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Samba Mapangala and Orchestra Virunga
Stern's/Earthworks (

Virunga Volcano, the 1980s work of Samba Mapangala and Orchestra Virunga released by Earthworks in 1990, has endured as a classic of African pop music. Although originally from Congo and a purveyor of the dominant rumba Lingala, Mapangala migrated eastward to Kenya and began incorporating elements of the local pop music and language to create a melange that became a distinctly East African sound. The big hit from that collection, "Malako," was all rapid feet-on-fire bass, chattering teeth hi-hat, muted guitar, up-front sax, and airy vocals floating over the stripped down instrumental assemblage. No synth wash or hardly even a snare or tom-tom run to fill the empty sonic spaces between the polyphonic lines. It was a minimalist approach that distinguished it from other rumba-derived music coming out at the time.

Mapangala has migrated some more in the meantime (he now resides in the U.S.), and has put out Ujumbe after a four-year hiatus from touring. Although this new album retains the spare instrumental approach, the production is more conventional and filled out (i.e., more typical of a Parisian soukous release), not surprising given that the co-producer is Bopol Mansiamina of Quatre Etoiles fame. The music itself is more of a return to Mapangala's Congolese roots, albeit with a good deal of variety. "Dunia Tuna Pita" ought to get considerable air play as an exemplar of the classic Congolese rumba form, while "Umoja Ni Nguvu" starts out right away with a banging sebene section. There is even a tasteful acoustic number ("Muniache") a la Jean Bosco Mwenda, a pioneer of the Congo-Kenya musical connection. The uniformly high level of song writing throughout the CD makes one suspects that Mapangala has been building up a collection in his head since the last release. Though some old fans may be disappointed that Ujumbe is not a continuation of Mapangala's Kenya-era sound, it should stand on its own as another successful milestone in the peripatetic musician's career. - John Cho

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