If ever a compilation was aptly titled, it's "Golden Afrique." The three-volume series, compiled by Gunter Gretz, Christian Scholze and Jean Trouillet for the German company Network Medien, offers a mother lode of great music, pure African gold. The producers not only have assembled a collection of dazzling richness and stylistic variety; they've given the material the packaging it deserves, with informative notes and wonderful archival photos.
Volume One featured music from Guinea, Mali, Guinea-Bissao, Gambia, Ivory Coast, Chad and Senegal. It included early work by such big names as Youssou N'Dour (with his first band, Etoile de Dakar), Salif Keita (with Ambassadeurs International), Orchestra Baobab and Bembeya Jazz, as well as more obscure artists. Volumes Two and Three total nearly five hours of extraordinary recordings by musicians from central and southern Africa, from internationally known superstars to lesser known but no less worthy performers.
Spanning five decades, from the late 1930s to the late 1980s, the recordings were made under colonialism and apartheid, but also after European colonies in central and southern Africa had achieved independence. Within the broad timeframe, the tracks demonstrate the diversity of African musical practices, none mutually exclusive: music as cultural expression, as an integral part of social life, as political protest, and as pop product.
Volume Two focuses on rumba from the nation known under colonial rule as the Belgian Congo, then, after independence, as Zaire, and now as the Democratic Republic of Congo. Kinshasa, its capital, has been a major music center since the 1950s. Congolese rumba is, as Graeme Ewens states in his notes, "one of the world's greatest genres of dance music." Bright vocal harmonies, driving rhythms, punchy R&B-style horn sections, and surging, extended guitar improvisations are hallmarks of the style.
Rumba's formal structure comprises a sung melody followed by the improvisational section known as the sebene, in which, as Ewens says, "The pulse quickens and the guitars get involved in an extended, improvised jam which builds toward an euphoric climax." Soukous, rumba's more hyperactive offshoot, usually skips the melodic part and goes straight to the sebene.
Congolese rumba is a story of departure, return, and re-appropriation. It originated in the Congo, traveled to Cuba with the Africans kidnapped and sold into slavery, and centuries later, was re-appropriated by African musicians who'd been listening to the Cuban son and other dance music from the Caribbean island. Rumba later became a catch-all term encompassing other Afro-Caribbean Latin styles -- meringue, cha cha cha and bolero, often blended with indigenous dance rhythms. The mix thickened with various international influences coming from the radio - French chanson, polkas, American swing and jazz and even 60s British rock. It's a music that positively revels in its hybridity.
The genre's best-known exponent was Franco (Francois Luambo Makiadi), the guitar virtuoso, songwriter and bandleader considered the most important figure in contemporary African music until his death, reportedly from AIDS, in 1989. Franco's titan status hardly can be disputed. He recorded some 180 albums, ran three record labels, created a rhythm, rumba odemba, which became a fixture of Congolese music, and led a band, OK Jazz, that showcased many of the Congo's top musicians.
Even "Cooperation" doesn't wholly satisfy, as it fades out just as Franco starts to cut loose.
Guitar is the lead instrument in rumba; unlike in other African genres, the drums take a supporting role. (A track like Le Likembe Geant's "Bika Nzanga," with its extended percussion workout, is a rare exception.) Franco may be considered le mâitre of Congolese rumba and its star guitarist, but several other players -- Docteur Nico, Joseph "Le Grand Kalle" Kabasele, Dizzy Mandjeku, Mose Se Fan Fan and Ry-Co Jazz's Jerry Malekani -- shine just as brightly. They can solo like demons but they're equally compelling when just thrivin' on a riff, or, as the Godfather of Soul would put it, doin' it to death.
"Marabenta (Vamos para o Campo)," sung in Portugese by the Angolan-descended Sam Mangwana, soars when Dizzy Mandjeku solos. Dally Kimoko is the guitar hero on Nyboma's "Mami Yo"; his stellar work drives home Graeme Ewens' point about the euphoria-inducing powers of the sebene. Kimoko put me in mind of another guitarist, not from Africa but Manchester, England: Johnny Marr, formerly of The Smiths, whose chiming repeated patterns make me think the Mancunian must've had a Congolese album or two in his record collection.
Though Franco is more famous, Joseph "Le Grand Kalle" Kabasele generally is regarded as the father of modern Congolese music. He formed his band African Jazz in 1953, several years before Franco's OK Jazz. (Neither group, however, actually was a jazz band.)Until Le Grand Kalle's death in 1983, the two aggregations, with their different styles, rivaled each other as the Congo's leading musical institutions, although a number of the country's leading players appeared in both groups.
Kabasele and African Jazz contribute a pair of Volume Two's best, and most Cuban-flavored tracks: "Africa Mokili Mobimba" and "Independence Cha Cha." The latter, featuring another giant of Congolese music, the vocalist Tabu Ley Rochereau, was written by Kabasele to celebrate Congolese independence in 1960.
Rochereau is also heard on the 10-minute workout "Mazé," one of his biggest hits, on "Aon-Aon," and with Sam Mangwana on "Como Bacalao."
Volume Three of Golden Afrique focuses on South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Zambia. The South African tracks were all recorded during the apartheid era, with one exception -- Brenda Massie's "Sum'bulala." The Zimbabwean and Zambian material straddles colonial times and the post-independence years. The music was born in the townships, in illegal shabeens and night clubs, in Zambia's copper mines and South African gold and diamond mines, and in Zimbabwean beer halls. Its non-indigenous roots are mainly African American -- jazz, gospel, funk, and soul - but ska and traces of reggae crop up, too.
The stylistic range is astonishing, encompassing simple folk-based tunes, urban dance music, and sophisticated free-form jazz. Common to all the selections is their irrepressible vitality, an undimmable spirit and energy that stands in defiance of political and cultural subjugation. Institutionalized racism and exploitation took their toll, of course; a number of the best-known artists went into exile, and some didn't live to see the end of colonialism and apartheid. Others succumbed to drug abuse and violence.
Mbube also is the name of the unique vocal style, pioneered by Linda, that blends traditional Zulu vocal music with American gospel and Anglo-American church music. The next track, the irresistible "Hello My Baby," was cut nearly 50 years after "Mbube" by the style's most famous exponents, Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
Sipho Mabuse's "Jive Soweto," from 1981, is a rollicking bit of township funk, with its gospel piano chords, rhythm box beats, and women singers exclaiming, "Jive, Soweto jive!"
Chris McGregor and the South African Exiles' Thunderbolt, featuring white pianist McGregor, saxophonist Dudu Pukwana, and bassist Johnny Dyani, close out the first disk of Volume Three with "Mra," a sprawling opus incorporating ska, funk, post-bop and even free jazz. McGregor, Pukwana, and Dyani were members of the Blue Notes, South Africa's first integrated jazz band, which went into exile in 1964. All three died before apartheid expired, in 1994. "Mra," recorded in 1986, was one of their final dates.
In the following entry, The Four Brothers' "Guhwa Uri Mwana Waani," the cascading notes of the mbira become pealing guitar licks.
This style was developed in the 1970s by the wonderfully named Hallelujah Chicken Run Band, whose infectious "Mwana Wamai Dada Naya" makes a perfect musical antidepressant. Bummed out by an unexpected Nor'easter that struck just days before arrival of spring, with blustery winds and snow, I put this track on and presto, late winter blues all gone, at least for three minutes and twenty-five seconds.
The HCRB featured Zimbabwean singer Thomas Mapfumo, who went on to establish the politically-charged genre called chimurenga, which blends traditional Shona mbira music ("chimurenga" is Shona for "struggle") with western instruments and idioms.
I could go on and on about the glories of this collection, but suffice to say that Golden Afrique is a lavish feast of some of the world's greatest music, immensely satisfying and absolutely indispensible. - George De Stefano