(by Dave Hucker, from The Beat, Vol. 27, No. 2, 2008)
“A kinda of punky highlife zouk Congo makossa reggae melange.”
I looked into the eyes of the person speaking and they were far away. As was the period in which we were talking— the mid-1980s. He was describing a band he had seen in the Ivory Coast that amalgamated a mix of the best and hippest current modern African and Caribbean music with a European element.
Many terrible attempts at such concoctions were foisted on a gullible public by various charlatans and misguided A&R persons. But despite that there have been many genuine distinctively homogenized Caribbean and African musics that have naturally developed and in some cases flowered. New sounds came together and mixed just like languages have. Language is just as malleable an object as a piece of hot metal is in the hands of a blacksmith or music in a musician.
Nigeria Special 1970-76 (Soundway) is subtitled Modern Highlife, Afro Sounds and Nigerian Blues 1970-6. It is yet another top-notch collection of music and a voyage of discovery from Soundway bigwig Miles Cleret. There is so much great, rare and amazing music on this release it is spread out over two cds. Also there is an extraordinarily deep booklet full of information about the musicians and the history of the music, along with copious pictures of the artists and lp covers.
Disc one starts with a Nigerian blues from the Anambra Beats which I agree is blues and I would also say cutting-edge early-’70s highlife, so I’m not complaining. It is followed by “Okanwukwe Na Nchekwube” by Celestine Ukwu and His Philosophers National, an exquisite song that takes a very gentle journey and features a haunting steel pedal guitar and absolutely beautiful vocals from Celestine himself.
“Soul Makossa” was one of the great defining templates of West African music. “Amalinja” by the Don Isaac Ezekiel Combination has a tinge of it. This group was formed by three members of Fela’s highlife band. The Funkees provide a 1973 bass-heavy organ funk-fest groove that easily could have come from 15 years later. Dele Ojo and His Star Brothers Band and the Harbours Band from Port Harcourt present old-style slinky highlife.
One of the best names for a group I’ve come across for a long time is the Semi Colon. “Nekwaha Semi Colon” is another funky Soul Makossa-type trip that just about makes it as far as James Brown. “Osalobua Rekpama” is an almost-Congo sounding effort from the great Sir Victor Uwaifo. Great vocal melody, possibly Latin, certainly sounding like there are Latin horns in there. So really we should add Cuban to the mix of the time. St. Augustine and His Rovers Dance Band give a sublime slice of trad highlife, while “Feso Jaiye” by the Sahara All Stars of Jos takes off in Afrojazz direction. Mono Mono was a popular band with the youth of Lagos and you can hear why: a touch of Al Green vocals in this gentle jazzy mover. Tunde Oyelana and the Benders give us a example of palm wine highlife. The only track ever recorded by the Tony Benson Sextet is presented here, “Ugali” is an Afro-jazz jam. Tony was the son of bandleader Bobby Benson.
Disc two starts off with a very serious offering from the Nigerian Police Force Band. Then Godwin Ezike and the Ambassadors provide an uptempo guitar- led highlife with sharp drums. Opotopo was a band led by Easy Kabaka Brown whose claim to fame was he taught Ebenezer Obey to play guitar. Their track “Belema” is definitely a Latin stormer similar to the efforts of Nigerian Latin exponent Tchico. Dan Satch and his Atomic 8 Dance Band bring another sort of Congoesque Latin madness with “Alabeke.” Madder than the rules allow these days. Popular Cooper and His All Beats Band sound sort of like ’60s U.S. star Bobby Bland’s big-band blues.
Collins Oke Elaiho and His Odoligie Nobles Dance Band is Western-sounding, as in the west of Nigeria, in close proximity to Benin. Bola Johnson and His Easy Life Top Beats is another very funky mad highlife a la JB’s Famous Flames. The Hykkers were a precursor to the Funkees, a lot more more Afro-rock than Afro-funk with a way outof-control fuzz and wah wah guitar. George Akaeze and His Augmented Hits’ “Business Before Pleasure” is a chunky Bo Diddley-style rhythm that is a real pleasure with shouted vocals that are—err—the business.
“Omo Yen Wu Mi” by Shadow Abraham with Mono Mono Friends is Shadow’s only recording ever. Sounding very modern with wild wild bass, it has great vocals, Farfisa organ and an all-purpose rhythmical nuttiness which add to this unique tune. Leo Fadaka and the Heroes’ “Black Sound” has a hard-edged scratch guitar and percussion breakdown. Who Leo actually is—is a mystery to everybody. As for Osayomore Joseph and the Creative 7: Joseph was a Benin City heartthrob with a fine wellcrafted piece of local Edo style. The end is nigh as Etubom Rex Williams finishes off this compilation with “Akpaisong,” a tale about an poisonous ant with a sting that bites above its size and weight. As a result of the bite, at the end Etubom takes the song down and down and down.
Nigeria Special is an important release not just because of the depth of the great music revealed and exposed here, but because it is presented with such love, attention to detail and encyclopedic sleeve notes. This release makes it audibly clear that when it wasn’t “A kinda of punky highlife zouk Congo makossa reggae melange” it was a funky Afrobeat highlife Congo mix. I love the names of the artists— Popular Cooper and His All Beats Band, Celestine Ukwu and His Philosophers National, Dan Satch and his Atomic 8 Dance Band. I wish today there were more groups mangling the language. Only pop groups seem to do it these days. Where is the Mazda Welders Danzon Band?
There is something to be said for global communications uniting areas previously not connected together. It is not often consciously done but things are ending up in the more or less the same place rhythmically and melody-wise. It’s not a modern trend either. It was happening before the concept of a pan- Caribbean/African sound. But what I want to know is in future what will the collectors be looking for in their trips into old musics? I’m sure we will not see caches of vinyls unearthed, because everything is available these days in different forms.
Standing out and strongly grabbing our attention is a recent incursion into modern Ghanaian “hiplife”— a mix of hip-hop and highlife. Black Stars: Ghana’s Hiplife Generation (Out Here) chronicles the point where the old melodies and tendencies have melted with the modern styles and the latest pidgin English. It is a well-chosen and tough selection that represents the best of the unique modern Ghana sound. Ghanaian music has always been finely crafted and had really pretty melodies and sweet riddims, and these modern efforts are no different. Just the constituent parts and influences are a bit different.
On this very filling compilation every cut has something to say. Standouts for me include “Modern Ghanaians” by King Ayisoba, “Do Something” by Batman Samini, Tony Harmony’s “My Body RMX,” the FBS Crew featuring Tinny with “Oldman Boogey RMX,” Ofori Amponsah has what I would call almost a champeta style with “Abelle,” while Afroganic’s “Yani” is a flute-led reed section over a pumping house-style rhythm. Sheriff Ghale is reggae, a music that is now so deeply embedded into the general Ghana musical makeup, which does fit in with the African/ pan-Caribbean mix-up. Black Stars is another quality release from Jay Routledge and his Out Here label.
Available on cd and double vinyl is African Scream Contest: Raw and Psychedelic Afro Sounds from Benin and Togo 70s (Analog Africa). This the result of Analog Africa’s owner Samy Ben Redjeb’s recent foray into this relatively unexplored slice of Benin and Togo music. Psychedelic? Yes. Holler and scream? Yes. Crazy, spaced-out guitars? Yes. Loads of hipsters and obscure bands wing-dinging through a period? Yes. On the edge? Yes. Cuts like “It’s A Vanity” by Gabo Brown with Orchestre Poly-Rythmo are destined for a new lease of life on the dance floor exceeding its previous lifetime. Every track is decidedly wild and somewhat out there. Again a previously neglected corner of music is exposed. And we are very happy about it, ecstatically happy, man.
You would expect no less from our own Martin Sinnock than to construct such a well-thought-out and finely honed look at classic Congolese for The Rough Guide to Congo Gold (World Music Network). Sam Mangwana’s “Chimurenga Zimbabwe” has an extra poignancy as at time of writing (mid- April) Robert Mugabe was fighting back. So it is probably time to go back to the original idea of the colonial war of freedom from oppressors, but now the oppressor is your own dictator who is well past his sell-by date and scrabbling to stay in power.
Last November I was in Panama, mainly on holiday exploring the fascinating isthmus. I have been a fan of Panamanian music since I became aware of its very distinctive nature. The music is like the country, a real melting pot. From Snr. Blades’ classic salsa to El General, Nando Boom and the birth of reggae espanol and thence reggaeton, Panama has always been on the cutting edge of Antillean music, but never got the respect for it.
Searching for recorded music in Panama City was not obvious or easy, if what you wanted was outside the mainstream. After asking around I was directed to Sophy Music in the north of the city. I was particularly looking for music from percussionist Francisco “Bush” Buckley‚ leader of Bush y Su Nuevo Sonido, a top salsa band from the 1960s to the ’80s. But there were no cds available, not even Lo Mejor de Bush y Nuevo Sonido Vols. One and Two‚ which are available here in England.
At Sophy, definitely the best shop for the widest range of music, they were very helpful but 90 percent of what they showed me I knew, didn’t want or already had. But I came away with a few goodies, Epoca de Oro Vol. Two (Z Musical) which was subtitled Combos Nacionales 1968-1971. This cd was plundered by the Soundway label for their recent Panamanian compilation. Grandes Orquestas Panamenas del Siglo
(Discos Tamayo) features music from 1951 to 1970. But best of all was Los Mozambiques with a 1974 release called Los Barco en la Bahia (Discos Tamayo). Vocalist Carlos Martinez has one of the most distinctive voices you will ever hear, it is very sweet, clear and pure. The songs frequently have that typical Panamanian calypso tinge which comes from the Trinidadians who went to work on the canal and have influenced Panama’s music.
Another element of the current pan-Caribbean sound that Panama is known for, alongside local reggaeton, is the equivalent of the modern T’n’T jump up style. Practitioners such as Mach and Daddy and Aldo Ranks give us a potent mixup with a hearty dose of creativity. This music exists in a point equidistant between North, Central and South Central America/Caribbean. Top man Aldo Ranks is particularly talented at creating and performing that pan- Caribbean champeta mix with a very original style, often with what sounds like a simple c&w storyline, but alongside wrecking riddims and tasty melodies that support the tightly constructed songs. His cd La Conquista (Panama Music/Universal) hardly has a dull cut on it.
Any of these Panamanian artists could go to Ghana, Cartagena or Havana and feel musically happy there and fit in with the local sound. Mach and Daddy—Martin and Pedro Machore—are total stars with lots of sabor and real quality tunes. They have a good-natured thick pan-Caribbean groove and humor. Generally they construct proper songs that are put together. “Llora Tu Penas” is based on Colombian oldster Fruko’s classic “El Preso,” it works totally. “Tanto Amor” has good lyrics, melody and hookline. On the evidence of their cd Desde Abajo (Universal) I see great things for them. If they hooked up with David Calzado from Cuba to record with Ghanaian musicians, then you could be on to something momentous. Kind of like a jump-up highlife reggae timba champeta mix. Something opposite to the failed meeting in Havana that created BVSC could happen and cement Cuba as a center of this pan-Caribbean musicality.
From the reggaeton tip is Danger Man’s Producto del Ghetto (Event Music) which between the violence goes for mixing in elements of cumbia. He had a minor hit in England with a song featuring Nicodemus. But the perils of setting yourself up as a Colon “bad boy” brought a premature end to his life with a hail of bullets in February.
I passed through Havana on my way to and from Panama and was disappointed to find the Casa de la Musica Centro was closed because of a building collapse next door (though it has now reopened). As one of the great cities of the world, Havana is always changing, in some ways it was much the same but as always there is something new. More mobile phones, expensive Japanese sports motorbikes (a first). Everybody on my flight into Havana from Panama seemed to have large amounts of electrical goods in their hand luggage, though recent relaxing of the rules of what you can buy means people will no longer have to travel abroad to buy white goods. At least they can buy such products— in Zimbabwe they have to travel abroad to buy staples of food stuffs like oil and maize.
Recent biggies for me from the island have been singer Tirso Duarte and Fin Del Juego (Envdia). This is top notch, rhythmically very thick with Tirso’s rough vocals swirling over the hard-edged music. The Cuban version of the pan-Caribbean sound has been developing for over 20 years and I have seen how it is actually working these days. Fin Del Juego is where the action is at the moment.
Los Van Van has been at the leading edge of modern Cuban music for 40 years. A dvd and double cd from them, Aqui el Que Baila Gana: El Concierto (Planet) is well shot and recorded last July at the Karl Marx Theater. It features guests like ex-LVV stars pianist Pupy and vocalist Pedrito “El Negro” Calvo. It shows us with great detail and gusto what a powerhouse of a band Van Van is and why they are one of the best groups in the world, not only just Cuba. Un-miss-able.
Colon 264, Se Fue Pa ‘L Africa (Envidia) is one of those really nicely off-the-wall ideas. Redo a load of classics of the charanga style in a modern way. Give the style a strong massage and swing and instill new life into tunes like Fajardo’s “Juaniquita,” Orquesta Novel’s “Salsa en Nueva York” and Arsenio Rodriguez’s “Fuego en el 23‚” (Not strictly a charanga but I’ll be happy with any version of this great song).
Puerto Rican salsa dura mavericks Descarga Boricua have a live recording of an all-star concert they did on home territory in PR. Salseando [Tierrason] is their 5th cd (which is also available as a DVD). I have reported on this band for many years and cannot fault them. This concert shows the band packed full of top guest Sonero’s like Adalberto Santiago, Herman Olivera, Ray de la Paz, Wichie Camacho and Tito Allen. Plus a smattering of guest musicians like Larry Harlow and Jimmy Bosch. It kicks hard from the word go and goes not give up. Wonderful stuff, highly reccomended.
Trombao [Cofrisi] is a solo album from bone player Ray Viera. He is a very busy musician playing with a wide range of top NY bands. For his solo effort he pulls out all the stops and pulls in all the usual suspects from Salsa Dura street. It has some great songs that have shown to be very dancer friendly. This release is strong, has quality and does not deserve to slip under the radar. So keep an eye out for Trombao you will not regret it.
Bogotá’s Sensacion Orquesta have a really nice release with El Professor [Changui]. It is hard and funky with a very crisp groovy edge. Everything is recoded live – no overdubbing. The songs are a collection of Salsa classics given new life by this swinging group. The only minus point being four tracks remixed to include the dreaded Reggaeton. But even these are well done and the Reggaeton elements are pretty minor.
On the big thump tip there are a couple of interesting goodies, first up is Vieux Farka Toure’s UFO’s Over Bamako Remixed.[Modiba]. Various dj bods do add some different textures to Vieux’s album.
But more interesting is Ska Cubano’s Ajico! The Remix Album [Casino sounds]. The nutty boys let well known and creative top notch djs and remixers loose with songs from their last album. It is a total success every track has something new to offer.
“Bobine” gets the Da Lata Brazillian wax that sounds almost Afrobeatish. “Malanga Ska” and “Chango” have Madrid’s DJ Floro unleashing a percussion led fury.
“Yiri Yiri Bon” lets Barcelona resident DJ Panko funk it up. Amir Arab twists “Tungarara” into a hippy trippy journey. “Cumbia en Do Menor” gets Spiritual South - “a future music innovator” to give a it funky backbeat. “Ay Caramba” allows someone called Milf to dub it up. “Istanbul (not Constantinople)” gives Max Pasham the chance to bouzouki it down. “Cachita” is given the treatment by Basque remixer Javi P3z. “No me Desesperes” is The Latin Sound System and Corin Pennington doing a reggae rework - mad in extremis. Londons’ Russ Jones and Roc Hunter joins together to create a multicultural shifting groove with “Oye Compay Juan”
Venezuleans Senorlobo & Pablo Sanchez unleash a spacy Cumbia dub with “Cocueteando” “Tabu” has Stratman aka Stratos Allmonos fuse a Greek/Indian kind of thing which has what the sleeve notes describe as “a troupe of tap dancing gerbils – or their electro sonic avatars”. The album is topped out by Brazillian star DJ Dolores mash up of “Chango”.
This is the best release Ska Cubano never made. Quite amazing stuff, a real contribution to music.
Talking of DJ Dolores his new cd 1 Real [Crammed Discs] is yet another one of his thumping masterpieces of pick’n’mix. There is never a dull moment musically as he rampages through the music of NE Brazil and further afield. He is one of the more talented constructors of modern music in today’s mixed up world. Very impressive indeed.
An England Story [Soul Jazz] is the labels latest excursion into Londons mc’s. This time from 1984 dancehall to current Grime. The title track sums it all up and this does link everything in with the urban poets via Roots Manurva and Papa Levi and a whole raft of classic’s tunes from the Capitals wordsmiths.
I have to quote Jakes & TC’s “Deep” not because of the violent nature of the onomatopoeic alliteration of a London linga that has almost disappeared, the intro to this track shows a linguistic dexterity which includes use of a Shakespearian term for a pubic hair wig!
But the whole style of London language has moved on, new influences from Africa to Central and Eastern Europe mean talking in a totally different way. You will not find the young Grimesters talking like their fathers and grandfathers; instead they shout Jafaikan at each other.
Before it hits a madcap Jungle groove “Deep” starts with a snare drum jazzily banging away. Quietly and menacing the vocals come in
“If you teef any of these teefin f*****g beatline. We will send round the most murkyous merkman from merkdome.
On Monday which is merkin day.
And we will f****n murk you; allright.
We’re not talking any normal swayback passion squeeze nice and easy ballet dancing lemon squeezy.
We’re talking murky.
We’re talking pea souper .
We’re talking fog dogless.”
It has certain ring to it, almost Dickensian?
Poetry has been making a comeback among all kind of people, I was at Translations at the Africa Centre in London‘s Covent Garden. This space had been the “official” Centre of African culture since the 50’s with a restaurant and music. It is closing to be redeveloped and I went to the closing night which was a poetry event involving a whole raft of Nigerian poets and musicians. But what interested me was the number of women of all ages, young and old who were interested in this version of the word. It gave me hope for the appreciation of language.