by Opiyo Oloya

The Voice of Change from Congo

cd cover Zairean vocalist and sometimes fashion guru Papa Wemba, is always on the cutting edge of new music in Congo. It should be noted that Wemba and the group Zaiko Langa Langa helped pioneer soukous in 1969 when slow Rumba was the sound of the day in Congo.

In any event, Wemba's new disc titled Molokai (Realworld / digs deep into Congolese folklore and traditional music known as mutuashi. What makes this album unique is Wemba's insistence on actually singing as opposed to merely shouting like most soukous singers do.

Wemba's radical departure from soukous is evident from the opening track titled "Excuse Me," an a capella sung in Lingala. On subsequent tracks, Wemba gallops ahead of the pack as he leads a call and response chorus. Meanwhile, the guitars, instead of being tight and shrill as is normally the case with soukous, are more funky, bluesy and jazzy. Sure, Wemba does get hot with the mutuashi sound on the tracks Bakwetu, Shofele, and Sakana. But even so, he stays away from the fire and brimstone approach of classic soukous.

Then in the most daring move on the entire album, Wemba, accompanied only by the piano of Patrick Bebey, sings solo on the track "Awa Y'Okeyi." And what a voice.

What makes Molokai such a terrific album is that it uses all the traditional sounds of Congo: strong voice, drums and stringed instruments to produce great pop music. Soukous may still sound great, but it is no longer the defining voice in Congolese Music. Just as there is a new Congo, so there is new Congolese music.

Musicians Without Border (Musicien Sans Frontiere)

photo: C. Furnald
Collaboration among musicians from different cultural and artistic backgrounds is not unusual. Paul Simon did it back in 1988 when he worked with South African musicians on the album Graceland. What is new this time is that more African artists are collaborating with artists from other countries as equals to produce some of the best music around. Already we have reviewed the collaboration between the dean of Cameroonian music, saxophonist Manu Dibango and a hot Cuban band named Cuarteto Patria on the disc CubAfrica (
June 1998, AfroDisc).

The latest such effort worth noting is between legendary Jamaican-born jazz guitarist Ernest Ranglin with Senegalese artists on the disc titled In Search of Lost Riddim (Palm Picture / For Ranglin, who worked with the likes of Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, this was something he always wanted to do and only now found the time to carry it through.

On this disc, Ranglin works with some of Senegal's best pop and traditional musicians including Baaba Maal, Mansour Seck and a half a dozen others. Instead of taking center stage with his guitar, Ranglin who is a master arranger, gives the Senegalese plenty of room to work their magic. And they do as the tama talking drums sets the pace on such tracks as "Ala Walee" and "Nu True" while Ranglin follows softly on his guitar.

The result is a superb blend of Senegalese traditional mbalax, jazz, blues and funk. On the tracks "Minuit" and "Haayo," Baaba Maal is terrific on vocals. (What I find ironic is that Baaba Maal's latest disc is so westernized that it has lost its African roots... but, that's another review)

Ranglin does come into his own element on the hot track "Pili Pili" (which translates as hot pepper); here, he simmers and burns on the guitar, showing the dexterity which made him famous the world over.

In the end, Searching For the Lost Riddim succeeds by finding the lost art of rugged spontaneity, innovation and experimentation. Luckily for us, it all hangs together beautifully.

Nomad without the soul

Ironically, it is precisely the absence of some of these qualities that have doomed Baaba Maal's long-awaited album Nomad Soul (Palm Pictures / In a frenetic effort to be everything, but his roots, Maal teams with some of the hottest producers in western music - Brian Eno, Simon Emmerson, Ron Aslan et cetera. Alas, the result is a badly patched together hip-hop crossover that falls far too short of Maal's established international reputation. The much hyped duet with Luciano is a bomb as Maal tries hard to compromise in unfamiliar territory.

To be sure, there is spark, albeit a small one, on such traditional bound tracks as "Cherie" and "Yiriyaro." But, overall, there is too much sound effect and very little music. Moreover, Maal's powerful voice is simply an afterthought in a badly conceived project fuelled by producers who think they know African music, but actually don't.

In the end, if the idea was to make Maal more marketable in the west, then the disc has reduced him to a soulless newcomer without a root in any musical genre. And that's tragic for someone like Baba Maal who was nurtured in the rich and colorful tradition of Senegalese griot music.

Senegal and many others.

Luckily, the group Africando has not abandoned its roots. Formed in 1992 by three Senegalese singers-Medoune Diallo, Nicholas Menheim and Pape Seck, the idea was to bring together African and Caribbean musicians in a studio with the express purpose of making an album, after which the group is disbanded until the next time. Four albums later, Africando has brought together musicians from Cuba, Dominican, Puerto Rico, Congo, Guinea.

On the latest disc titled Baloba (Stern's, NYC and London), the original crew of Africando is joined by Cuban singer Ronnie Baro, Gnonnas Pedro of Benin, Sekouba Bambino Diabate from Guinea and Roger Eugene from Haiti. These diverse cultural experiences are woven into a seamless extravaganza that drips with Cuban sones, guajiras and boleros even as the song are sung in the west African languages of Wolof and Mandingue.

Listen to the new take on Khaled's original hit song "Aicha", complete with talking drums, maracas and bongos. Then check out the hot Cuban number titled "Aminata" in which the lead singer belts it out in Wolof but the chorus is in Spanish.

Well, a decade has gone by since Paul Simon took the world with Graceland. What is different ten years later is that African artists no longer need a western superstar to put a stamp of approval on these international music collaborations. - Opiyo Oloya

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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