I've raved about the Sterns 18 disc collection of African music for some time. Amazingly they have been out of stock of this essential piece of kit since nearly the day it was issued, so I will start sharing a bit more that. Here tonight with excellent liner notes from the box are three discs of Central African music.
Central Africa has an incredibly diverse population. This multifaceted Africa, whose leading and most ancient community are the Bantu, is made up of a great variety of ethnic groups, present throughout the continent. In Cameroon, that ‘miniature Africa’, the Fang, the Beti, Bamileke, Bassa, Duala and Pygmy ethnic groups live alongside the Fula community, in a country that swears alleigance to both the French-speaking world and the Commonwealth. Across the border, in Chad, French and Arabic-the official languages-are livened up with over 100 other local dialects, including Gambai, Massa, Mbai and Tupuri.
Clearly then, there is no unbreachable border as far as music is concerned in stark contrast with the despotic advocates of enclosed cultural identities, artists are often instrumental in promoting African integration. On that score, they are very much ahead of politicians. Must Lokua Kanza, whose mother is Rwandan, choose between the sweet lullabies of Kigali or those of Kinshasa? Is Sam Mangwana a son of Angola or the DRC? In central Africa, time advances at a different pace for politicians and citizen-musicians, who must drift from one visa to the next, from one country to the next, to celebrate through song an idealized vision of a peaceful and united Africa. If human beings can’t travel, culture will!
The age-old African musical tradition is the main source of inspiration for contemporary production. Like the kora in western Africa, the mvet is far more than a mere instrument used to recount the epic of a valorous people. For the Fang community, the mvet—which has its roots in ancient Egypt—is an instrument with more than one string, simultaneously encompassing poetry, philosophy, history and the sciences.
Its cultural imprint can be traced across several countries from Cameroon to Equatorial Guinea and from Congo Brazzaville to Gabon. While for the Mandika, it is the epic of Emperor Sundiata Keita that the jeli or griot recounts, for the Fang community, the songs used to galvanize the troops trace the exodus of a warlike people who have conquered opposing tribes.
Central Africa has one of the continent’s widest ranges of instruments. Many of the wind, string and percussion instruments have existed for centuries and stood the test of time. These vestiges fo the poast, bearing witness to the African genius, accompany the polyphonic harmonies of a people sho celebrate each ritual of life with musical offerings. Flues, horns xylophones (sanza, likembe), zithers, musical bows and drums for the basis of musical creation. In the early 20th century, western instruments came into the picture and have since then shaped the structure of modern African music. At the time, guitars and phonographs were new to the continent. The Greek ship –owners in Africa played a large part in disseminating these sounds emanating from the four corners of the world. During the 30’s and 40’s, the launch of Radio Congo Belge in Leopoldville, Radio Congo in Brazzaville and Radio Duala in Cameroon had a great influence on artists, prompting them to write the most memorable pages in the book of central African music.
The incoming American, Caribbean and Ghanaian sounds proved a great inspiration for a whole new generation of artists. The legendary labels, Olympia (set up in 1939), Ngoma (1948), Opika (1950) and Esengo (1957) launched the careers of those who would come to be known as the founding fathers of modern Congo Basin music. This region in central Africa soon became, through the birth of rumba, the main purveyor of popular music throughout Africa. Joseph Kabasele’s African invented the famous Independance cha cha in 1960, Franco Luambo Makiadi established, with TPOK Jazz, the dogma of an African rumba that was set all the continent’s capitals ablaze. With his Afrisa International, Tabu Ley Rochereau fuelled this wildfire, while in Brazzaville, the band Les Bantous de la Capitale, founded as early as 1959 by musicians from both OK Jazz and African Jazz, embodied the spirit of this music. Other ensembles also bore the mark of this legacy, including Cobantu, Conga-Succes, Negro Succes, Trio Madjesi de Sosoliso, Les Masquisards and Bella Bella. Who can forget the magical guitar playing of Dr Nico or the warm voice of Wendo Kolosoy and his legendary performance of Marie Louise?
The creation of Zaiko Langa Langa in 1969 opened new prospects for the third movement in Congolese music—which has evolved and changed from one generation to the next—especially rumba. After Papa Wemba, Jossart Nyoka Longo, King Kester Emeneya’s Victoria Eleison came Koffi Olomide, Wenge Musica and Extra-Musica. Rumba, which had once been the guardian of the cultural values inherited from the Kingdom of Kongo, had taken on the status of background music. Some of the elders began to deplore the deterioration in the standard of song writing and yearned for a time when this genre was used to ask the real questions. It is important to remember that, at the time, artists were starting to travel. Abidjan wa the city of lights and stirred people’s imagination. Playing alongside Joseph Kabasele, a young Cameroonian saxophonist impressed everyone, and his name was Manu Dibango. He was in charge of arrangements on Independance Cha Cha in 1960, and on the song Bucheron (1970), a pan-African anthem and masterpiece by Franklin Boukaka, the murdered Congolese poet. In 1972, Soul Mokassa, the B-side to a song written for the African Cup of Nations, paved his way to international fame. In Cameroon the highlife of Ghanaian E.T. Mensah and the afro-beat of Fela were all the rage. People in the coastal suburbs of Douala lived their life to the sound of Mokassa. This genre was a catalyst for public jubilation thanks to the abilities of wonderful musicians: Lobe Rameau, Eitel Lobbo, Eppe Mbende, Francis Bebey, Manu Dibango, Ekambi Brilliant, Eboa Lotin, Sale John and Assiko.
|Tabu Ley Rochereau and other Congolese musicians at Paris Airport.|
In turn other artists with a strong sense of identity were starting to emerge. In Bamileke territory, Tala Andre Marie—from whom James Brown ‘borrowed’ Hot Koki and turned into the Hustle—popularized the genres of tchamasi and then ‘bend skin’. Sam Fan Tomas invented makkasi which people still dance to from Madagascar to the Antilles Islands; Toto Guillame captured the imagination of a whole generation with his sharp take on melody. For the Fang and the Beti, bikutsi artists passed on the ancestors’ torch accompanied by a furious beat. This music was a common feature of the linguistic and cultural spheres of Equatorial Guinea and Gabon. Therefore, it came as no surprise that the Equatoguinean Maele should sing in the same language as Gabonese moralist singer Hilarion Nguema, the author of a song about angry women Quand la femme se fache, which Cameroonian audiences could not get enough of. In this central African country, the standards in music halls were so high that a whole generation of Cameroonian bass players emerged. These were so talented, that for decades, the industry’s heavy weights have been desperate to get their hands on them. Jean Dikoto Mandingue played bass for Claude Francois, Vicky Edimo played for James Brown and Aladji Toure stood out thanks to his specific sound. Today, some are considered to be the best bass players in the world—Richard Bona, Etienne Mbappe, Armand Sabbal and Noel Ekwabi—and they follow in the footsteps of a long line of extraordinary musicians.
In the Central African Republic, music suffered from too many similarities with Congolese rumba; added to that was another historical injustice. Many of the musicians who had fashioned rumba were Central Africans. So the claim that Jean Marc Lesoi, Dominique Eboma and Jimmy Zakary—who had worked with the best including Franco, had co-founded rumba seems plausible. This country has a long history of popular orchestras including Musiki, Canon Stars, Super Stars, Zokela and Tropical Fiesta.
Central Africa’s diverse population is its greatest wealth. However, 50 years after the emergence of the leading representatives of this music, the lack of support and development structures for music and culture is in stark contrast to all the opportunities identified in this part of the continent. Exchanges that have taken place between artists show that cultural borders will never stand in the way of music and the way it works. The Atalaku Ambianceurs from Kinshasa have clearly had a strong influence on coupe decale which emerged in the working class suburbs of Abidjan. Towards the end of the 70s, musicians from Kassav—who would come to invent zouk and accompany all the big names of mokassa—were very much influenced by this genre and Haitian compas funk. In West Africa, the only requirement to cross borders was the possession of identity papers. In central Africa, administrative and logistic barriers got the better of passionate cultural promoters who today, are few and far between. Some symbolic breakthroughs have been made: in 1981, Africa Numero 1 was launched as the first Francophone radio on the continent. In 1974 Don King organised the Ali/Forman “fight of the century” in Kinshasa. For the first time in the history of the media age, a world wide event was being broadcast from Africa. On the music world, the music world’s crème de la crème was there for a festival in the run up to the fight. On the bill were B.B. King, James Brown, Fania All Stars, The Spinners, Mariam Makeba, Franco, Zaiko Langa Langa and many more. Since then few such far-reaching events have been held. And then there is Fes-pam the Pan African musical festival. In 1996 Brazzaville was chosen to organise the event every two years at the behest of OAU (now the African Union).
In central Africa the coming years represent a great challenge for the cultural sector.
(Amobe Mevegue in liner notes)
Track Listing (disc 1)
01 Indépendence Cha Cha [Grand Kalle
02 Table Ronde [Grand Kalle]
03 Espoir [Hilarion Nguema]
04 Mokololo Nakokufa [Tabu Ley]
05 Tu M'as Déçu Chouchou[Docteur Nico
06 Makombo Mibale [Bantous de la Capitale]
07 Le Bûcheron [Franklin Boukaka feat. Manu Dibango]
08 Fièvre Mondo [Zaiko Langa Langa
09 Soul Makossa [Manu Dibango]
10 Hot Koki [Andre Marie Tala]
11 La Condition Masculine [Francis Bebey]
12 Africa Obata [Pierre Akendengue]
Track Listing (disc 2)
01 Ami [Bebi Mangi]
02 Eswi Yo Wapi [Mbilia Bel]
03 Osi Tapa Lambo [Moni Bile]
04 Ancien Combatant [Zao]
05 Les Jaloux Saboteurs [Maitre Gazonga]
06 African Typic Collection [Sam Fantomas]
07 Mario [Franco]
08 Bane [Olivier Ngoma]
09 Moyibi [Pepe Kalle]
Track Listing (disc 3)
01 Transberos [Sam Mangwana]
02 Sai [Kanda Bongo Man]
03 Maman [Papa Wemba]
04 Loi [Koffi Olomide]
05 Paradiso [Konono No.1]
06 Ba Kristo [Kekele]
07 Liputa [Fally Ipupa]
08 Analengo [Kasai All Stars]
09 Annil [Mounira Moutchala]
10 Moziki [Staff Benda Billi]