African Music Blog. The name "Likembe" refers to the Congolese version of the thumb-piano, an instrument that can be found across Africa, that in various versions is called the mbira, sanza, kalimba, ubo, etc.
Daniel Kamau's Kikuyu-language benga sounds a little different from the Luo, Kamba and Swahili versions of the music this blog has featured in the past. Together with the late Joseph Kamaru he was one of the great innovators and popularizers of the Kenyan sound in the '60s, '70s and '80s. In addition to addressing current issues in his music he participated in the political process as councillor of Gatanga ward north of Nairobi from 1979 to 1992. The Daily Standard of Nairobi had this to say in 2009, when the great maestro was 42 years into his career:
Daniel Kamau, popularly known as DK, proudly clings to the title of pioneer of Kikuyu benga music. At 60 and with over 1,000 songs to his credit, DK is unwilling to hang up his cherished guitar. He is scaling new heights by not only producing music videos of his past hits but also releasing new songs.
When Sunday Magazine paid him a visit one afternoon, DK was busy working on a new video at a music production studio in downtown Nairobi. The soft-spoken man who meets us does not look like a celebrity but the large number of visitors seeking audience with him proves he is no ordinary person.
"I am recording my 1,013th song and also editing videos for the song "Muiritu wa Nyiri" (Girl from Nyeri), which I released last year," he says as he ushers us into the studio. DK has been a leading figure in music ever since 1967, when he dropped out of Karatina High School while in Form Two due to lack of school fees.
And so successful has his music career been that the artiste never regrets dropping out of school. At the time, he was already deeply entrenched in music as he had started to sing while in primary school in his home village of Mabanda in Gatanga District. He had learnt how to play the guitar at just ten.
"I had three older brothers who were musicians and owned a guitar that they used to entertain people in the village. But they never allowed me to touch it as they feared it would spoil me and prevent me from pursuing my education," DK recounts.
But determined to realise his dream of being a musician and satisfy his curiosity, DK says he would often sneak away with the guitar while his siblings were away and teach himself how to play it. "I would hide nervously in a thick bush behind the main house, praying that they would not come back home and find me toying with their treasured tool of work," DK says.
He perfected playing the guitar and earned instant eminence when he finally performed in public for the first time. "On Madaraka Day in 1964, my brothers turned up for a public performance too drunk to perform. I offered to play the guitar, only to be become the talk of the village for a week as no one could believe a young boy could be so skilful," he says.
After dropping out of school, DK says he just had one dream - to hear his voice on radio. He subsequently wrote a letter to a Voice of Kenya presenter, Mrs Kabeberi, requesting assistance so that he could produce his own music.
"Mrs Kabeberi directed me to musician David Amunga who co-owned a production studio. He helped me release my first record in 1968," he recounts. The album contained the songs "Mami Tiga Guthura" (Mum don’t hate me) and "Kenyatta wa Muigai." DK went on to release five other records with hits such as "Surusuru ni ya ki?" (Why the gossip) and "Muiritu wa Thukuru" (Schoolgirl). But he felt short-changed when he was paid "a meagre Sh450" for all his toil. He shifted to Sokota Productions in 1969 and released three albums that fetched him Sh2,500.
He used the earnings to establish his own studio, DK Nguvu Sounds, which was located near Tea Room in downtown Nairobi. It is in this studio that he recorded hit songs "Njika na Njika" (Tit for Tat) and "I Love You" in 1970, with the latter getting cross-ethnic approval.
In the same year, DK made history when his maiden benga hit, "Kanini," sold 9,000 records. His studio became an instant hit, attracting then upcoming stars such as Kakai Kilonzo and Joseph Gicheha. After just over a decade in music, DK had become an irresistible darling of the people in his home village and, inevitably, he says, he found himself entrenched in politics. "I was under pressure to vie for the Gatanga Ward civic seat in 1979. I gave in to the people’s request, contested and won. I was thus forced to mix music with politics until 1992, when I quit politics to fully focus on music," he says.
With the advance in technology that has made video production cheaper, DK has now turned his mind to shooting videos of his past hits, a move he says has been influenced by public demand. He has already produced five videos of his past music, featuring "Kanini," "Ningwite Nawe" (I have fallen for you), "Kamugunda-ini ka Mahua" (In the flower garden), and "I Love You." And looking over his shoulder, DK admits that he is today a worried man - all because of modern trends in the local music industry.
He notes that while in the past he could only record four songs in one year, he is baffled to see some modern artistes enter a recording studio and come out with 12 songs in a day. "It took time to record music in the 1970s through the 1990s as we performed as a hobby and our greatest desire was to hear ourselves on radio. Today, music has been turned into a business and this has badly lowered the quality. It is no a surprise that you need a presenter to say whose song is playing. In the past, the music needed no introduction," DK states.
He is furious about the high level of piracy in the country, saying he was recently shocked to learn that his music was being sold online to Kenyans in the Diaspora without his knowledge. He is also bitter that a local ring tones firm has been illegally selling some of his top songs to mobile phone users for over five years without his consent.
I'm happy to present The Best of DK Vol. 1 (CBS 026), which features some of DK's evergreen hits.
As the title would have it, Turbo-Hits '89 (Editions Haïssam-Records MH 112, 1989) is a collection of remixed makossa (and a couple not-so-makossa) tracks from the house of Gabonese producer Moussa Haïssam.
Hilarion Nguema from Gabon leads off this set with an instrumental version of his tune "SIDA." Nguema is one of the biggest stars Gabon has produced, starting out with Orchestre Afro-Succès in the '70s before becoming a solo artist in the '80s.
Ben Decca from Cameroun has been on the music scene for 40 years and has recorded 25 albums and numerous singles. He is considered a paragon of the makossa sound and is the oldest of a musical family, including Grace Decca, who has also made quite a career for herself.
Dina Bell was a leading light of the Camerounian makossa scene in the '80s, scoring his first hit, "Yoma Yoma," in 1979. In the '90s his output slowed and he hasn't been heard from recently.
Moussa Haïssam was a leading producer of Camerounian music in the '80s and contributes the instrumental "Ipanema" here. His native country, Gabon, is not well known for its musical output, but wields an outsize influence across the continent and around the world through the pan-African radio station Africa No. 1. It can be heard on shortwave and online here.
Ali and Tam's together with Orchestre Malo wrap up our retrospective look at three interesting Congolese LP's released in the mid '80s by the Swiss label Plainisphare. Their contribution is Malo (Plainisphare ZONE Z-5, 1986), and it's arguably the most interesting and creative of them.
Aly Sow Baidy and Tamisimbi Mpungu were professors at the Institut National des Arts du Zaïre in Kinshasa and founded Orchestre Malo "...to revalue and to disseminate this authentic musical culture in the spirit of a broad openness to current movements of music." Toward this end they combined traditional Congolese instruments with modern ones "to give birth to new sounds while respecting traditional drives." In a review of the three Plainispare releases in Volume 6, issue 4 of The Beat from 1987, Elizabeth Sobo wrote:
...From the Switzerland-based Plainisphare label comes three novelty albums, all recorded in Kinshasa, Zaire, between July 1984 and October 1985, and none of which bears much resemblance to the well-known Kinshasa sound.
Ironically, the first of these is titled Kinshasa, by Kawende et ses Copains. This production is not consistently great, but it does contain two selections that deserve praise. "Ekusulu" is gentle, guitar-dominated folk music, made special by a youthful-voiced female singer who delivers the Lingala lyrics in a manner quite unlike her classy, professional counterparts in Kinshasa, but who projects an innocence that makes her one solo appearance on this lp truly memorable. "Eh Ya Ele" is reminiscent of some recent material from the Zairean group, Somo Somo, differing from the standard Kinshasa sound both in language - it is done only partly in Lingala by a male lead singer - and in its generous use of percussions. The nine tracks on this album offer a variety of music not found on many other collections (though most have an emphasis on drumming and folk guitar in common) and a mix of languages from south-central and eastern Africa.
While the Kawende disk at least presents a glimpse of some uncommon but authentic Central African music, Ali and Tam's Orchestre Malo on their self-titled lp can make no such claim. The group is apparently named for its two principals: Aly Sow Baidy (whose name strongly suggests a West African origin) and Tamisimbi Mpungu. The languages heard on the album are no help in categorizing this effort, and the music's rhythms, instruments and vocals are an odd combination that gives no hint of a dominant regional influence. Two tracks, "Tcheko" (you can hear a few words in both Lingala and Swahili here) and "Anita," include some nice horn playing. And the vocal on "Sougmad" is definitely intriguing — in fact quite likeable —but with a sound that is more like Khartoum than Kinshasa. "Tshikona," an instrumental cut, is a low point, a senseless and unsatisfying Fela imitation. This record has little to offer except its originality and even that runs thin at times...
...If these recordings suggest a trend towards the promotion of music from places we seldom hear, it is a welcome change indeed. But they also demonstrate some of the pitfalls of "mixed" music, which often ends up representing no particular region or style...
I must say I disagree with this assessment! Ms. Sobo's writings in the The Beat were often informative but just as often infused with an intolerance toward any sort of African music that didn't fit her dogmatic conception of what "African Music" was supposed to sound like. Heaven forbid that Congolese and West African musicians might want to record together, or make music that doesn't represent any "particular region or style!" In my opinion this disc by Orchestre Malo succeeds admirably. In the years since 1986, Congolese music, at least the stuff we've heard, has become hopelessly formulaic. One wishes that the example set by this disc had been taken to heart and emulated more.
Here is the second of three "unorthodox" Congolese albums released by the Swiss label Plainisphare in the mid-'80s. Nsimba Vuvu was a former associate of Manu Dibango and assembled Orchestre Sim-Sim International from members of a number of bands then extant in Kinshasa. Apparently their only recording, Nasiwedi (Plainisphare ZONE Z-4, 1986) continues the casual ambiance of the first album in this series, Kinshasa!, by Kawende et ses Copains (Plainisphare ZONE Z-1, 1984), which I posted a few days ago. Apart from one electric guitar, Nasiwedi is also acoustic and refreshingly casual in its approach, almost like a recorded jam session.
Researching this blog I often have occasion to consult my collection of back issues of The Beat, an indespensible magazine that was published in the US from the early '80s to the early 2000s. Volume 6, Number 4 from 1987 contains a rather dismissive review of the Plainsphare series by Elizabeth Sobo, who did admit to enjoying Orchestre Sim-Sim's album:
By far the best of the three Plainisphare contributions is the one by Orchestre Sim-Sim. Its opening selection, "Nasiwedi," combines Congolese guitars reminiscent of the Le Peuple productions of years past, highlife-style horns, sharp percussion, a fascinating, catchy beat and two rather ordinary (but adequate) male voices. Perhaps the best track and the one closest to contemporary Kinshasa music is "Sekele," a captivating dance number sung in Lingala. "Kokiko," another welcome addition to the album, is slower, with an East African flavor and alternating male and female lead vocals.
Sobo seems to have a rather dogmatic view of how "real" African music is supposed to sound. As I noted about Kinshasa!, these three recordings, while different from the Congolese music we usually hear, are undoubtedly authentic and probably representative of a whole stratum of sounds that is seldom recorded. In a few days I'll post the final entry in the Plainisphare series, an album by Ali & Tam's and Orchestre Malo.
Kinshasa!, by Kawende et ses Copains (Plainisphare ZONE Z1, 1984), was the first of three LPs released in the mid-'80s by the Swiss recold label Plainisphaire. These pressings, all recorded in Kinshasa, in the country then known as Zaïre and today as the Democratic Republic of Congo, are notable for sounding not really very much like what is generally perceived as Congolese music at all! This is no reflection on their authenticy, though. I'm sure they're quite typical of the sort of genuinely popular Congolese music that is never recorded, or recorded but not considered "commercially viable" outside of the country.
The sound here is loose and unpolished, probably recorded in one take. The musicians are not slick but all the more affecting for that. I don't know who Kawende and his group are as the liner notes give little information. I'm sure you'll enjoy this!
Download Kinshasa! as a zipped file here. I will soon be posting the other two albums in this series, Nasiwedi (Plainisphare ZONE Z-4, 1985), by Orchestre Sim-Sim International, and Malo (Plainisphaire ZONE Z-5, 1986), by Ali & Tam's avec l'Orchestre Malo.
Barry Allama Boy is a musician about whom I've been able to find nothing, and I mean NOTHING, on the internet or anywhere else. This cassette, Medina Larabi, was recorded in Ivory Coast, but I believe he is from Senegal, probably from the southern Casamance region. I like this indigenous Senegalese take on reggae music and I hope you will too!
I just realized that Ramadan this year begins the evening of May 5 and ends the evening of June 4. It's a little early, but I thought it would be nice if we could listen to some music from Nigeria that is intended for this auspicious occasion.
There are two terms for Yoruba Islamic music used to arouse the faithful during Ramadan: Ajísáàri andwéré. Ajísáàri refers either to the style of music or the person who performs it. Ajísáàri is usually performed solo and wéré by ensembles. Ajísáàri andwéré are performed by men. A related genre, wákà, is performed by women. These popular Islamic styles are percursors of secular fújìmusic, which is quite popular in Yorubaland. Christopher Alan Waterman discusses this music in his essential study Jùjú: A Social History and Ethnography of an African Popular Musc (University of Chicago Press, 1990):
Extensive Islamic conversion led to the development of musical genres performed during Muslim holidays (e.g., Ramadan, Id El-Fitr) and ceremonies marking the return of pilgrims from Mecca (àláji, m.; àlájà, f.). One of the earliest of these genres was wákà, sung by women and accompanied by beaten sélí or péréṣéké, pounded tin discs with metal rings attached. Another popular genre, wéré or ajísáàri, was performed by groups of young men during the Ramadan fast to wake the faithful for their early meal. Both of these genres incorporated aspects of Islamic cantillation — nasalized, tense vocal quality, melismatic text settings, microtonal melodic embellishments, and Qur'anic texts — into performances guided by Yoruba musical values and techniques. Wákà and wéré were associated with the high status of Islam in traditional Lagos and the continued vitality of economic networks linking the Yoruba to Muslim societies in the northern hinterland.
Today's musical offereing, Itan Anabi Muhammad (Leader Records LRCLS 61, 1987), is one of a number recorded by the youth group of the Ansar-Ud-Deen Society of Lagos. The Society itself is a fraternal and educational association founded by Yoruba Muslim notables in 1923. It was a response to the ascendence of Christian elites and had a reformist conception of Islam which sought to reconcile it with modern ideas.
It's time for another deep dive into the world of "Igbo Blues"- real village music from southeastern Nigeria!
I know nothing about Goddy and Achinkwa and their musical group. This LP, Anya Ukwu Adiro Nma (Nigerphone NXLP 014, 1989), though, is one of the best examples of this genre I've heard, displaying the full panoply of traditional bells and percussion - ogene, onye ekwe, igba and the like. Enjoy!
Back in the early days of online file-sharing, the 1973 album Destruction (Orbitone OT 005) by the Nigerian group the Nkengas acheived legendary status, traded far and wide and included on numerous funky mixes. When an official reissue came out in 2013 (Secret Stash Records SSR-CD-293), fans could satisfy their cravings legally.
The Nkengas released one other LP, Nkengas in London (Orbitone OT 006), which I feature here. It's apparent even from a casual listening that this is a radically different recording than Destruction. Every song save one ("Asa Mpete Special") features the vocals of the great highlife superstar Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe.
What's going on here? The story, as best I can piece it together, involves a number of sessions in London in the early '70s, which produced some of Osadebe's most beloved recordings. At some point in the process members of Osadebe's backup band, the Nigeria Sound Makers, led by Victor Okoroego, defected, taking a master tape with them and marketing it as Nkengas in London. Destruction, on the other hand, is pretty much pure Okoroego save for one track, "London Special," with Osadebe on lead vocals.
After Nkengas in London the group changed its name to the Ikenga Super Stars of Africa, who were to achieve fame and fortune with a number of chart-topping hits. "Asa Mpete Special" on Nkengas in London features Pele Asampete on vocals. This is a slightly reworked version of the Osadebe hit "Ezi Ogelidi" from the album Egbunam (Philips 6361024, 1972). Asampete later left the Ikengas and did another version of this tune, "Ezi O Goli," on his solo LP (Rogers All Stars RASLPS 043). Pop/highlife star Chris Mba did still another remake in the early 1990s.
Singing For The People (Obey WAPS 578, 1980) continues the explorations in jùjú-funk that Ebenezer Obey started with Eyi Yato (Decca WAPS 508, 1980), posted a few days ago in this space. There's nothing much more I can say except if you liked that one, you'll like this one. Enjoy!