania, Zambia & Zaire of 1960 (though not as well recorded) are included here as a bonus.

LOST IN DAR (RetroTan RT003)

The burden of growing up with a famous parent weighs heavily on some people: look at Prince Charles! What a wreck of a human being: I cant believe he is my age, he seems so decrepit and full of burbling inanity. Musicians fare no better, I wonder why the various offspring of John Lennon, Fela Kuti and Bob Marley haven't formed a band, or maybe they have. That way they can commiserate about their failings to live up to their parents. Jean Bosco Mwenda is one African guitarist whose music was heard around the world, in the early 1950s. His son, Didier, heard here, grew up under the spell of his famous father and remarkably, learned to play guitar like him in that contrapuntal finger-picking style we all know and love. I never cease to wonder how a guitar can produce those riffs that sound like Bach two-part inventions when it takes me all ten fingers to begin to approach it on a keyboard. So the repertoire is familiar, even if the songs are not, though there is a reprise of "Masanga." Didier has a pleasant voice and excellent skill as a guitar player. The liner notes tell us he came to Dar to find a career as a musician (besides things back in Katanga were not too bright in the 1990s), as he spoke Swahili, but he did not succeed and was forced to sleep rough. Consequently his songs are about thieves and the problems of trying to have a relationship when you are virtually homeless. RetroTan recorded him and this local cassette-only release (now available once again) did well, but when the label crashed in 1998 they lost touch with him. Since then no word has been heard, hence the title Lost in Dar: a really sad reflection on the precariousness of trying to make a living as a musician in modern society. One take, one guitar, one voice, it's a very compelling set.

BENGA & RUMBA FROM 1980s KENYA (No Wahala Sounds)

Another refreshing collection of the Kenya side of muziki wa dansi, from a golden age in East African music. The oddly unifying factor here is all the bands have "boys" in their name and all come from Babu Shah's Audio Productions labels: Boxer, Lulus, and Hit Parade. "Mpenzi Maggie" from Kangundo D Boys (led by Professor Danger) kicks us off, a creative Benga romp with sizzling hi-hat and bustling guitar to the fore. They return later on side 1 with a tribute to "Mbaraka Mwinshehe" the Tanzanian artist who was beloved all over East Africa and whose bands, Les Volcano and Morogoro Jazz, set the style for the entire era from 1968 and beyond his death in 1979. The album is nicely sequenced and balanced with two sides from each of the 5 bands selected. Nyeri Honey Boys, who sing in Kikuyu, show the South African influence in their jive number, "Ndikwenda Kwanangwo," while the Kirurumo Boys are a Kikuyu band described as Cavacha style, but to my ears it's Benga. Side one ends with a great breakdown by them on "Mwendwa Wama." "Ungwana Ni Tabia (Manners are character)" by the Kali Kali Boys leads off the second side. (Like a lot of the great music on here you can find it as a 45 on Afro7 if you like the 7 inch format; however the LP is a great way to unite a set of this music and has been beautifully restored by Doug Paterson).
Kirurumo Boys' second entry is a benga gem with another great vamping breakdown at the 3-minute mark. What I dig about side 2 is it is not merely "B sides" but equally strong tracks as those on the first side, with maybe a bit more of the cavacha rhythm guitar vamp and sustained bridge to outtro we love from this era. Nyeri Honey Boys deliver big in this department. While technically a reissue, this is a sprightly new gathering of almost lost music from the 1980s.

FURAHA WENYE GITA (Raw Music/Mississippi Records)

This is a reissue of the Happiness with Guitar LP with the addition of another dozen bonus tracks. I am pretty sure it came out just two years ago from Olvido Records (my copy is from then). Mukabi, from Western Kenya, was popular from the mid-50s to the mid-60s with topical songs accompanied by guitar and simple percussion, shaker or tapped bottle (chupa in swahili, which is the Portuguese word for "suck"). His first single "Sengula nakupenda" sold over 100,000 copies. George played guitar with agility (in the classic East African style of thumbed bass and finger-picked melody) and sang, accompanied by Jack Malenya who sang harmony. The counterpoint is brilliant, particularly in numbers like "Daudi Nyanza" with its staggered tempo between bass and treble. The percussionist also acquits himself wonderfully with galloping rhythms. Sadly Mukabi was murdered in 1963. The remastered LP (different from the one put out by AGS in Kenya) contains a 12-page booklet with photos and oral histories. The digital download includes more songs tracked down by the compilers.


Now reissued on vinyl comes a selection of the work of Kakai Kilonzo, the Benga star who died at 33 in the mid-80s, at the peak of his career. The German label, Shava, issued a 2 CD set of his works in 2002 and 2006; if you are a fan of East African music, you probably bought those then. From those 26 tracks, No Wahala has picked eight. Most are self-contained 4 or 5 minute tunes, others took advantage of the 45 rpm single format to cover both A & B sides and stretch to 8 or 9 minutes. Kakai came from a rural background, and his songs deal with the familiar problems endemic to country living. In the lead-off song "Beth girl" the singer complains that Beth talked dirt about him, said he lived in a chicken coop. "You refused me because I had nothing, well maybe you should marry my father. You are a matatu that carries all the drunkards." In "Kilima mbogo mathauni" he boasts: "We are invited to compete so we are going to fly to America and perform." There is a complex twin guitar lead, kick drums with excess percussion, like sticks and crashing cymbals, and a prominent "first-fifth" seesawing bass, with the occasional breakdown to a thumping middle eight. Of course by the mid-80s Congolese guitarists with their mi-solo had influenced all of East African guitar, even the Benga bands, so there is quite a bit of that flavor in the dropped out sections where the rhythm guitar and bass compete with the drummer for spareness, flat chicken-scratch metallic strumming behind the bridge etc, until the vocals and lead guitar return. Kakai has a pleasant voice and there are some very catchy melodies such as "Bibi yangu nakupenda," a love song to his wife in Swahili. The other side of the same coin is shown in "Bibi na wa Mmoja" where he warns of drunken wives: she should not be fighting in the bar but waiting faithfully at home. As if! One two-sided gem is included "Baba mkwe" or "Father-in-law" which was on "Best of volume 1"-- a CD comprised of their two-sided singles, including the massive hit "Mama Sofi." "Baba mkwe" is another irate song about a drunk wife he wants to send home to her parents, and regrets the bride price he paid for her. The two Shava CDs had complete lyric translations which are useful and aid in your enjoyment. There was also an LP on the Popular African Music label, called Simba Africa, with extensive notes by Werner Graebner.


This album is making a stir before it even appears: the vinyl is already sold out on pre-order, it's the Guardian album of the month and it netted a 3-page feature in Songlines, the world music/travel magazine. From the lush album art to the grooves it's a superb production. In fact the production, by Sam Jones, is what drew me to this as normally I don't consume a lot of taarab. The album was recorded in ten days but there was a lifetime, in fact several lifetimes of preparation. The singer Siti (Lady) Muharam is great-grand-daughter of Siti Binti Saad who was known as the Mother of Taarab. For her part she brought the music from the Sultan's court to the streets, singing in Kiswahili and adopting the local kidumbak percussion. The Unguja of the title is the largest island of Zanzibar, which lies 30 miles off the coast of Tanzania. Binti Saad was not only a pioneer woman singer in this style but she was the first recording artist from Zanzibar, sailing to India in 1929 to record. Her shellac discs sold in tens of thousands. The main instrument is a qanun, a zither-like stringed instrument, played by Gora Mo Gora. Matona, the arranger, is also heard on violin and oud. Indian and Arabic influences are apparent but the subtle hints of studio effects push this over the frontier from historic to decidedly modern. Echoey bass clarinet (sounding like a ney), and contra bass were overdubbed in London, plus emphasis was added to the percussion. The notable lack of the typical large string section of taraab make it sound fresh and less of a Sultan's post-prandial lethargic drowse. The liner notes repeat themselves but it seems as though they took the original songs of great-granny and remade them, keeping the spirit but adding a modern framework.


A single acoustic guitar and two women singing vocal harmony never sounded so sweet. This is the beauty of 78 technology where a single microphone was used to cut directly to disc, in one take. Well-polished and, as you see from the cover, quite suave, these young sophisticates were hugely popular in Tanzania in the 1950s. Frank has a warm voice and, familiar as it sounds (it reminded me a bit of palm-wine singer Sooliman Rogie), I looked in vain for signs of his work with Hugh Tracey. This compilation gathers a dozen of their tunes and, while it is likely to get lost among the glut of current reissues, it is a charming collection. The 78s were compiled by Michael Kieffer who formerly worked with John Storm Roberts. Frank was not a full time musician but was a farmer who drove a tractor, and he claimed to hear his tunes in the noise of the engine. He is an accomplished guitarist and his playing has a chugging propulsive quality. "Shida (Problems)" echoes familiar refrains like "Malaika" and "Words of Love" since it has the form of many popular tunes. The songs are in Kiswahili, English and Kichagga (a dialect from Northern Tanzania) and Frankie's sisters' sweet harmonies give it a folk-pop feeling that was picked up by Americans like Pete Seeger, and today wistfully evokes a lost era in African music.


My knowledge of the taarab music of Coastal Kenya is quite limited. I have the Songs the Swahili sing LP and some compilations that have a few tracks but never got deeply into it. It's a simple music, occasionally moody and haunting, comprising vocals with oud, percussion, and sometimes violin or a taishokoto, a Japanese zither played with typewriter keys! The influences are Egyptian orchestras and Indian popular film music but, as John Storm Roberts said, the one missing ingredient seems to be Africa. Military style dance bands had been around for 50 years when the first recordings were made in East Africa but the populace wanted to hear taarab. Some musicians from Zanzibar and Mombasa even went to Bombay to record for HMV in the 20s and 30s. And despite being in the military, Yaseen Mohammed was drawn to popular music from an early age and began recording. He developed a working relationship with M. J. Shah of Assanand's record store where he worked to get access to the latest releases, and they began recording him in various groups including duets with his wife. Accordion, flute, and another novelty, electronic keyboard (Clavioline) and ney would be introduced and though the songs were 3 minutes long, in performance (typically at weddings) they would loop them and go into an extended jam. There's a lot of variety and many surprises on here (including a taarab "Twist and shout") and some novelty numbers such as "I'm going to Liverpool: I'm gonna buy a football pool, I'm gonna be rich!" The first two tracks were on John Storm Roberts' Songs the Swahili sing, and "Kula ajae na shari" was on his Africa Dances compilation, otherwise it's a novel, broad selection of great and carefully restored tunes from the 60s and 70s.


Music is nothing if not circular. From 78 rpms to 45s to cassettes to CDs and back to vinyl, it revolves, just as the chords cycle round and round. Inspired by 78s of cha cha cha and other Cuban music imported into Africa in the mid-1940s, teen-aged Salum Abdallah wanted to be a musician. His first home-made guitar was found and destroyed by his religious father who had other plans for the lad, but once he started a band and they performed to acclaim at his sister's wedding, it was clear where his future lay. A scout for Mzuri records came to Morogoro, Tanzania, to hear the young band, set up a single mike and captured their first recordings for pressing back in Mombasa. Salum's father was from Southern Arabia and in his strict upbringing the young Salum had to learn to chant the Koran, the intonation of which also left traces in the singers of coastal taarab. The marimba of the band's name refers to the thumb piano or mbira played in local ngoma (dances). The guitar playing reflects this plucked style. Thus was born the blend of traditional Tanzanian music, with arab influences and the over-riding flavor of the Cuban cha cha played on clipped, chippy guitars instead of violins and pianos, which started to flourish all over East Africa. A South African version of the twist also permeated up the coast with its bright bubbly beat and is covered here in "Beberu." The Mzuri 78s continue to be issued in Kenya during the early 60s and eventually arrived in the West via cassette tapes. In 2000 Dizim records issued a CD of 22 songs by Cuban Marimba Band collected and remastered by Werner Graebner, the leading authority on Tanzanian music. Now with the strange precipitous return to vinyl we have an LP of 12 tracks, including 3 borrowed from Graebner's comp, put together by Michael Kieffer, who was the sound engineer for John Storm Roberts' estimable Original Music label. This is the roots of the famous muziki wa dansi or Tanzanian dance band sound, later heard in the work of Mbaraka Mwinshehe and Super Volcanoes and also Atomic Jazz, NUTA Jazz, Maquis and Mlimani Park, to name the best-known.