LIVE AT YOSHI'S (Download available from CD Baby)

In Summer of 2007, Samba Mapangala and Virunga toured North America for the first time in a decade. The band was an all-star line up featuring Nseka Huit Cent Kilos (of Afrisa and Ricardo Lemvo's Makina Loca) on lead guitar and legendary Bopol Mansiamina on rhythm. Before you accuse me of bandying about big epithets like "legendary" I will explain. Bopol got his start in Papa Noel's Orchestre Bamboula in 1969 and performed with Rock'a Mambo before joining Dr Nico's African Fiesta Sukisa in 1970. The following year saw him backing Josky in Orchestre Continental and he played with Rochereau's Afrisa and Mpongo Love before teaming up with Nyboma and Syran in one of the greatest bands of all, Sam Mangwana's African All Stars. With Wuta Mayi they became Les Quatre Etoiles in 1983 and backed Samba Mapangala on the Song and Dance album, recorded in Paris. The other three four stars became Kekele, and Kekele's loss is Virunga's gain. Bass and drums at Yoshi's were the responsibility of Miguel Yamba and Komba Bellow Mafwala who have backed all the top Congolese acts, including Bopol with the Quatre Etoiles. Veteran Cameroonian sax-man Jimmy Mvondo was along for the party. The group also had Javier Navarrette on congas while Rissa Rissa provided harmony vocals and did some animation. I caught their scintillating act at Yoshi's in Oakland, a jazz club noted for its good acoustics. That show is presented here in a fastidious audio presentation tweaked by Doug Paterson (who had the harder task of restoring songs from vinyl for their last CD release, African Classics, on Sheer Sound). The stretched-out for dancing tracks include "Sungura," a slamming "Siri" (from the Ujumbe album), and their smash hit "Malako" which was on the breakout Virunga Volcano album. There is an emotional link, at least, that connects this to "Kelya" by Grand Kalle (in the way the song starts with a chorister work-out before the band kicks in). They really cook on "Marina," which has great guitar interplay and a superb sax solo. "Adija" from the Song and Dance disc is also stellar. Short but sensational. There is a bonus track, the popular "Obama Ubarikiwe (Obama be blessed)" taken from a performance in Chicago in September 2008 to celebrate Obama's Kenyan roots. That song flew round the world via the Internet and here has a rap by Fanaka Ndege. (The tune is nice and Samba's singing as sweet as ever, I just have to get past the rapping which sounds like a toothless angry old man, not a 14-year-old.) For the Chicago gig, Mapangala was backed by the Occidental Brothers (who add Highlife horns) with the addition of Siama Matuzungidi on guitar from the original Virunga line-up in Nairobi. After the North American Tour they took it to WOMAD in England. Then in January 2009, they got to perform at one of the many inaugural balls for Kenya's famous son in Washington, D.C. (Pix and article on line at Afropop.) This how Samba is meant to be heard: Live and direct, backed by the fine musicians he has come up with, and he continues to generate infectious joy to move our hearts and feet.

Live at Starlight Club, Nairobi, July 1983

It's easy to confuse East African music with Congolese. Unless you speak Kiswahili you might think groups from Dar Es Salaam or Nairobi were playing a form of soukous. The confusion is understandable since there was such a creative flowering in Zaire in the '60s and '70s that many groups moved East looking for gigs. Among the most successful expatriates was Samba Mapangala who hails from Matadidi in the Congo. He first made his mark in Kampala with Les Kinois in 1976. A year later they moved down to Nairobi. In 1981 Samba formed Orchestre Virunga, named for the dormant volcano in the Ruwenzori range that is the third highest mountain in Africa. (I climbed it some years after H.M. Stanley; at the foot of those mountains you can meet the celebrated Mbuti pygmies that Colin Turnbull hung out with, if they haven't all been slaughtered in the ongoing civil war.) Virunga played a regular gig at the Starlight Club in Nairobi where I saw them one night in summer 1983. My Walkman Pro was running but events conspired to thwart my efforts to capture them live. During the first set a Japanese tourist sat in on trumpet. He must have tipped heavily for the privilege because the band let him do his thing despite his total lack of music (He couldn't find the key though he tried determinedly). My brother and I had left our "old ladies" home for the evening and we were being heavily cruised by the young prostitutes looking for free-spending wazungu. Finally we relented and let two sit with us though we told them we were only buying drinks for the privilege of dancing with them. As my brother speaks the lingo he got the cute one. This turn of events led to a compromised tape with snippets of loud conversation which, out of context, would have made us both bachelors. So my first hearing of Virunga dissipated into the warm night air. I do recall they played their big hit "Malako Disco" and Kool & the Gang's "Let's go dancing" which packed the floor in both sets. Samba's magnificent vocals soared above the music. A year later Earthworks released their first album MALAKO which contains four crucial tracks (reissued on CD by Virgin in 1990 as CDEWV16).

at the Sulwe Day & Night Club, Nakuru, Kenya, September 1983

"Aye-yi-yi, the beat is crazy,
Soukous, soukous is everywhere..."
In Nakuru last Tuesday night, Dawn was sick in the back of the truck. I had a beer in the hotel bar, and read DON QUIXOTE, ignoring the hookers. Ordered another White Cap, they were out of cold ones, so I split. I walked the length of the main drag to where the lights of shops give out and no mzungu dares to proceed, when I heard the mellifluous sounds of tuning up. Down a dark alleyway the sound seemed to be above me but the sign said "Business College." Then I saw a stair with four big bouncers at the top. Admission was 75 cents. Needless to say, whitey is a rare sight at the Sulwe Day & Night Club. A cool blue fluorescent light was the only illumination: beaut primitive murals on all the walls of wild animals and sunsets behind palm trees. Even the earliest Egyptian wall paintings had the same theme: crocodile waiting by the water for the careless child or stray drunk.

The Bongo Boys were just starting their set. The drumming is wild. On the records it sounds as though they have congas, cowbells and other percussion, but it's only a regular kit: high-hat and crash cymbals, snare, tom-tom and bass drum. One guitarist sat back by the amps to listen to himself, causing occasional feedback. The bass player leaned against a window and finally sat down at a table with a female admirer, still playing. The lead guitarist stood stock still, pigeontoed in cream-coloured cowboy boots and played like a blistered dervish. A couple of terrible "guest vocalists" got up, but on the whole the music was superb.

After a couple of beers I thought of asking someone to dance. A pretty young woman came over and asked me for a light. Sorry. Then how about a shilling for a box of matches? She came back, thinking she'd scored big. -- Buy me a beer? I was pissed by her insistent hustle, though she was the prettiest girl there. Sorry, honey, I said and got up to dance alone. A big guy invited me to dance with his wife, even bigger than him, she was an amazon. His generosity was unmasked when he took the opportunity to grab a tart and squeeze her close during a fast number. He was a great dancer -- all the blokes were, and funny too. Sorta baggy pants shuffle, very little moving about; undulations, hip swaying and hand gestures. The wife or girlfriend I danced with had a t-shirt with some illegible script on the front which I finally deciphered when we sat down. It said CHICAGO.

Zairois jazz is the cool style, but we were only in remote parts of the Congo and so didn't hear any live. One night we camped at a Catholic mission and were getting lots of attention from the local kids, 60 or more of them, shrieking and running about between the tents and generally giving us a hard time. The adults were hassling us with a little more cool. One guy was selling cards with pictures made from banana bark, another tried to flog some suspicious-looking gold which he claimed he'd panned. I asked one of these dudes if we could catch some live music in town. Oui, he said, je reviens huit-et-quart. Sounds early I thought, but let's check it out.

Willie and I stumble through the dark to town to find the red-lit duka, but there is no live band: it's just a little backstreet beershop with blasting hifi. The loudspeakers are wallpapered to blend in with the decor. It takes three or four records to get used to the incredible scratched surface noise. We drink and take in the ambiance.

Each country has its national beer at State-controlled prices. In Zaire it's Primus at $1 a litre, foamy and unpasteurized. There's a great painting on the wall of a soldier looking for a fight; wife leaves him ("She drank too much anyway," adds the caption); man puking; man asking soldier for a fight. What an exciting life these lads lead. We are also quick to detect the lack of local female talent promised by our punter. We drink and watch the blokes dancing with themselves. Very restrained, slight shuffling of feet, hands caressing imaginary partners. When Willie pulls out a box of Marlboros, everyone clamors for one. Then there's a scuffle over the empty box. The victor puts his unsmoked cigarette in it and arranges it in his breast pocket so the flap is visible.

We are deferring our gold-miner by explaining to him, in roundabout fractured French, the battery acid test whereby we can tell whether his gold is pure or not. Similarly, when someone wants to sell us a cassette tape but can't actually demonstrate it for us on their deck, we agree to finalize the deal in the morning.

Finally after three litres of beer I ask Willie to dance in the Glasgow patois we've adopted as a brotherly dialogue between ourselves.

-- You fer hoofin, Jimmeh?

Willie is a big square-shouldered Irishman who comports himself like Robert Mitchum playing a heavy. People come pouring into the place to watch the wazungu dance. Then I dance with a one-legged bloke on crutches, causing more mirth. About 11 p.m. a few ladies show up. I get this big languid dame in cornrows up on the floor but she hardly moves, so I revert to the fellahs.

The bathroom as usual is anywhere outside, though pink dinks are more visible in the dark and you have to watch out for groups sitting quietly on the ground. Coming back I boogie with three young lads who're selling peanuts outside the bar. They are getting down with much more abandon than the adults inside.

By midnight things begin to heat up but we are too intoxicated and having increasingly incoherent conversations with the inquisitive locals. The patois, Lingala, has Swahili mixed with French so it seems like I'm conversant, also my abandonment of correct verb endings, adjectival agreements and so on, helps. A superfly dude arrives with two quite young ladies who look very stoned. They refuse to dance. I angle up to the bar to scope him out. Tell me, I ask, sizing up his garb, does anyone here listen to American funk music.

-- Yeah, he says, mainly the under fives.