Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Review: Samba Mapangala - Maisha Ni Matamu

Longtime favorite singer Samba Mapangala recently unleashed a killer new album with a fortified Orchestra Virunga. Maisha Ni Matamu (Life is Sweet) covers broad sonic territory, including reggae and other Caribbean influences, but the bedrock Congolese rumbas are, and have been for decades, the band's foundation. Mapangala's Congo roots are enhanced on this release with crucial contributions from guitarists Popolipo, Syran Mbenza, and Huit Kilos, and Komba Bello Mafwala on drums.

The opening title track is straightforward soukous that will fill any dance floor, while the acoustic "Tupendane" is at the other end of the spectrum, a gently swinging, acoustic appeal for harmony among people everywhere. "Tupendane" features John Bashengazi, a musician from the Eastern Congo who plays all of the instruments and sings along with Samba. Other songs range from celebrations to exhortations to care for the environment and each other. "Tupende Miti (Let's Plant Trees)" offers its wisdom in multiple languages, giving a tribute to Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan Nobel Prize winner responsible for widespread reforestation in her country and beyond.

Mapangala has been based in the U.S. for years, but he built his career in Kenya after leaving the Congo. Doug Paterson has a good biography and appreciation here. His many recordings always feature wonderful guitar and his emblematic singing. While this record captures the veteran in good form and the production sounds first-rate, there are no nine-minute rumba classics comparable to those that kept Mapangala at the peak of popularity in East Africa for decades. He is more worldly now, and so is his music, and that is a mixed blessing for this listener

I was going to post an audio snippet of "Maisha Ni Matamu," but found this fun video that has the whole song, with the gentleman trying to keep up with the young women, on the cold streets of NY. I thought: Enjoy!

P.S. I've decided to start including reviews of new releases on this site, reviving in this format my earlier activity with The Beat magazine. I'll sprinkle them among the sharing posts, looking a bit different; I hope you find them useful. Maisha Ni Matamu (Life is Sweet) can be purchased for download at CDBaby, Amazon and iTunes, if a low bit rate is okay for your ears. Full-bandwidth CDs can be found here or here.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Equators - Hot (1981)

During a hot summer in a year of personal transition, I went into Detroit with my friend Peter, to a small club where we had heard that a ska band was playing. It was 1981 and the club scene in Ann Arbor was new wave, punk and, rarely, reggae, so a ska band promised something different, a link to The Specials, The Selector and Madness, who had been residing on our turntables. I remember the club as dark and fairly empty, but I also remember dancing like crazy to music that was ska with a new wave edge. I bought an album from the band: The Equators.

The Equators were one of the second wave of ska that blossomed in Britain, decades after the ska originators moved on to rock steady and reggae in Jamaica. The bands mentioned above spearheaded the 2 Tone movement, and it is a mystery to me why this band did not achieve the same fame and following. A cynic might speculate that there wasn't enough white to make it into 2 Tone, but more likely the label (Stiff) failed to promote the band. Or this record: I never saw it in a record store.

Too bad, because this is one of the best, if not The Best, record of the 2 Tone era. Led by three Bailey brothers from Birmingham, a first British generation from Jamaican immigrants, the band was really tight and rocking. The two lead-off songs, "Rescue Me" and "Age of 5," are among the strongest, but the instrumental "Rankin' Discipline" absolutely kicks. The album exhibits solid musicianship from beginning to end. It's been grey, cool and wet where I live, for too long, and this music is an antidote for me, as it was thirty years ago when life was gloomy.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Jocelyn Béroard - Siwo (1986)

The cross-fertilization of music between Africa and the Caribbean is fascinating, and it has had profound, evolutionary impacts on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. The most obvious example, of course, is how the mutated African musics of Cuba provided the foundation for the development of most modern African pop. Another example is zouk that developed in Martinique and Guadeloupe, an infectious music created deliberately by fusing African and French Caribbean styles.

Kassav is the dominant zouk band, filled with wonderfully talented musicians including Jacob Desvarieux, Georges Decimus, Jean-Philippe Marthély and Jean-Claude Naimro. In the mid to late 80s, its influence extended beyond its Caribbean home and Paris base to Africa and around the world. Several members of the band participated in diverse recordings, including the M'Pongo Love album posted below.

Jocelyn Béroard has been Kassav's charismatic vocalist since the beginning. This album caught the band in great form, and I liked it before even listening to it! In fact, it has been my favorite Kassav record. Please excuse some surface noise; I played it often, back in the day. Put it on for dancing this weekend!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

M'Pongo Love et Alexandre Sambat - Exclusivite

Inspired by the great post on dialAfrica, with M'pongo Love's first record, here is one of her last recordings, a collaboration with Gabon's Alexandre Sambat. M'pongo (Landu) Love had an ephemeral career full of promise that was cut short by a fatal disease at the age of 34.

Compared to her early recordings, made as a very young woman, the songs on this album are radically more produced, utilizing state-of-the-art technology and a stable of excellent musicians. The one brilliant thread that connects this album to earlier works is M'pongo's wonderful singing. She excels with her two songs on this short record, and on the opening Sambat composition "Mbecka," which is choice. Yet even her sweet voice cannot save the insipid, thankfully short, "Hymne a la Paix." Maybe you enjoy hymns more than I do?
Enjoy sometime soon!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Zaiko Langa-Langa - Subissez Les Consequences (1987)

What better way to book-end my last post than with this Zaïko Langa-Langa album from the same year, presumably with a very similar line-up of personnel? Presumably because nobody in the band is listed on this album sleeve. I hate it when musicians are not acknowledged for their fine work!

Filled with great guitars, percussion and singing, and typical fiery sebenes, this album will heat up your weekend. The first song, by Bimi Ombale, is excellent. However, it will not heat my house this winter, and I am fairly occupied stockpiling firewood these weeks. My slow posting pace should pick up when the cold sets in, all too soon. Meanwhile, snack on this:
Enjoy sometime soon!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Dindo Yogo - Apres Leurs Tournées de Tokyo-Paris-Kinshasa (1987)

Dindo Yogo was a singer and composer who passed through Viva La Musica and Langa Langa Stars, before settling into Zaiko Langa Langa for his longest band tenure. During his career, ended early at the age of 44 in 2000, he also produced several solo recordings. This album from 1987 captures a full, rollicking Zaiko sound, powered by that band's great guitarists, Popolipo and Petit Poisson.

Strangely, each side of this record begins, abruptly, with the extended sebene of last song on the other side. I was tempted to fuse them onto the proper songs, but left them as they were. "Souviens-Toi" is the best song on the album, but it is all fine listening.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Teta Lando - Menina de Angola (1990)

I've been listening to Angolan music a lot lately, and I devoted my radio show to it this week. Unfortunately I did not have this record available yet, for it has several tasty songs. Teta Lando was an important figure in Angolan music history who caused national mourning when he died in 2008. His long career included activism and leadership of the National Musicians and Composers Union.

This album swings between semba and a couple of slower songs full of suadade. It's interesting how influential Portuguese fado was in that country's African colonies. While the guitars and percussion are nice throughout, and the keyboards are mostly tasteful, it is Teta Lando's expressive singing that hooks you in this relatively short recording.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Basil 'Manenberg' Coetzee & Lionel Pillay - Plum and Cherry (1979)

Basil Coetzee acquired his nickname, 'Manenberg,' from his masterful performance in a wonderful collaboration with Dollar Brand (Abdullah Ibrahim) in 1974. Coetzee remained in South Africa through the long years of apartheid, while many of colleagues in the SA jazz community fled repression to Europe and elsewhere. A good summary of Coetzee's career is here.

This album followed the seminal "Manenberg - Cape Town Fringe" by five years, and Coetzee's exuberant, joyful sax in that performance had become much more soulful in the rendition of Dollar Brand's "Cherry" that fills all 25 minutes of side one.

While Basil Coetzee achieved fame, if not fortune, for his musical efforts, pianist Lionel Pillay received neither. Although he spent years as a session musician, contributing to great recordings like Winston Mankunku's "Yakhal' Inkomo," and, as Lionel Martin, with the South African Broadcasting Corporation, Pillay died in obscurity.

This obscure album is really Pillay's opus, with two extended songs featuring his improvisations on piano, electric piano and organ. While Coetzee's sax flows through much of "Cherry," it is absent altogether on the flip side, filled by Pillay's "Plum." Throughout the album both Rod Clark, on drums and percussion, and bassist Charles Johnstone set down wicked, prolonged rhythms. Pillay samples "Manenberg" in "Plum," but much of the song rocks with disco or even house overtones. Pillay is brilliant on any keyboard he touches, on this unique recording.