by Opiyo Oloya

The latest album by renown Zairean pop diva, Mbilia Bel, she of the former Afrisa international fame, is simply beautiful. Listening to Yalowa (Ima Records) one can safely conclude that Zairean music will never be the same again. Gone is the chaotic rhythm and overpowering guitar that have dominated Zairean music for almost two decades. Gone is the atalaku (professional shouter) who yells "Kwassa Kwassa" or some such phrases. Instead, Yalowa is a sweetly sacrilegious cross-breeding of African and western pop rhythms; there are subtle hints of soukous but the music refuses to be overtaken by it.

M'Bila Bel It is true that this genre of Zairean pop music was pioneered by artists like Papa Wemba and Koffi Olomide. But Mbilia Bel backed by Rigo Star on guitar has pulled it off flawlessly. The conceptualisation of each track retains strong elements of gentle melody; the guitars whisper instead of shouting their presence. Even on the two tracks, "Mambu Mambu" and "Bankake," that go for the soukous beat, the bubbly stuff is carefully controlled. There are no excesses, no waste.

Meanwhile, at the front of this, Bel weaves traditional Zairean ballads into crisp cosmopolitan sound. Moreover, she has ample room to project her rich voice developed in the 1980s during her successful tenure with Tabu Ley Rochereau's Afrisa International. Behind her is the equally cool voices of Rigo Star and Vivick Matou.

Yalowa puts not only Bel but the entire Zairean pop sound on the international scene.

Meanwhile two young South African artists have also walked off the beaten track. There is South African neo-jazz meister Pops Mohamed. On the album Ancestral Healings: From New York to Jo'burg ( B + W Records), the multi-talented Mohamed uses a host of traditional instruments and township jive for inspiration.

But he shaves off the heavy beat that characterises Mbaqanga music. The resulting music is modern jazz meltdown with a traditional attitude; the horns sound as if they are set in the middle of Manhattan, while the Mbira thumb piano threads the magic of an early-morning-in-the mist African element. The effect is heart-stopping music ( Don't take my word for it, try listening to the tracks "Mbira Jive" and "Idube" at full blast) that embodies what is great about modern South African jazz today without forgetting its township roots.

Then there is Vusi Mahlasela whose two albums offer some of the best written folk songs from South Africa today. When You Come Back (Label Bleu) and Wisdom of Forgiveness (Label Bleu) offer a variety of songs in English, Sotho and Zulu. Mahlasela's intense poet/composer voice is carefully balanced against soaring horn arrangements, colourful acoustic guitar and occasional touch of synthesiser. The songs radiate energy from every imaginable South African traditional music (Mbaqanga, marabi and many others) but are written with a larger audience in mind; jazz, western folk songs and blues fans would love them.

The previous edition of Afrodisc is available

Opiyo Oloya is the host of the radio program Karibuni on CIUT 89.5 FM Radio, Toronto. The show airs on Saturday 4:00 PM- 5:00 PM.

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