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The Kankobela of the Batonga Vol. 1

Like those 70s-era Electra/Nonesuch LPs, Africa: Shona Mbira Music and Music of the Shona People, this disc features music played on the kankobela (commonly referred to as the thumb piano), and like those records, the music contained here is a thing of lullabye-like guilelessness. In fact, this disc can be seen as the long-awaited companion to the recordings South African ethnomusicologist Hugh Tracey made of the same music between 1952 and 1957. Those recordings have been reissued, along with another 20 discs worth of Tracey's material, as Kalimba and Kalumbu Songs by SWP.

The music here was recorded in 1996 and 2008 by label owner Michael Baird. Baird, who is Zambian-born, traveled to the region his birth country shares with Zimbabwe, the Zambezi valley, an area dominated by the finger-shaped Lake Kariba, in order to see what was left of the type of music he heard on those Tracey recordings half a century ago. And while the musical results are wonderful, the reality on the ground is depressing. About a decade after Tracey's initial visit, the Zambezi river was damned, making the lake and pushing the Batonga people away from what had been fertile ground. Several decades of displacement have not only taken their toll on these people's quality of life, it has caused the younger generations to turn away from the traditions, because, as far as the generations who've come of age since the lake was formed are concerned, those traditions now represent failure.

As a result, Baird has found relatively few people still playing music seemingly devoid of outside influences, and the youngest kankobela player he found was 49. Unfortunately, the prognosis for this music's survival is grim. But the sounds heard here are anything but. Musicians such as Nyeleti Mukkuli play acoustically, but with thicker distortion than Pat Hare ever got on any of those Sun Records-era James Cotton or Junior Parker sides. Perhaps the most gorgeous tunes here are played and sung by 82-year-old Andrew George Munyumbwe; his "Saliya Ndakuleka" ("I'm Breaking up with Saliya"), is at once teasing, as he repeats variations on the title, and a bit mournful, the low notes of his kankobela vibrating continuously as he sings his goodbye.

The disc is easily the most endlessly enchanting collection of music to come from the Mother continent in some time, and it achieves this without studio polish or even a hint of western influence. One can only hope that people pay attention, because, aside from the fact that the gentle grooves here are quite honestly impossible not to love, the future of this music depends on whether or not we care. - Bruce Miller

Some of the earlier Hugh Tracey recordings are available cdRoots

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cd cover

Andrew George Munyumbwe
"Saliya Ndakuleka"


CD available from SWP

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