Listen while you read
Super Mama Djombo | Orchestra Baobab | Vusi Mahlasela | Thomas Mapfumo
Golden Voices from the Past Return
There are admittedly few albums that stop me dead in my tracks, forcing my ears to listen like my life depended on it, compelling my fingers to linger longingly on the CD cover as if by so doing they could uncover the magic behind the music. Such an album came from Guinea Bissau circa 1980 in the wake of the bitterly fought war against Portuguese colonisers, when all that was left was music and culture. The reissue of Super Mama Djombo's self titled album (Cobiana Records, 2003) brings the sweet guitar sound that helped inspire the people to resist colonialism. Sung partly in Kreol, Portuguese and several African languages, this is free-spirit music with driving dance rhythm, smooth vocals and licking guitar that aimed at one thing only--get everyone rooting for the home team. Almost three decades after these songs were written (though they were recorded later in 1980), their infectious exuberance bubbles freshly to the surface with unparalleled joie de vivre. Listen to the track that came from a children's song; "Pamparida" is a beautiful body-banger as much as it is an ear pleaser. The track Guinea-Cabral is reminiscent of and an interesting take on Malian epic "Mandjou" realised earlier by Salif Keita; the voices of front men Antonio Malam Mane and Lamine Balde are impossibly fluid and supple.
But, for the ultimate heart-pulling song that transports far away to a world struggling to heal after all the bad things have stopped happening, try the track "Gardessi." It will make you dance and cry and dance some more, and your heart will ache until the music chases away the dark night to bring a joyful day--call it the bad-spirit chaser or whatever, but it works.
Super Mama Djombo restores that missing link between current African music that sometimes drift aimlessly and the past when music worked to heal not only the soul but also free a people.
The legendary Senegalese band Orchestra Baobab, whose live performances in Europe and North America this summer have been attended by huge crowds, is magical on their first album in almost twenty years titled Specialist in all Styles. While founder guitarists Barthelemy Attiso (solo) and Mountaga Koite (bass) lay out the tracks with seeming effortless grace, and forever young Issa Cissokho works the tenor saxophone, the laid back Afro-Cuban album features the clear original voices of Balla Sidibe, Randolph (Rudy) Gomis, Ndiouga Dieng, Assane Mboup, Medoune Diallo. In a very distinct departure from the bands' earlier leanings and affinity toward Cuban son, this album sips directly from the rich, homegrown Senegalese roots music with the lyrics mostly in Wolof and Mandinka. In typical unhurried fashion which has become their hallmark, the band starts with rolling rhythm guitar, the saxophone, the intruments and then the vocals as is the case of the tracks "Jiin ma Jiin Ma" and "Ndongoi Baara." That they have matured with time is enormously boosted by the clear arrangement, which allows the various artists to shine without losing the integrity of the music.
The exception is the track "Hommage a Tonton Ferrer," a song honoring the guest appearance of Cuban legendary singer Ibrahim Ferrer of Buena Vista Social Club fame and Senegalese superstar Youssou N'dour. The song opens with languid saxophone before it's joined by the duet vocals of Rudy Gomis and Ferrer, and later Youssou N'Dour who keeps a respectful low profile. Pride, joy, heartbreak, ecstasy all rolled into one emotional beauty of guitar and voices as the saxophone of Cissokho cuts in and out. The other distinctly Cuban tracks are the hot salsa "El son ti Ilama" sung by Medoune Diallo and "Gnawoe" sung by Rudy Gomis and Barthelemy Attisso. Without as much as breaking a sweat because they are doing what comes naturally to them, the Baobab rocks on this album--guaranteed to allow their almost mythical status to stay aloft and intact.
On his latest release, The Voice (ATO Records), South African singer-songwriter Vusi Mahlasela is less grittier than on his two earlier albums When You Come Back (Indigo) and Wisdom of Forgiveness (Indigo). Even though five out of fourteen tracks came from the two earlier albums, the Voice moves away from the more militant, almost angry voice of post-liberation South Africa for which he became known internationally. Here, he is more reflective, even downright folksy blue on the tracks "Sleep Tight Margaret," "Fountain," and "Untitled." An accomplished guitarist, he does flare up on old favourites such as "When You Come Back" and "Ntate Mahlasela" and on new compositions such as "Weeping and Loneliness."
But, this is an ambitious album that tries to be too many things at once; folk, pop, blues, jazz and township, and consequently suffers a loss of focus in general. This shortcoming is more than compensated by Mahlasela's inventiveness in marrying his voice to the guitar so that individually, each track stands on its own, showing the veteran singer's skill and experience as a writer and an arranger who wastes precious little in creating sweet tunes.
Meanwhile, the battle-cry album Toi Toi (anonymous web productions, 2003), by Zimbabwe's Thomas Mapfumo extends the horizon of classic chimurenga by successfully appropriating other groovy African roots. There is the sweet sound of soukous, the indomitable Afro-percussion of west Africa, the lilting folk tunes of Mali, the heavy bass of township jive, and the joyful array of saxophone from Afro-Cuban roots. The result is an album that is a dance-floor pleaser as well as the meditative listener's paradise. To pull it off, the veteran musician pares down chimurenga to its essential traditional mbira core, and then methodically layers the new sounds. For example, on the opening track "Timothy," Mapfumo makes enough room for the Afro-percussion pioneered by Nigerian King Sunny Ade, the raucous horns reminiscent of Manu Dibango and some serious guitar picking that could have come straight from the Rail band of Bamako itself, courtesy of Malian folk-guitar graduate Banning Eyre.
On the track "Komborera" Mapfumo gives Eyre the complete license to recreate the 21-stringed-kora sounds found in West African traditional music for the metallic mbira that is the staple of Zimbabwean music. The result is the melting of musical borders into a timeless cosmopolitan African piece, which can play non-stop into the next century without tiring the listener.
Sure, true to the title which came from the apartheid era foot-stomping resistance dance popular in the townships of South Africa in the late 1980s, Mapfumo raises plenty of dust with "Pasi Inhaka," that beckons home the lost voices of resistance greats like dub-poet Mzwakhe Mbuli and Mahlathini.
And as if he is not yet done showing how he is the child of continental African music, Mapfumo rolls the track "Vechidiki" in typical Guniean fashion, slow and deliberate to allow the full flavour to work its way into the souls of the beholders.
In some ways, Toi-Toi is a pleasant reminder that music transcends politics, borders and even tradition, and like the Nile River, left alone, wanders wherever it pleases and gathers whatever precious nuggets it chooses. Mapfumo's work is all that and more. - Opiyo Oloya
Opiyo Oloya is the host of the radio program Karibuni on CIUT 89.5 FM Radio, Toronto. The show airs on Sunday, 6:00 PM- 8:00 PM. CUIT is now available via Real Audio G2 at www.ciut.fm
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