(by Dave Hucker, "Hey, Mr. Music" column, The Beat magazine, Volume 21, Number 1, 2002)
I have noticed recently that there have been a lot of less--than-interesting revivalist com--pilations put out in the name of Afro-funk, Afro-beat, Afro-delia, Afro-dis, Afro-dat. Please close the door afro you go through it.
However there is one real absolute total 100% flawless gem among the accumulated Afro detritus blowing in the wind. Afro Rock Vol. 1 (Kona) is its title and it does rock, very seriously. It is certainly not the output of some dingbat dj with a goatee, square glasses and baggy trousers, but the work of a man who has actually paid his dues in Africa. It is the result of a lot of hard work and effort by Duncan Brooker, a white English guy. A vinyl fanatic from 13, he was 16 when he stumbled into African music the same way many of us did, via Fela Kuti.
When he was 19 in 1994, he got a job as a runner/driver/dogsbody for news agency Reuters. He traveled extensively following the stories. This eventually took him to Nairobi, where after the job he was involved in had finished, he jumped ship and begged a job with a top Kenyan news agency. Spending six months there Duncan commented that he was "Fetching and carrying, flying, driving and bussing around East Africa: Zaire, Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Zambia, I'd be sent up to the borders of Ethiopia to pick up people and tapes. When I wasn't working and sometimes when I was, I'd be looking for records."
Over the following seven years, he went back to Africa on record--hunting safaris every winter. He managed to accumulate a vast number (20,000+) lps and singles, quite a feat given the harsh and dusty conditions of Africa and its vinyl-destroying capabilities. Not only did he find these records in the markets, in boxes sitting in direct sunlight on the ground, but in one case he was "looking for somewhere to stay in Dar es Salaam, checking out the hotel room which was cheap, but not nice and I was not sure whether to take it. I noticed a pile of records covered in dust stacked on the wardrobe. I took the room and when I left took some of the records with me."
He even fell ill while sifting through the18,000 slabs of vinyl that were covered in a 20-year-old six-inch-deep crud in the upstairs room of Melodica Records, a shop at a dusty crossroads in Nairobi run by a early top figure in Kenyan music, Abdul Karin.
Duncan began to rediscover some of the seminal East African bands of the '70s like Air Fiesta Matata, as well as unearthing stunning pearls from other parts of Africa that had been popular 35 years ago. Not content with just the vinyl, and on a very personal mission to save this music and reintroduce it into the wild, Duncan has over many years tracked down the artists, producers and master tapes sometimes found stored in a chicken shed covered in guano.
Some tracks on this groundbreaking compilation were only ever available on cassette, some were never released, like "Yuda" by Dackin Dackino, a real weird West African curious obscurity mix-up. Recorded in Zaire in 1974, it is most certainly Congo Afro-beat. A pro-Africa, pro-Mobutu storyline jostles with an Afro-beat-ish groove, while a jazzy sax wails away.
Duncan is instrumental in not only rescuing the remaining records, but he has plans to bring some of the musicians out of the obscurity to which they had retreated. And very good luck to him, because Afro Rock Vol. 1 is a stunning compilation of really genuinely great tracks; there are no fillers here. It is ram--packed full of really obscure music from a number of groups that time seems to have forgotten about, if it ever knew about them in the first place, and also from countries that recently have not gotten much of a mention. For example, old Nigeria is hip at the moment, Mali is pretty hot for the modern roots. As always, Senegal is interesting. But Kenya? Sierra Leone or Ghana? Afro Rock Vol. 1 is an intelligent and caring compilation and Duncan has volumes two and three lined up and ready to go. But before that let us run down the tracks on volume one.
First up is an exceedingly rare Kenyan track from 1974; Ishmael Jingo's "Fever." Previously only available as a single, it is heard here in its complete and unabridged form. A drum break opens up proceedings and the track bumps into a slice of pretty heavy Afro-funk that shuffles along with a bouncy 6/8 time and great horns.
Sierre Leonian Geraldo Pino whips out a mid-'60s slice of Afro--soul with "Heavy Heavy Heavy." This stormer features a rampant wah-wah guitar and swirling Hammond organ swimming around in a real-er-heavy rhythm. Steele Beauttah is one of the stars of this compilation, the singer with seminal Kenyan band Air Fiesta Matata. The track featured here, "Africa," gallops along at good clip with a distinct Afrobeat style. A guitar break freaks out, Steele grunts and the backing singers intone. Recorded in 1978, this is a fine workout.
The Mercury Dance band gives us "Envy No Good," a ditty that sounds like it has been inoculated with a strong dose of Fela Kuti. Next up is the aforementioned Congo-Afrobeat groove by Dackino, and yes, it really is a curiosity, a 12-minute rarity with a thundering rhythm, wild breaks, a flying cymbal, fantastic ringing guitar and a soprano sax which freaks out. A killer cut.
Ghanaian K. Frimpong and his Cubano Fiestas bring us "Kyenkyen Bi Adi M'awu." This is a totally monster track. Sly Dunbar would have been proud of the drummer's rim technique as he clacks out its rock-solid metallic tack-tack-tack, tack- tack. The Farfisa organ is absolutely gut-grabbing in its flowing rinky-dinkness. Sixties jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan would have been very happy to have played the trumpet here. In fact the playing is very jazzy throughout, a ethereal flute floats through the sound, a whacked-out George Benson guitar style picks its way through the almost--reggae-like rhythm. The vocals power out in a totally soulful fabbo intensity with a beautiful melody. A true genius track.
Orchestra Lissanga is another Congo combo. Very little is known about the track featured here, "Okuzua." But it starts with fuzzy guitar and a amplifier buzzing away in the background. Rough, tough, distorted sound with a impassioned Afrobeat vocal and scorching horns. Great stuff. From 1972 comes Super Mambo 69, another Congolese group and their "Sweeper Soul," which ferries you immediately to the heart of African soul. This was evidently the B side of their "Hot Pants" 45, and this is what Wilson Pickett would have recorded if he had been born in Kinshasa. On "Mabala," the Yahoos of Kenya swiftly whip on a nutty instrumental with early electronic "space" sound effects swooping over a kicking tenor sax-led groove.
From Ghana in 1974 the Bokoor Band give us "Onukpa Shawarpo" where a crisp rhythm guitar lays down a foundation for the harmonica playing of group leader (and noted musicologist) John Collins. Harmonica? When was the last time you heard a lead harmonica? Things are brought to a rousing conclusion by "Pem Dwe" from Nkansah and Yaanom. Nkansah was a former member of the African Brothers. Dating from 1975, this is in the same vein as Count Prince Miller's cut of "Mule Train." Mad, crazy and bad. People have forgotten how to play nutty guitar like this.
Afro Rock Vol. 1 is one of those really important compilations that occasionally comes along. Full marks to Duncan Brooker and we should say a big thank you to him for personally saving this groovy music from the dust and the chicken shit. [E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org ; www.dmi records.com ]
Senegambian vocalist Laba Sosseh has taken time off from guesting with Africando to record an outstanding solo effort. El Maestro: 40 Ans de Salsa (Africa Productions) is a real stonker and three-quarters, certainly one of the best modern Senegalese salsa releases that has passed my way in many a day. It has a very pure, almost non-electric sound: the only electric instruments are the piano and the keyboard-generated violins. And the guitar as well, but then I do not really classify an electric guitar as an electric instrument. Curious distinction that! But everything else is "real." A real bass, percussion, flute, sax and fantastically subtle tama from Assane Thiam. All these elements bubble together to create a real winning organic sound. When totaling up the points it's also worth awarding a few extra to the backing vocals, which are mixed just a close breath behind the lead: Maguette Dione and Amy Ndiaye contribute a fantastic female soulful edge.
El Maestro: 40 Ans de Salsa has a whole raft of great songs. You may recognize melody lines here from other songs both in the history of Latin music and Senegalese music, but so what? That's the way it works in most of the musical forms, they frequently refer back to the old-time music and the classics of the style, then just recycle it. What is important is this actually is a recording of Senegalese music which may sound melodically Latin but it is rhythmically Senegalese. Like the song "Sola" which is just so deeply Casamance with its central West Africa mixture, "Sola" is a straight-ahead salsa mbalax. And all the better for it. This track is total stunner. It may be a fairly slow jam, but the tama is superb. "Diokma Sa Loxo" has great hypnotic piano bouncing along with subtle guitar and background vocals that are really mega knee-tremblers.
"Maricosa" has sweet vocal melody and sawing charanga style violins. "San Luis" is a reworking of "Mi Linda Guajira," a slow groove par excellence with a lovely flute. "Sitiera" is another standout track that seems to segue into Machito's '50s classic "Sopa del Pinchon." Things are topped out by a gallant version of "El Manicero" ("The Peanut Vendor"). Top notch, not to be ignored, well worth a visit. Five-star leather-lined luxury. Dakar Punto Final as Johnny Pacheco said in 1967. All through this release the sound is spot- on fab, everything in the right place at the right time and what a great voice Laba Sosseh has. It is getting quite gravely these days.
Haila Mompié, ex-Bamboleo co-warbler, is now, it seems, ex-Azucar Negra as well. The hot news from the streets of Havana is that Haila is no longer with Azucar Negra either. Surely this must be one of the fastest turnarounds in many a moon. Azucar Negra produced one of the best releases of the year with their debut Andar Andando (Bis). But Haila has obviously moved on quickly: She has a very interesting solo hit pick out at the moment. Her A Tribute to Celia Cruz (Bis) runs through the Celia Cruz roster of hits. Frequently in the hands of lesser mortals you find "tributes" to great artists are at best patchy and at worst do not work at all. This release actually contributes to, not detracts from Celia Cruz's canon of work. Celia's voice is deep and almost male in its roughness when necessary, then sweet and powerful female when it is needed. The great classic songs she recorded have filtered up to the top. They were culled from the best songwriters, played by the best musicians and arranged by the best arrangers. Celia's best recordings were from the '50s with Sonora Matancera, then right through to the Fania label in the early '80s with Johnny Pacheco and Willie Colon. Although still performing, these days she is well past her peak; her voice not as strong or vibrant as it used to be.
But Haila's voice is not like Celia's: Though highly rated and considered as one of the best new Cuban singers, Haila's vocal range is more limited. She can hit the middle range fantasically, but the low growls and tops? Well no, not yet. There is absolutely no point in her trying to out-Celia Celia. You cannot outdo a unique voice. One of many killer points about Bamboleo was the lead vocals, which in the hands of Haila and Vannia Borges managed to give a really well-rounded vocal sound, very deep in texture with low and high harmonies. But that was two women singing, whereas there is only one Celia Cruz.
Off this album there are a number of great versions of the classic tracks. Issac Delgado is the producer and musical director. On this release there are a whole raft of male vocalists falling over themselves to sing with Haila, like Paulo FG who duets on "Nadie se Salve de la Rumba" and Mayito Rivera who shines on "Me Voy Contigo," which is one of the most interesting reworkings, as he spars with Haila over a very jazzy arrangement. Throughout this great release NG La Banda's Jose Luis Cortes contributes some stunning arrangements and flute. "Quimbara" is another great stonking cut, the arrangement and flute come from Cortes. This track features a rattling quinto de cajon (box drum) from Jesus Alfonso of Munequitos de Matanzas. So all in all a great solo effort from Haila. She certainly is making the right moves and getting the attention. Quite rightly so. Whether or not she is the very best female vocalist in Cuba, well that's an argument for one of those nights crowded round the bar.
Palop Africa (Earthworks/Stern's) is a real interesting compilation taken from the Portuguese-speaking countries. Guinea Bissau is the first country featured with a smooth groove from Manecas Costa. Angola presents us with a couple of swinging songs from Paulo Flores. From Cape Verde Buis and Sema Lopi provide us with a trio of strong tracks, especially "Cabra Preta" with its slightly reggae-ish groove and nice accordion. Mozam-bique springs a jumpy little mover on us with G. Mario Ntimana's "Avana Vanguvale," and São Tomé gives Africa Negra's "Ple Can." Certainly worth checking out, this compilation is full of very subtle, but still kicking music.
They have done it again. Personally I don't blame them. They are only doing their job, which is to agitate me with totally fantastic music. I accuse the Soul Jazz label and compiler Mark Ainley of bringing out another superb compilation, Studio One Roots. This radical Afrocentric outing is full to the brim with a mixture of stone classics like Willie Williams' "Addis A Baba," Lennie Hibbert's "More Creation," Horsemouth Wal-lace's "Far Beyond," Devon Russell's "Drum Song," Zoot Simms' "African Challenge," the Gaylads' "Africa" and Freddie McGregor's "Africa Here I Come," as well as gallons and gallons of totally rare stuff. For example, Bunnie and Skitter's "Lumumba" is worth the price of this cd and double vinyl release on its own. Not to mention things like Sound Dimension's "Congo Rock," a wild cut that was only ever available on a white-label pressing. All I can say is let them eat roots.
Copyright 2002 Dave Hucker