African Review Archive #6

Please note that these reviews are archive material, many written between 1989 and 1992. These recordings may be out of print, reissued on other labels, etc...

Patience Mudeka and The African Rhythms
Zimbob ([email protected])

There's really two records here, both featuring the strong vocal center of Patience Mudeka, a former back up singer in Thomas Mapfumo's band. The first six tracks were recorded in Harare, with a full-tilt band of mbira, bass, guitar and kit drums and some heavy hitting assistance from Ephat Mujuru on mbira and Richard Matimba on synths. Pure African pop grooves, sparkling guitar lines woven around the mbiras, lots of choral call and response, and a great lead singer make this a satisfying set of tunes from urban Zimbabwe.

The last three songs feature an American band with a heavier emphasis on the mbiras and smaller percussion doing traditional songs. The groove is lighter, befitting the nature of the songs, but the band and backing vocalists do not sound as determined or "in-synch" as the Harare crew. It's hard to compete with musicians who have been at the forefront of Zimbabwe's pop music scene for years, but the inclusion of some more traditional tunes is welcome. - CF

Rogue Records (UK) ; Red House (US:1990)

The tradition of the jali, the hereditary musician, goes back hundreds of years. In American culture, comparisons might be made to Appalachian storytellers, or even better, urban rappers. The jali sings the praises of his friends and benefactors, warns the politicians of their errors and admonishes the listeners to live right. Dembo Konte and Kausu Kuyateh are both from this tradition, Both play the ancient African harp, the kora, but both have modified their instruments to allow them to expand the instrument's repertoire, adding extra bass strings to the classic 21 -string harp. The interplay of the two is fascinating, as they twist and turn around the melody, fighting against each other and then suddenly forming a unison that shimmers up and down a scale before parting ways again. Highlights of Simbomba include "Mamma Manneh," a rolling dance tune from the Wolof tradition, the title cut, "Great Hunter," the galloping pace of "Saliya," one of the oldest songs written for the kora, and the punchy staccato melody to the warrior prince, "Ngaleng Sonko." Maybe producer Lucy Duran's translation of "Saliya" best sums up the message of the jalis: "The kora is sounding, the drums are sounding, Saliya is lying dead. The people of Niomi Juffure are weeping... I am afraid of death-the loneliness of being left behind."

Chaminuka: Music of Zimbabwe
(Music Of The World)

Chaminuka was a legendary chief and prophet of the Shona people, who warned of the dangers of the Europeans coming to their lands. With Africa rapidly becoming an outpost for Coca Cola and synthesizers, here is an artist dedicated to preserving and expanding the traditional music of Zimbabwe, and especially its most important instrument, the thumb piano or mbira-a simple instrument to build, it's usually made of hammered iron keys fixed to a wooden body, sometimes mounted in a gourd for resonance. Added to this are shells, or more commonly today, bottle-caps to supply a buzz-rattle sound when the keys are struck. The music from the mbira is anything but simple, sometimes encompassing two or three separate melody lines at the same time by a single performer. Dumisana Maraire, born in Mutare and educated by family musicians and at the college of music in Bulawayo, is widely considered one of the masters of mbira music; this recording is a collection of traditional Shona songs and new compositions by Dumi. There are simple and beautiful folk songs from the Zimbabwean dance tradition, songs to the spirits of ancestors; most impressive is a roaring piece called "Buka Njari" that concerns the "bad animal (Buka) that lives in us" that can only be recognized and exercised by those who love us. This piece and a few others feature a group of percussionists and marimba players, with a bone-crunching bass line (on marimba) that would drive out any evil spirit. This is not preserved "historical folk" music, but rather the sound of a modern country holding on to its best traditions. The mbira itself has been credited as a weapon of revolution in Zimbabwe, revived by singers like Thomas Mapfumo in the struggle to drive out the white supremacist government, and imitated widely by guitar bands throughout the country, so the instrument has left its mark on a whole new genre of pop music as well. All in all, pretty powerful stuff for a simple little instrument made of wood and steel. - CF

Stella Chiweshe
The Healing Tree: The Best of...

If you don't already know the music of Stella Rambisai Chiweshe from Zimbabwe, this is a good opportunity to meet her. Somewhere between shamanistic priestess and pop goddess, Chiweshe's music is based on the ancient music of the mbira (as the familiar "thumb piano" is known in this southern African nation). Chiweshe became something of a star in the last wave of the WOMAD driven world music scene. She has produced some amazing recordings, from purely entrancing acoustic music for mbira ensembles to electrically driven pop recordings with European musicians, only a few of which have been readily available in the US. This set samples them all, and includes some of her most interesting and inspiring work from the last decade. - CF

Griote de Mauritanie

Inedit/France via Harmonia Mundi

Highly regimented and ornamented, this is art music of Mauritania sung by a women of great control and passion. Aicha mint Chighaly accompanies herself on the ardin, a harp traditionally reserved for women, and is well respected in her home for her playing of the instrument, and for her singing. She is joined by her brother Mohammed on tbal (a kettle drum) and voice, her sister Jeich on tidinit (fretless lute) and sister-in-law Yaya mint Sidi, who also sings and plays ardin. These are songs of both praise and entertainment, and this is a well recorded, un-produced album of amazing music from a little known part of the African musical world. - CF

World Music Network ([email protected])

Like all collections, this one is limited by disc space and the whims of other rights-holding record companies. That being said, this is an enjoyable tour through the wide variety of South African styles. Mahlthini and the Mahotella Queens show how much fun mbaqanga can be, Lucky Dube proves not all the best reggae comes from Jamaica, and various performers show the vitality of South African jazz. The liner notes are cribbed from the Rough Guide To World Music book, which means they are good introductions to the genres, but don't actually discuss all the artists and cuts on the disc. Oops.

The collection also time trips, going from older recordings the 1980s "bubblegum," but does not come quite up to present times. The disc thankfully does not tout itself as a "greatest hits," but it is a more than serviceable guide. Lacking the narrower focus of the celebrated "Indestructible Beat" series, this collection still remains an enjoyable ride through South Africa's vibrant musical styles. - Marty Lipp

(Couer de Lion , [email protected])

Imagine a Piedmont blues guitarist who was born in Zaire, learned his chops in South Africa, did major sojourns to Egypt and Australia and then landed in Paris to play with Ben Harper, John McLaughlin and Papa Wemba. You'd come close to imagining the sound of So Kalmery, 12 string guitarist, singer and world traveller. This is a charming record, a light and airy set that leans almost entirely on his eager vocals, the acoustic guitar and small percussion, with hints of penny whistle and sax, larger drums, didgeridoo and choral arrangements scattered through it for color more than impact. He's fine guitarist, a good singer, but his real strength is in his creative impulses, his willingness to mix colors without muting them. While a lot of it doesn't have the emotional weight of Ali Farka Toure, it is in a similar vein, and will appeal to both lovers of acoustic blues and African contemporary folk. - CF

Tinder Records

It's always interesting to listen to a reissue of a recording that, at the time it came out, seemed to thrill you. Often the reaction a few years later is "What did I hear in this way back when?" Not so in the case of this recording. It was a totally outrageous idea; blend together the pop and folk music of one of the more iconoclastic artists from the African continent, Ray Lema, with what at the time were generically referred to as the "mystere des voix" of Bulgaria. That Stefanov and Lema pulled it off at all was miraculous. That they did it with such artistic merit is still unique. The thing that strikes me more this time around is the mix of the women's voices. There are the stark, dramatic voices of the Bulgarian choir complemented by the jazzier groove of Lema's Afro-European singers. Add the African guitar riffs and kit drum grooves and their almost contradictory tamboura and galdulka counterparts from Bulgaria and the setting is potentially bizarre. But the fruits of this are actually quite beautiful, and even after a few years of listening, still engaging. Lema has always operated outside of both the tradition and the usual stream of Afro-pop, and this is one of his real successes. -CF

THE WASSOULOU SOUND: Women Of Mali (Stern's Music)

90% of the singers of the Wassoulou region of Mali are women, so it almost seems redundant to subtitle this "Women of Mali." But in most cultures women get short shrift so all the better to give them a place of honor. This collection covers a lot of musical territory, from high tech electronic pop music to acoustic settings for traditional instruments, and some very successful combinations of the two. The only familiar name is Oumou Sangare, whose "Diary Nene," from her World Circuit album Moussolou, is the only readily available track in the collection. It is a good blend of new and old, guitars, fiddle and kora driven along by electric bass and a mix of modern and ancient percussion. the more modern aspect is well defined by "Konyan," a track by Coumba Sidibe. Fans of Salif Keita will appreciate the keyboard-based production, but there is also a more visceral aspect to the her voice, remarkably husky and smooth for a region known for its high-decibel, high frequency shouts. The other major treat of the album is the high intensity of sixties pop star Kagebe Sidibe. This older recording soars with beauty and spirit, punctuated, almost punctured at times, by the drum kit and driven incessantly forward by electric guitar and a great 60s-sound electric organ. The live feel of the recording and her superb, ardent vocal delivery puts this one cut in my Top Ten songs of West Africa. - CF

Chimurenga: African Spirit Music
WOMAD, via Real World

If you have not experienced this performer live, then you really don't understand what his power is over an audience. These recordings made live to two tracks at Real World's studios in Box, England, while certainly not "the real thing" will at least give you a glimpse into the awe inspiring persona of Mapfumo. The swirling melodies of three mbiras, the raw quality of the guitars, the bottom heavy groove of the rhythm section are all captured on these eight tracks. Mapfumo is such a presence and that can hardly be conveyed without seeing the swoop of his body as he graces the stage and the dance floor, but you can get a feel for his interplay with the band here in a natural exchange that rarely comes through on his studio performances. And there's no synthesizers or keyboards on these tracks, leaving most of the sound to come from the mbiras and guitars as they disappear into one another, blending their melodies into one endless loop of sound. It's not the real thing, but it is, as they say, "a reasonable facsimile" and it swings, sways and jumps. - CF


Here's the new album by Ladysmith Black Mambazo and it is anything but Heavenly. This wonderful band of South African gospel singers has been reduced over the years to hucksters for colas, candies and telecommunications. The opening track of this album just serves as a reminder of how gorgeous the music they make can be. But from there on we get abused the likes of Dolly Parton torturing Dylan's "Knocking on heaven's Door" and the album goes careening downhill from there. Billy Joel gets deservedly awful treatment, but Sam Cook's "Chain Gang" merits better than this corrupt, unimaginative, Las Vegas walk-through by Lou Rawls. If you dig you'll find traces of the mbube that made them a mighty force, but this? This is a travesty, a jaded, commercial-only bit of trivial trash that should be given a quick burial. - CF

MZWAKHE MBULI Resistance Is Defence (Earthworks)

"When you vote, and get elected, think of those who died. When you address the nation on television, remember those who died. Remember the sons and daughters of the soil, lest we forget those who died." - Mzwakhe Mbuli.

There are a few musical styles over the years that have not only been the soundtrack for revolution, but have in fact spurred on, or even created the revolution. The world over, women and men have sung of their struggles and made their demands through their music. In Zimbabwe, the music of Mapfumo was considered an indispensable weapon in their fight against white rule. In South Africa, a music developed that was part bar band, part revolutionary tool and later, part show music for the white resorts. <> is a mix of Zulu traditions, jive jazz and rock and roll. It's meaning is "stew" and it is a boiling mixture of influences and varied purposes. For some, like MZWAKHE MBULI, it is a way of telling the world of the trials and heroism of his people in South Africa, a reminder to his country that the struggle continues even though there are triumphs.

Using the local rhythms, he pens songs in African languages and English in the honest effort of to chronicle the realities of Africa today. He is an anchorman of the revolution, reporting the news that the advertisers won't pay for. Resistance Is Defence is, the subtitle says, "the toughest words and most powerful Township music." His broadsides of contemporary events are clear, and sometimes cutting, like the questions of motivations posed in "Lusaka." The real power of these songs, like all good broadside, is in the musical delivery. This is a great, hi-test leaded band with that irreplaceable, forty foot wide bass sound and a jive sax that will split you head open. This music rates with the best roots reggae masters in both medium and message. Spread the word! Remember those who died! - CF

DOROTHY MASUKA Pata Pata (Mango) - In the late thirties, American jazz and blues were pouring into southern Africa (and the rest of the world) via records and radio. In South Africa, it fused with local folk music and current popular styles and became known as , of smooth mix of Zulu and swing that became the foundation for the work of artists like Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masakela a decade later. One of their contemporaries was Dorothy Masuka, singer and later songwriter, who chose to stay in Africa after many other artists choose to migrate to Europe and America to escape the then new laws of separation and and extreme repression, The Population Registration Act of 1950 (apartheid). Born in Bulawayo to Zimbabwean and Zambian parents, Masuka became a fixture on the music scene through the sixties, disappearing in the seventies in the midst of the popular revolution to overthrow white ruled Rhodesia and restore Zimbabwe. So much for the history lesson...

One of the queens of marabi is back, and she is as warm and welcome as ever. What's different about Pata Pata is the subtle blend of marabi and Zim. While it never gets as frantic as chimurenga or jit, there is a ripple of Shona on many of these cuts that gives them a distinctive groove. Fans of Makeba will understand the grooves and love the smooth, jazzy voice. There are eight new songs and seven extra mixes, which work really well. The "dub" mix of "Magumede" is all swank and swing, as cool and as hip as a smoky bar in Harlem, 1940. "Manyere" and "Nghingirikira" are the most obviously Zimbabwean of the set, hopping along on mbira-sounding guitars and high-hats. This is classy music from a class act. It's Pata Pata time, again. - CF


This is why I listen to African pop music: hard-edged guitars playing rippling riffs, a singer who means every word and you know it whether you speak the language or not, and a straight ahead percussion groove that never, ever lets up. Dr. Remmy delivers all of these, and Mambo can only be described as his usual massive attack. Hiding away from the fads of New York, Paris and London, he has taken the cause of the people of Tanzania from Dar Es Salaam to the world. His music is refreshingly clean, unadorned and all together his own. Refreshing, too, is his lyric, often in English on this record. His "mambos" ("things" or "situations" in Swahili) speak simply of politics, socialism and human rights, all but outmoded ideas in the "developed" world. The music is that rock of central Africa, raw linen rhumba rock without the silk trappings of European soukous. Super Matimila delivers power and grace on every note, insistent rhythm and driving guitars, exhausting and inexhaustible. This is food for the soul and the ear, music to make you dance, but music to make you go home with a though or two as well. Cuts? "Inchi Yetu" for incessant groove, "Mrema" for sweet soukous soul, and "One World" for its message and wall of guitars.

Chamunorwa (What Are We Fighting For?)

To see him on stage is to understand the power this man has. He is sublime serenity incarnate, totally absorbed by his audience and his music. Swaying on stage, or roaming the audience with a mike in hand, he radiates energy without showy steps or scowling pedantics. In spite of this, Thomas Mapfumo was the voice of a revolution in Zimbabwe that has been an example for all of Africa, far from perfect, but attempting to be progressive and humane. His music was, and is still, the soundtrack for that movement. His own government has been the target of his lyrical barbs in the past, and remains so now. This new recording offers six more tracks of his now classic "chimurenga" music, a mix of Zim mbira music, rock and reggae. Recorded in Zimbabwe by a Zimbabwean band, this music is straight forward, tough and above all danceable. (Mapfumo refuses to play to audiences seated in theaters.) Heavy reggae style bass, electric guitars and keyboards, and mbira (thumb piano) give this music a hard edge of pop music with an eye towards the ancient traditions of the Shona people of the ancient Zim culture. As a musical experience, few popular musical forms come close. As political statement, few musician have had the kind of impact on their society that Mapfumo has had. It is shame, then, that nowhere in the new album do you get a taste of that strong political commitment, no songs in English (which is fine) but also no lyrics, or even translations of the titles are provided, in spite of the fact that this is supposedly "one of his angriest records yet." Mapfumo tours the U.S. with some frequency, and this is one artist you should go out of your way to see live. His performances are almost ritual in their power, and his band is always top-flight.

VARIOUS ARTISTS A World Out Of Time: Henry Kaiser and David Lindley In Madagascar (Shanachie)

While Paul Simon, David Byrne and others have had varying degrees of failure and success, I admit to this being the best attempt yet at an always dangerous enterprise, trying to present the music of a nation through a fusion of American input. The album and the culture it comes from are far too diverse to dissect in such a short space as a trade mag column, but here is a synopsis. Madagascar lies at one of the critical crossroads of the world, lying in the Indian Ocean off the African coast, and visited by Arab, Indian, African and European alike over the centuries. It's music reflects all of these elements while retaining a unique and sweet identity of its own. So Kaiser and Lindley go off to Madagascar, bearing a digital recorder, slide guitars, electric kabosy, mandolins, fuzz-tones and a Sonny Curtis song. Guided by Berger Gesthuisen (more about him later), they travel the country, recording and sometimes jamming with virtually every Malagasy musician of note. The results are sometimes wonderful, sometimes interesting and occasionally silly, but as a reflection of the music of this island, it is a good image. There's is lots of rootsy local stuff, notably the gorgeous vocals of the group Sammy and the valiha (tubular harp) ensemble Voninavoko. More valiha, in its most elemental, almost bluesy form (shades of Ali Farka Toure!) comes from Mama Sana. There's some more blues-like grooves from Maheleo, joined by the Malagasy national treasure, flutist Rokoto Frah. Lindley and Kaiser jam with Tovo on a piece that sounds like the Chieftains in Nashville, and with the biggest pop stars on the island, the man and the band, Rossy. Etc., etc... What I wish more than anything was that there was more input from Kaiser and Lindley. I would have loved to hear Henry pull out one of his more adventurous pieces and teach it to D'Gary. Instead, they both seem content to cruise along in the background, which is fine, since the music they present is brilliant, lively and often beautiful beyond words. As a compilation, it is a good portrayal of Madagascar. As fusion, it is a bit timid. A final word of tribute, to the aforementioned Mr. Gesthuisen from Feuer and Eis Records of Germany and a certain Mr. Mandelson of Globestyle in London, for having the foresight to issue near perfect collections of Malagasy music years ago, making the music available to the folks like Kaiser and Lindley who followed.

(Verve World)

They are the grandmothers and grandfather of mbaqanga, the township jive mix of rhythm and blues with Zulu folk. Their recordings from the sixties and seventies were coveted by collectors, and when the craze took hold in the eighties, they were headliners. The problem is, they are more and more an imitation of themselves. The production is slicker, the look more and more out of step with reality. Myself and a number of others in the audience at Town Hall in NYC last year felt like anachronistic throwbacks watching "the Zulu show" instead of active participants in a vital new music. In recordings and live appearances, the group is more and more treated like icons rather than musicians. As originators of the style, they can hardly be accused of "revivalism" but what little change there has been in their music has been cosmetic, marketing ploys rather than integral changes. The live shows are more often in formal concert settings than in a place where you are encouraged to do what the music makes you want to do: dance. (Try dancing in the aisles at Town Hall!) The good news is, this new album goes back to the rootsy sound of their early career. No attempts were made to make disco-pop with the likes of Art Of Noise, the synthesizers and cute production tricks are way in the background. I just wish that a band with the talent of Makhona Tshole, and singers capable of the elation and energy of Mahlathini and The Queens, would push a little harder and take some serious risks.

LOKETO Extra Ball

"The history of Zairean music begins with the formation of 'Lingala.' This came about when the Belgians wanted to build the railroad. The people they recruited came from everywhere and spoke many languages. A common language was needed - Lingala... It was the wives of the railroad workers who helped develop Zairean music. They used to get together and play "kebo," without instruments, but with handclapping... Now my style is always changing in time with the technical changes..., and the public's taste. It is important to play African music but to use the best techniques possible in order to convince the public." (-Tabu Ley, in a 1985 interview with Ronnie Graham, from his "Guide To Contemporary African Music" DeCapo Press, NY 1988)...

No other music from Africa has more "convinced the public" around the world than the soukous of Congo and Zaire. And if there is a name on the scene that's better known than Diblo, I can't think of it. His guitar playing has become legend, his style imitated and envied all over Paris and Kinshasa. Together with singers Aurlus Mabele and Jean Baron, he has brought the band Loketo into the popular forefront. Based on a solid commitment to musicianship over techno-wizardry, Loketo plays hard rhythms and sparse melody. On their latest, Extra Ball (a pinball reference) they carry on. While most of the album is dependably soukous, there are some small but notable change ups towards the end. "Mondo Ry" features a spacious, fuzzy guitar solo that clearly counters the bell-like sound you've come to expect. "Tcheke Linha" offers a traditional Baluba rhythm structure, with a different backbeat and bite. While there are few surprises in, there are no let downs. Loketo continues to avoid tilting and keeps winning and Extra Ball.

Hot Heads

Forget all the hype you have heard about this band being "the punk sensation of Africa." They are neither Africa's speed metal demons nor are they screaming anti-establishment types. The punk moniker comes from their wild makeup and dress, not their music. And their outfits are of minor consequence. (Besides, who stole from whom? Africa has had the world "out-punked" for a century when it comes to headgear and makeup.) What Les Tetes Brulees are is clean, tight, unadorned bikutsi, a traditional Cameroonian style that no one had heard of a year ago, but that every writer in the world speaks of with old familiarity now that this band has hit the touring circuit. It's a speedy style of soukous or zouk, replacing Zaire's slow sensuality with their own brand of hyper sexuality. You'll find traces of soca, soul and 60s acid, especially in the powerful guitar playing. If there is a connection with 80s punk, it is in their rejection of technological trappings. This music is straight forward, electric guitar and drum stuff, no fluff, no filler. Must I pick a cut? "Papa." This is swirling madness, a non-stop barrage of guitars and voices, fat bottomed bass and complex drum patterns. But there's not a loser in the lot on Hot Heads. This crew gives new meaning to the phrase "strike up the band."

ALI HASSAN KUBAN From Nubia To Cairo

Gather together equal measures of Sudan's Abdel Aziz el Mubarek, The Musicians of The Nile and the Farfisa whine of Cheb Khaled or the Archies and you get a rough idea of what's in store on this journey From Nubia To Cairo. This is wonderful music; bright, spirited and exotic. North Africa's mix of cultures has made it one of the truly international cultures, crossed by Turks, Romans, Arabs, Christians and the omnipresent Euro-American radio and cassettes. The combination has yielded much fruit, including the currently famous rai music of Algeria and Paris. But this is something else again. Ali Hassan Kuban successfully bridges both sides of the musical Nile, wading into traditional music one moment, then diving head first into the crosscurrents of modern pop. Horns, keyboards, drums and accordion are the primary colors. Ouds, African percussion and voice are the local color. Unlike the more incessant push of rai, this music has a romantic pull to it. It is more resistant to the cliche and the simplified dance groove. There are subtle similarities to the Congolese rhumba, sharing the same insinuations if not the same melodies or rhythms. Irresistible cuts would have to include sinewy "Yah Nasma Yah Halina" and "Sukkar, Sukkar, Sukkar" which shares with the Archies not only the organ sound, but lyrics that make a good argument for not reading the translations. This is an album by a unique artist with a sound like no one else. Take the your listeners on the trip.


While I think that soukous as an "established" style is going through some bad times, stagnating in its own popularity and overblown sense of fashion, there are still the pleasant surprises here and there. Kanda Bongo Man is one of them. His relaxed and bright delivery is a relief from the self important tedium of many of the big stars. Driven along by the lead guitars of Dally and this year's new string wonder Nene Tchakou, his music is still fresh and bouncy, never straying far from well worn grooves, but never getting caught in the ruts either. If there is an award for charm out there, here is the man to give it too. Even on record it comes through, a confidence that never turns to ego, and a voice that never turns to clay. Good cuts to stir up a current on a hot summer day: "Zing Zong," a tribute to the late brothers Soki, former band mates; the inspirational "Yesu Christu" (another trend to watch out for!); and "Mosali," with a great bass line and a smooth rhumba and horn line up. Why does this succeed where others have failed? Maybe it's the fact that there's not a sample in sight, and nary an electro-beat to be heard. Maybe its the naturalness of Kanda's delivery. It's that small certain something that makes the difference between a competent performance and an special one. Some folks have it; some folks don't. Kanda Bongo Man definitely HAS it. Enjoy!

JULUKA Ubuhle Bemvelo;
JULUKA African Litany
(Rhythm Safari)

These two albums from the early eighties deserve some mention for a few reasons. For starters, they were never easily available when they came out. They were also part of the first wave of African pop to enter the European and eventually American mainstream that weren't tied to jazz. There are interesting contrasts in approach here. Litany is very closely tied to European folk/rock of the seventies; you'll hear traces of Irish folk and Jethro Tull all through the album. Ubuhle Bemvelo was a follow up to Litany, released as a fill-in project while they worked on their now infamous album Scatterlings. It was a new recording of the more traditional music that Johnny and Sipho performed as a duo a few years before, and was meant to be a project for their long time fans. But it's powerful mix of roots and rock was in fact one of their most effective recordings. It was truly a rock and roll album, stripped down to drums, guitars and vocals, with the occasional jiving horn or organ to complete the mbaqanga sound. Where Litany tried to reach its audience with a political and social message, U.B. strived to bridge the gap with musical verve and rhythmic vigor. Paradoxically, though, it was African Litany that tried to bring more of the traditional instruments into the mix, adding concertina, mouth bow and some small percussion touches that added sonic messages of their own. It's obvious, in retrospect, that the band was headed was towards the more international folk rock, and eventually stadium rock sound, that developed with Litany and Scatterlings. These two albums show you the possibilities and the turning point.


The recording is a phenomenon; as dense, sonically diverse (diverted?) and pure as anything to come across my desk in many months. What has probably kept me away from writing about it is that it falls so far outside of what one is used to describing. I could reiterate history and musicology from the exhaustive notes that are included. I could relate the instruments and their sounds; raspy, percussive, droning and almost alien. I could go on endlessly about the enchantment of the group vocals and the mesmerizing quality of their call and response. I could tell you to go see the film "Naked Lunch" and if you can absorb and understand that, then you will understand the music of Jajouka. (I fear my keyboard will bleed or sprout wings as I type this.) I want to hear Burroughs (Bill or Edgar R.) sing one of these songs. I want to play this record all night, but there must be a law against that in America. You will not "like" this record. It is far beyond such a simple thing. It will inhale you as you breathe its aura. It will consume you as you drink in its wonder. A record like this not owned, it possesses. There, I have filled up an obligatory space on the page. Now you must do what you must do.

Gift Of The Gnawa
(Flying Fish)

Adam Rudolph is a unique talent whose name you may not know, but whose work is familiar to anyone involved in music that fuses African and jazz traditions. He has performed with Yusef Lateef, Don Cherry, Herbie Hancock and many others, and has co-founded two major ensembles, Eternal Wind and, with Foday Musa Suso, The Mandingo Griot Society. Hassan Hakmoun may have less of a reputation in America, with only a few concerts and an appearance on the late great "Night Music" program at 3am one night a few years back. Gift Of The Gnawa is an interesting fusion of their talents. It holds pretty close to the gnawa style of Morocco, with a heavy emphasis on the fat-stringed sound of the sinter. It's beauty and strength is in its ornamentation, adding Rudolph's percussion in new expansions of the tradition, and by carefully adding the flutes of Richard Horowitz and the horn of Don Cherry to create a folky feel here and a bebop groove there. By far the most exciting cut on the album is "Larmame," a piece developed to showcase Cherry's pocket trumpet. The mesmerizing drone of the drums and sinter (here almost a percussion instrument as well) allows the horn a seven minute swoop across a single chord. These two musicians seem well suited for each other, allowing ample room for each other, and also ample room for the silence between the notes to have a real impact. Some may find the production "thin" but I see it as expansive. This is a gem that will last well past the trend.


Majek Fashek has always skirted the edge of pop-reggae, never committing to a modern groove completely, as if nervous it might swallow him up. As a result, his recordings, while musically and politically devoted, were always edgy and a little unsatisfactory to my ears. So it is strange that the first album to really appeal to me is his most determinedly pop oriented, high tech and produced recording. My first impulse is to say that this is what Marley would sound like today, a full blown modern rock band with a message from Africa and the Caribbean to the rest of the world. This is less a reggae album than an album of the African continuum, with soukous guitars, rock drums and reggae bass lines flowing like so much water over the "genre"ic dam. It is a superb, mostly acoustic production that uses west African percussion and north African oboe lines as integral elements rather than cute additions to a "world music" sound. There are almost no tracks not to recommend, but try "Religion is Politics" for the message, "Majek Fashek In New York" for the groove, and "Spirit Of Love" for inspiration.

On Verra �a
(World Circuit)

The most sultry, unbelievably voluptuous band in Africa in the seventies had to be Baobab. With swirling guitars that sound like they are buried in layers of honey, saxophones as sweet, and a rhythm section that just never lets up, this Senegalese crew made a series of recordings in the late seventies and early eighties that have become something of a legend. Their Pirates' Choice, 1984 sessions released in 1990, was as welcome an issue as I heard that year. This latest release, Paris studio sessions from 1978, is equally lush, equally raw, and equally welcome.

Baobab is the band that best shows the trans-oceanic link between west Africa and Cuba, sounding more Cuban than most of the Caribbean bands of the era, right down to the timbales and shakers, but with a classic guitar sound that is all African. The sound is so true to its Cuban roots one of WPKN's Latin music freaks refused to believe it wasn't a Latino band. Their fusion of rhumba with African drums and Afro-pop is irresistible, each murky guitar riff more enigmatic and enchanting than the last, each squeak of the saxophone more endearing. "El Son De Llama" crystallizes 100 years of musical cross-fertilization in seven Latin soaked, guitar driven minutes, and the rest of the hour on this CD keeps it going. This pan-African band played music like few since, with a real abandon that never let perfection get in the way of the groove. References to Malian, Senegalese and other west African forms popular at the time are everywhere in this record, but their's is really quite an unusual and original sound.

Nursery Boys Go Ahead!
(Globestyle- UK / Green Linnet-Xenophile- US)

Go ahead, indeed! Abana Ba Nursery (The Nursery Boys, a reference to their small stature and and a tendency towards truancy when they were young) are a three piece group from Bunyore, Kenya. Two sparkling guitars and one de-fizzed soda bottle (a Fanta, with those nice ridges to scrape on) provide the basis for an effervescent folk\pop music that is as delightful and easygoing as it gets. (Jolly Boys fans, take note!) Their western Kenyan dance music chirps like a cicada and rings like a waterfalls. A number of songs on this album are just the trio, but there is a bonus to all this. While they were on their first tour of Europe, they hitched up with some of illuminaries of the folk/rock scene, and made some startling and fresh recordings with Chopper and Alan Prosser from The Oyster Band, Hijaz and Expen$ive from the Mustaphas, Ron Kavana and Tomas Lynch. The blend of lilting Kenyan love songs slides right in with the bagpies, slide guitar, banjo and whistles that these folks provide, and cuts like "Abakambi" rock right along on the Oyster's bass and violin. A Celtic version of Benga erupts on these tracks, adding a new dimension to this otherwise sweet and subtle music. Lest you think this is all just artifice, Abana Ba Nasery made a number of electric recordings over the years, but never tour that way because the expense of the instruments is overwhelming for a small Kenyan band. (The studios often provide the instruments for sessions.) Premiere tracks would have to include the Alias Ron Ba Nasery sound of "Plaster On The Leg," the story of a man in a cast with too many bugs and the girls he hope will love him (really!), and the priceless "These Women," which features a jazzy muted trumpet against thoose swirling guitar riffs. Rarely does a record cross my path as refreshingly simple and sincere as these folks. This is as highly recommended as they come.

(Erde Records, Germany) - Suppose the Gipsy Kings met up with some gnawa musicians in Marrakech? Pretty much that's what you have here. Al Tall is a band from Valencia, Spain that mixes flamenco with more ancient Mediterranean roots and modern technology. Muluk el-Hwa (The Demon Of Love) are Morroccan barbers and musicians from the markets of Marrakesh. Together they present a rich and varied set of very folky material, accented here and there by synths and electric guitars, but heavy on the drums, the fiddles and guitars of Andalusian music. It's not always effective. Some of the cuts are a little studious and forced. But on a most, the rich bass vocals and handclapping cut right through in a sound that's almost like Tibetan chanting. Given the common roots of Valencia and North Africa, it is a logical collaboration. It's not as frantic or electric as Lem Chaheb and Dissidenten's work together, but neither is it ever as forced as that got. The melodies they have chosen for these cuts are all marvelous, giving the Arabic rhythms a different kind of Spanish romance.

World Circuit

Here is a singer of strength and soul from Mali. Oumou Sangare takes a different approach from the popular "griot" sound. She is sweet and smooth, and achieves her goal in a cry and a whisper rather than a shout and a whirlwind. While there is no denying the chill you get from the upper register soaring of someone like Nahawa Doumbia, there is a warmth and determination that exudes from Sangare. She is Lady Day to Doumbia's Aretha. The arrangements are something else, as well. Recorded in Abidjan (African music made in Africa?!) with local musicians, it is a wonderful blend of Sylla's sensibilities and regional acoustics.

There is evidence of modern touches in these songs, but they are carried out on nkoni, shakers and bongos, guitars (including Sangare), chorus, and wonderfully coarse violin. Only the bass is allowed to provide an electric touch, and it absolutely throbs most of the time. The rhythms are a little more complex and lively than you might expect, without ever resorting to a dancehall groove. "Ah Ndiya" best exemplifies the whole sound, using strong unison lines from the instruments to respond to the imploring vocals. You almost get a feel for the lyrics about the conflict between family responsibility and modern life. There is intricacy here, but it is never clouded over by too much production. - CF

Kar Kar

His first (Euro released) album brought comaprisons to Robert Johnson and country blues in general, and my own reaction was to the similarity to the sonarities of Appalachian folk music, pure, plaintive and unadorned. On the cover of Kar Kar, in his button down cap and denims, he only lacks a train in the background to invoke the spirit of Jimmy Rodgers. In the music this time, he is even more stripped-down-and-out than before, and the simple time honered tradition of voice and guitar translates from the Malian into something lacking national boundaries or cultural confines. Listen to "Kavana" and you will be immediately fascinated by the roots of the blues evident in this cut. But listen closely, because this one cut also reveals the depth and diversity of sounds possible on an unamplified, unprepared acoustic guitar. There is the click of the fingernail, the brush of the thumb on the bass lines, the harmonics, the scrape of skin over string, and the ringing of the high-pitches behind the frets, sounding like a small ensemble of subtle touches, alluding to without ever quoting the kora and the calabash. Traor�'s singing is even more plaintive, his voice on the verge, but never breaking, as he tells the same stories told for centuries around the world. "I'd rather die than live without you." "Baby please don't go." "Been all 'round this world." "Death, oh death, I cannot escape you." These themes have nothing to do with a specific place like Africa, and this music is not only African. Boubacar Traor�, like Johnson, Rodgers, and Ali Farka Toure, is universal, and simply wonderful. In my review of his last album, I referred to him a one of Mali's national treasures. Make that one of the world's. - CF

Feet On Fire

This is what dance music is supposed to be about: clean, tight, electric but not electronic. Samba Mapangala and his Orchestra Virunga erupt in a thunder of horns, drums and guitars, spare us any techno-doodles and make a fine soukoufied album. He has travelled from Zaire to Uganda to Kenya, picking up influences and musicians along the way, and in recent years has begun touring Europe with frequency, acquiring up some of the sound of pop but none of its pretensions. He has worked with some of the central African giants, including Bopol and Les Quatre Etoiles, refining his soukous hybrid. While most his contemporaries on the Afro-Parisian scene were buying couture by the haute-load and synths by the ton, Mapangala stayed in Africa and worked on the music. He has taken the pop of his native Zaire, and blended it with the rougher Benga beat of Kenya. The results are singular. While Mapangala's vocals are not pyrotechnic, they are rootsy and sincere, and simmer with a rare sweetness. On the other hand, the band burns. The horns wail, the guitars ripple, the drums pound it out smooth and solid. "Safari" sings in a jiving soukous style, hot and spicy. "Toweli Nini" starts as cool as ice, then heats up into a mid-tempo bit with some unusual melodic lines. Mapangala and company have forged a unique sound by doing the obvious, developinf African music in Africa. This is 100% pure juice, local music freshly squeezed and served in a jumbo carafe.

Youssou N'Dour
Virgin, US

Following after his lackluster The Lion, Set was a breath of fresh air, a hard hitting, deeply rooted, percussive blast from West Africa. Balafons (sampled), horns,talking drums and all manner of skin and bone are the solid ground for the ever powerful voice of Youssou N'Dour, champion screamer, and here, expressive soul singer. This time, he also breaks ranks from his mbalax style. There is a stronger element of rock in much of this album, not chained to Euro-pop as others have been, but using it for it's ability to express strength and passion. Songs like "Toxiques," a condemnation of the industrial world's abuse of the poorer nations, are what his live performances are about; flash, funk, vocal pyrotechnics and layer upon layer of drums. There is also another, more gentle, touch, to Set. "Xale" gives him a chance to experiment outside the strictly African limits of most of his work. It is a ballad set against a string quartet, the cellos and violins leaving a sparse background for N'Dour to weave his story of this traditional dance of Senegal. "Fakastalu" lends an East African touch to the album, pulled along by the sound of the accordion (sampled, but effective) and the more plaintive vocals.This is the best U.S. release by Youssou N'Dour to date, and it is an album of variety and strength. - CF

Djam Leelli
Rogue/UK, Mango/US

"Djam Leelli" -the adventurers - is the story of young men forced to journey from their home. The land is dry and they know they must travel to Gabon, Ivory Coast, even Europe. They have no choice, there is no reason to stay... The story of how this recording came to be is as long and confused as a good folk tale. In 1984, Baaba Maal and Mansour Seck recorded a cassette called DjamLeelli. A copy found its way to England, where it became something of a legend, but when sought out for release, it was discovered that the original taped mixes had been lost. After a long search, the multi-track originals were found and remixed by Rouge Records' Ian A. Anderson and David Kenny. And a good thing, too- this is a recording of rare beauty, sweetness and subtlety. Baaba Maal is probably as big a star in Senegal as the more world famous Youssou N'Dour, but sings in the Tuculeur language rather than the dominant Wolof of N'Dour. Maal and Seck weave a complex web of acoustic guitar lines inspired by, but not imitative of, the kora players of West Africa. Backed by electric guitar, small percussion instruments and balafon, these songs snake slowly into the soul, prodding, insinuating themselves with a sly tempo that belies their power. Recommended songs: "Bibbe Leydy" with its quiet but insistent melody underscored by the balafon, the Latin-tinged "Loodo," and the insistent call and response on the guitars in "Lamtooro." This is music that grows with each repeated listening, so let it play. - CF

Intuition - 1989

This record, like all of Khaled's previous output, has everything I usually hate in music: too much high-tech toying around, enough reverb for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and drum machines buried in all 24 tracks. That said, Cheb Khaled has been one of my favorites for a long time. His Hada Raykoum made him "The King Of Rai" at the age of 24, all synthesizers and digital drums with just an echo of traditional percussion making it a dance hit in much of Europe. This newest release goes in two directions at once, adding more traditional instruments like the bendir, the violin, tar and accordion while also pushing further into the realm of electro-pop. Cap it off with a big horn sound on a few cuts and songs that always skirt the edge of the "dance party" sound, and strangely enough the mix comes out new and exotic. Khaled and Boutella have fashioned an unusual fusion of roots and revolution out of a pop style that thrives on rebellion in Algeria-it's outlawed, but so popular it is tolerated.

Key cuts include "Kutché," with its subtle oud part almost buried under a synth and horn barrage, "Minuit" almost sounds like an Argentina tango, Astor Piazzolla on a camel; the Spanish horns of "Baroud" echo across Gibraltar; if "La Camel" doesn't get a 12" dance cut made, the dance halls are missing out. The only thing lacking in Kutché is a taste of Khaled's extended chanting intros, so much a part of his other recordings. His voice is an amazing instrument, and there is plenty of it here, but we are missing out on those almost endless cries. If there is a "rai invasion," then Cheb Khaled and Safy Boutelia have drawn new battle lines. - CF (1990)

Siya Hamba!: 1950s South African Country And Small Town Sounds
Original Music - 1989

Have a taste for the harmonica blues of the rural American South? The R&B jump of Louis Jordan or the live of Slim Gaillard? Saxophone rave-ups and hand clapping a cappelia? So, evidently, did the South Africans encountered by music archivist Hugh Tracy during his recording trips through South Africa in the '30s, '40s and '50s. This record traces some of these influences on country (side A) and small town (side B) musicians of the period, styles that developed into modern sounds, and those that flourished and passed on. Side A is most interesting in that it covers a time when western instruments were widespread but the musical influences of radio and recordings were pretty much unheard, leaving the musicians to develop styles free from commercial nudges. Harmonicas played the 0 tunes originally meant for mouth bow, and guitars were droning chords with no parallels, This music bears little resemblance to the township mbaqanga or vocal mbube sounds that are the roots of most modern Azanian music; side B is more familiar, with a smooth swing and a rocking jump clearly influenced by American jazz. But where many copied jazz religiously in the rest of the world, these musicians seem to have understood its soul - they don't ape Louis Jordan, but rather adapt it to their own unique world. Voices play the sax parts in counterpoint to the actual sax player. There are great female vocal leads on some of these songs, a style lost to modern, male-dominated Azanian music of today. This side of tunes swings as smooth and sweet as any New York band ever did, driven along by those choruses of voices riffing against the beat. John Storm Roberts has produced another album of truly "original" sounds, music that would otherwise be lost to time. - CF (1989)

Mango - 1989

For me, in 1989, Thomas Mapfumo was the beginning and the end of African music. I had been hearing his music for many years, sent to me by friends in Zimbabwe, and from the few releases I was able to find in the U.S. At the end of the '70s, his music was the standard-bearer for a revolution; the sound of the mbira was a call to change, and his songs still call for change today. Mapfumo asks his fellow Zimbabweans to end the corruption around them, because the revolution that freed them from white rule must now work to help all the people of their country. For many years his music was heavily flavored by reggae, and while there are still strong Jamaican undertones, the mbira (thumb piano) influences the guitars and keyboards on many of the cuts, and his love of Zimbabwe and its music is strongly evident throughout. Choice cuts would have to include the reggae sounds of "Corruption," a call to his listeners to stop seeking something for nothing and get to work on the world's problems. Both "Muchadura" and "Moyo Wangu" are traditional melodies played in the classic Zim-guitar band style. All together, a strong new album from one of the originators of '80s southern African soul. - CF


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Please note that these reviews are archive material, written between 1989 and 1992. These recordings may be out of print, reissued on other labels, etc...

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