Saved from Death

The current cold weather gripping the UK makes me crave warmer climes, long sandy beaches and tropical sounds. So today I have decided to go back to Cape Verde; we first visited it a couple of weeks ago in one of my early posts. In much the same way this icy climate is gripping our small island, with Spring several weeks away, if the newspapers are to be believed, the music of another archipelago off the west coast of Africa is holding me close in its warm and comforting embrace.

Bulimundo are best known for their revival of an relatively new accordion based music known as Funaná. Today’s track,  Di Pedra, is actually a version of an old classic by Codé Di Dona. Bulimundo were largely responsible for bringing the genre into the present using electric instruments, drum machines and synthesizers. Until then Funaná was considered peasants’ music not fit to stand up to the superior Morna, and it gradually started to die out in popularity until the 1980s with the arrival of Carlos Alberto Martins aka Katchás, who mentored the band, and developed the new style. Sadly he was killed in a car crash on 29 March 1988, but thanks to him Funaná lives on and is still popular today.

I love this new pulsating style, that reinterprets a traditional genre.  Bulimundo’s version is bursting with so many influences and you cannot help but move to it. This music is perfect to escape the cold weather and bring on Spring.

Happy Easter!

and here is the original…

Record Details:

Bulimundo – Djam Branch Dja (1981) – Monte Cara/Black Power Records (LP 1942)

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Going International

Today I have decided to stay in Mali and with the same band(s), as their influence is huge and warrants further coverage. It is only now that I am starting to see the staggering amount of artists and bands that have come out of this extended musical family.

Les Ambassadeurs were rivaling the Rail Band as the biggest group in Mali in the 1970s, and to decide the title a battle of the bands concert was organised in 1974. Both bands had to write a song to perform at the gig to decide the most popular group. However, it was all in vain as a draw was agreed upon on the day.

Economic problems in Mali meant that Les Ambassadeurs relocated to Abidjan, Ivory Coast, from 1978 and became Les Ambassadeurs Internationaux. The band’s popularity continued to grow and they moved onto Paris in the early to mid 1980s becoming one of the most popular international African bands.

Today’s selection is from their early 80s album, on an Ivory Coast label, released around the same time that Salif Keita left the band for a solo career in Paris, to be replaced by Sorry Bamba. The western influence of Jazz and Funk are clear in today’s track, Wassalloun Foli, but the percussion and Keita’s vocals root it firmly in Africa. Strangely there is no mention of Kanté Manfila on the record but he was, to my knowledge, still the band’s leader despite the rivalry with Keita.

For detailed information on Les Ambassadeurs and Rail Band‘s connections please see the valuable resource here.

Record Details:

Les Ambassadeurs Internationaux – Djougouya (1982?) – AS Records (AS 008)

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Music for the Soul

Mali has long been revelled for its music and it does produce some of African’s most glorious and complex. The main musical influence comes from the Mande people, who make up half of the population and are spread throughout a large proportion of West Africa, from Senegal to Ghana.

There is a oral tradition in Mali, known as Griot, where musicians, or other oral historians such as a writers and poets, are responsible for preserving, as well as, passing on history and documenting current events. The role is an important one in society, with the tradition often being kept within the family, and passed down from father to son. The Mande people produced some of the best known music incorporating traditional African instruments, such as the Kora and the Balfon, into popular music.

Today’s selection is from two musicians that remarkably only collaborated once on an album in the mid-eighties. Mamadi Diabaté was a Malian singer and guitarist, who initially worked as a tailor in Bamako, before embarking on a short music career, recording only two albums. The later of these two albums was made with Manfila Kanté, the legendary Guinean guitarist, who formed Les Ambassadeurs, who were later joined by Salif Keita, the Rail Band vocalist. Quite a musical pedigree!

I would die a happy man listening to Kanté’s guitar on Iye Iye; I just don’t want the break to ever end. This is certainly heavenly stuff, and with Diabaté’s vocals it becomes a spiritual experience.

If you are not moved by this you probably have no soul!

Record Details:

Mamadi Diabaté et les Ambassadeurs – A Pas de Géant (1985) – Kaba Disques (KAB 8201)

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A Chance to Shine

Today we stay in East Africa. Ethiopia to be precise. The birth place of humanity, according to scientists and archaeologists, where some of the earliest human remains have been found. The country is certainly soaked in history, culture and legend, and the music draws upon this, having an awe inspiring primordial quality.

It is claimed the Ark of the Covenant is hidden in Axum, in the north of Ethiopia but has never been seen as it is stored in a treasury and guarded by priests. I never made it up to Axum on my trip but I did visit Gondar, which is slightly further south.  Here I visited the small Debre Birhan Selassie Church, which was built specifically to house the Ark. Many years were spent painting the amazing frescoes (see the banner to my blog) only for the Ark to never arrive as Axum was a preferred resting place!

Let’s move on to a musical legend, Mahoud Ahmed, who started working as a shoe shine boy on the streets of Addis Ababa before working as a handyman at the Arizona club, which was where the legendary band of Emperor Haile Selassie I, Imperial Body Guard Band played. The story goes that Mahoud used to listen to the band playing whilst he worked. One day when the singer was unavailable to rehearse with the band Mahmoud filled in and shortly after became a regular in the band. Quite a step up, becoming the front man in one of the biggest bands in the country.

The song posted today is the first he released on his own label, Mahmoud Records, shortly before Haile Selassise’s clamp down on certain freedoms following the Marxist Derg staged a coup d’état in September 1974. This meant music was forced underground. Yalem Baytewarnegn (spelling differs on the label and the sleeve), is sparse and raw, with Mahmoud’s soaring vocals, and backing coming from the incredible Dahlack Band, providing guitar, rough percussion and incredible horns.

I pick myself off the floor each time I hear this. It hits hard!

I am working on getting a translation of the Amharic of the song, so will post any updates here.

Record Details:

Mahmoud Ahmed – Yealem Baytewar Negne / Tidar Lenuroachin (1974) – Mahmoud Records (MA-1)

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Tasty Music

“…the silent wilderness surrounding this clear speck on the earth struck me as something great and invincible, like evil and truth…”
Joseph Conrad – Heart of Darkness

When I think of the Congo several things come to mind: the great river, the early exploration into Africa, humanity’s capacity for evil, as shown in Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, and more recently the bloody conflict that has raged for over twenty years, claiming over five million lives. The danger with these western stereotypes, as Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian writer, famously said in his 1975 lecture An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”, is Africa becomes “the other world”; it is dehumanised and ends up “a foil to Europe”. Achebe is a great humanist and I urge everyone to read Things Fall Apart to get another perspective of colonialism in Africa.

The intention of this blog is to document the rich music of Africa, however, with D.R. Congo it is hard not to digress. The history of this Central African country is complex, fascinating and heartbreaking. From the arrival of the Victorian explorers like Henry Morton Stanley and David Livingstone, to the unashamed and uncompromising ambitions of the Belgian monarch Leopold II, through to the present day civil war, Congo’s history warrants common knowledge. Sadly it has become the West’s dirty secret.

Back to the music, which is obviously a great way to humanise. Today’s selection is from a Congolese band based and recording predominately in Kenya. Orchestre Les Noirs were founded by Chuza Kabasellah who was born in Kasai, D.R. Congo. The band reformed with different personnel and were renamed several times with similar variations of their name. The track Sikiya Sauce is typical Soukous, Lingala, if you are from Uganda or Tanzania, and Rumba in Zambia and Zimbabwe; music does not recognise borders.

Sikiya comes from the East African language of Kishwahli, which has a large presence in Central Africa, particularly in Lumbumbashi, D.R. Congo. Sikia means to listen, feel or even taste (hence the connection to sauce). The rough, but very apt, translation is therefore listen to the delicious tasting music. The word sikiya is suitably peppered throughout Central and East African music.

Season well and enjoy both sides of this single.

Many thanks to the wonderful site, MUZIKIFAN, that provided the background information on Orchestre les Noirs, as well as other Congolese bands in Kenya here.

Record Details:

Orchestre Les Noirs – Sikiya Sauce Part 1 & 2 (1972) – EMI/Pathé (2C 006-15.234M)

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Take Time

Last post I chose a deep track by Vis a Vis, which I hope was enjoyable. Today I want to show the diversity of Highlife as a style. Despite both tracks coming from Ghana and being classed as Highlife they are very different in sound but still contain all the essential ingredients, that when mixed together, make a very tasty dish; the arpeggiated guitars and driving percussion that force you to jump up and dance.

Okukuseku International Band of Ghana & Chief Sammy Kofi provide the infectious sounds today. This was the first African record I bought and is Ghanaian music at its most vibrant, like the Ghanaians, it encompasses a love of life that cannot help but move you and your feet.

Sammy Kofi is a popular legend within Ghana and set up several other bands, E.K Nyame No.1 Band and Dr. K. Gyasi’s Noble Kings, before Okukuseku. His vocals and belly laughter on this track really move things along nicely, the message is to Take Time for your life, forget about tomorrow and everything will be fine.

A very good outlook on life, especially for Monday, we all would do well to follow!

Record Details:

Okukuseku International Band of Ghana (Led by Chief Sammy Kofi) – Take Time (1982) – Roger All Stars (RASLPS 030)

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Highlife Time!

Now comes the time to get deep and serious. Ghanaian Highlife was my starting point into African music and probably still is what I consider the pinicle of all the African music I have heard. It blends African rhythms with Jazz, that was brought to Ghana, by early sailors and traders.

As I mentioned in my first post I was blown away by a compilation put out by Soundway Records, called Ghana Special, which was what started this love affair. The labels creator, Miles Cleret, put out the record, plus two others, Ghana Soundz 1 & 2, after a trip he made to Ghana, deciding to create Soundway to make compilations of all the records he found during this trip. These compilations are highly recommended and  were for me a great introduction to Ghanaian music.

After hearing the records and in particular a track by K. Frimpong, plus reading a lot about the country, I decided to book myself a 3 week trip to Ghana. One of my fondest memories of that trip was drinking Guiness and listening to these records on a 6 hour bus journey from the capital, Accra, to Hohe in the Volta region. It was a great trip and my first step into Africa, so I will always remember it happily.

The song featured in today’s post is by a band that played regularly with K Frimpong called Vis a Vis. The song is deep, melancholy, and the synth is trademark Vis a Vis. The cover is great too, in typical two colour style of many of the LPs of the time.

Grab a beer, sit back and enjoy!

Record Details:

Vis a Vis – Highlife Time, Owo Bieya (197?) – A.D. Records (XLP004)

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Troubled Islands

One of the main reasons I like African music is the huge variety of styles it consists of and the way they trace the history of the continent and all the outside influences. It is possible to see trade routes, the arrival of colonial powers, the gain of independence, and national crises in the music. This is particularly evident in Cape Verde, a small group of a dozen islands 350 miles off the coast of Senegal.

Cape Verde has a terrible past, with the islands being central in the transatlantic slave trade as a stopping off point on the way to the the New World. Tough economic times during and after independence from Portugal in 1990, meant that many of the population moved away and there is now more Cape Verdeans living abroad than on the islands.

There is a strong Latin sound to the music, with Morna, made world famous by Cesária Évora, and Coladeira the dominant styles. I first heard this wonderful music in a small Cape Verdean restaurant in a small back street in Lisbon, whilst eating Canja de Gahlinha (Spicy Chicken Stew). The music is extremely danceable but tinged with sadness.

My selection is from the giant (he was over 7ft) of Cape Verdean Morna, Bana. I have a chosen a Coladeira off an early eighties album. Try to get that piano hook out of your head!

Record Details:

Bana – Solidão (198?) – Monte Cara (DMC 111 135)

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This is the first word I heard when I arrived in Ghana and Africa. It means “Welcome” and fittingly it is the first word I give you as I start my new blog, which I aim to update regularly, documenting my travels through African music.

Ghanaian Highlife was my first real taste of African music, specifically the tracks compiled by Soundway Records on Ghana Special; in short it blew me away and is the reason I booked a flight for Ghana at Easter in 2011. Anyway, that is another story that I am sure I will cover in the future.

Where better to start a blog on the music of the Dark Continent, as labelled by the early Victorian explorers, than with Nigeria and Africa’s best known musician, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, who single-handedly brought African music to the world’s attention, blending Highlife, Rock, Jazz and Funk into a new sound that, although he questioned the term, came to be known as Afrobeat. Fela’s influence cannot be disputed and can clearly be seen in the dozens of imitators as well as the legacy left by his bands –  Africa 70 and Egypt 80.

The first Fela record I got was Black President and it finds him in a particularly Jazzy mood with sax solos dominating most of the album. That is not to say that the elements of Afrobeat are not there, they are, just slightly toned down – subtle West African guitar, driving drums and percussion, and repetitious call and response vocals. The major theme of the album is the purging of Africa’s land and economy by the world. Fela shows no restraint, calling them “Motherfuckers, bastard motherfuckers” (I.T.T. (International Thief Thief)).

On a side note, the incredible keyboards on I.T.T. are by, a then eighteen year old, Dele Sosimi, who later left the Egypt 80 with Fela’s son Femi to form Femi Anikulapo-Kuti and the Positive Force and later his own band, Dele Sosimi Afrobeat Orchestra. The latter band play the Afriganza Festival at the Blind Tiger in Brighton on 16th March and are well worth checking out.

Record Details:

Fela Kuti – Black President (1981) – ARISTA (SPART 1167)