Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Wax d’Afrique Vol. 1 — African Fiesta Club

Over my years of record collecting, one of the biggest frustrations has been the phenomenon of “the partial series.” I’d find Volume 1 of some collection and Volume 2 would never appear. What was worse was finding Volume 2 and never seeing Volume 1. At least when I had a Volume 1 I could assume that Volume 2 never came out, which would allow my jackdaw habits a little rest. When there was only a Volume 2, I was left with the completist hunger unassuaged, nagging at me constantly. I would spend weeks, months, years, searching through dusty record stores for the elusive Volume 1. I’d say I hate record collecting, but that would be a complete bloody lie.

Given the ways of certain record companies, announcing releases that never appear and occasionally putting out the second in a projected series before the first and then dropping the series, I suspect that some of those Volume 1’s do not exist. That is not the case with the Wax d’Afrique series, and Volume 1 is hereby made available again for those who missed it on its first appearance through the Matsuli site, where it was accorded the honour of a place in the African Serenades series as Volume 36. And let me tell you, as a latecomer to the African Serenades series—I checked in around Volume 20-something—I was frustrated as hell to have missed the first volumes. But you already knew that, didn’t you?

Matsuli, being a true believer in spreading the good stuff around, later made all the African Serenades available for a while on their very own site. There is no doubt that Matsuli deserves the love of all lovers of African music for the Herculean effort of organizing the multiple compilers of the series and for continuing efforts to keep the spirit of the music alive in these times of cultural restriction by commercial interests. Matsuli’s site was the direct inspiration for BlackMagicPlasticBullet. It showed me the way and I shamelessly copied whatever techniques seemed useful. My thanks are profound.

African music swept me off my feet in the early 1980s. King Sunny Ade’s Juju Music, with its psychedelic funk, opened my ears as they hadn’t been opened for a year or two. I even managed to move my feet despite the often-repeated assertion that people couldn’t dance to it. Maybe some people couldn’t—but I’ve seen the floor packed and moving when I put it on the decks. Following Juju Music, there was a long series of musical revelations provided by the Sound d’Afrique titles on Mango, the various early WOMAD compilations, and, of course, the mighty GlobeStyle releases. EarthWorks, at the time, was not only a nascent label but also a source of French LPs that could be found in the Rough Trade store in San Francisco. Soon, it became obvious that most of the interesting releases came from Paris first. Even my first Fela Kuti records came from a French label.

It also became apparent that a good portion of these interesting, and then current, releases were made by musicians from Francophone African countries, playing principally either Zairean soukous or makossa from Cameroun. The musical archaeology into the funky Nigerian and Ghanaian styles of the earlier 1970s, the resurrection of Ethiopia’s music scene, or the multitudinous wonders of Mande music were all yet to come—or I suppose to be more accurate in the case of the Mande glories, had not yet become apparent to those of us on the West Coast of America rather than Africa.

Today, the African music of the early to mid 1980s is not the most fashionable around; primarily, I think, for the usual reasons of cyclical musical tastes. It tends to exhibit a slight tang of disco’s shiny style and thump, which still suffers from rockist disdain, and which, itself, has never had a strong resurgence of interest beyond its core community base. Of course, once past its early underground origins, disco did become a rather bland and formulaic musical pabulum, more of a commercial craze than a genuine musical movement. However, the African styles somehow avoided this fate even though Graeme Ewens reports in Africa O-Ye! that “some cynical observers have stated that all Congo-Zairean music is the same; that the guitarists only play three notes.” As ever, it’s playing the right three notes that matters. In addition, it occasionally—but only very occasionally until later in the decade—suffers from the fascination of the times with the new and aurally unpleasant technologies of bad synthesizers and programmed drums. However, at its best, it’s simply wonderful music, full of life and joy with stunning guitar, sophisticate horns, and soulful singing; one of the great classic forms of popular music that appear every so often around the world to lift our spirits and bind us together as humans.

Wax d’Afrique Volume 1 — African Fiesta Club is a quick tour, a very quick tour, through the music of Congo, Zaire, and Cameroun with a side trip to Kenya. It includes some of the best known of the old names and some relative unknowns from more recent times. It is not mixed, each track is separate, but I conceived it as a DJ set that I might have played back in the day with a receptive audience who wanted African music and nothing but African music— an African fiesta club!

The posting for Wax d’Afrique Volume 2 — Ambiance! Ambiance! has a few further details on the history of the music. This Wikipedia page provides a brief introduction to Zairean musical history. As always, in this day and age, if you want to know more, there is this giant reference machine called the Internet. Copy any name that interests you into your favourite search engine—that would be Google, right?—and spend the day and the night clicking away while the music plays. Once you've downloaded it, anyway.

As will be always the case with the Wax d’Afrique series, all tracks are taken from original vinyl of the time. You will hear a couple of crackly spots and distortion despite my best efforts to clean them up with SoundSoap—that’s the nature of the wax, or the deficiencies of SoundSoap, or my own limitations in using it (although really I don't think it's as good as its hype). Perhaps one day, a professional sound restorer will be able to do a proper job and these tracks will see the light of day with a commercial release. They deserve it. That's the goal of BlackMagicPlasticBullet.

This is the second edition of Wax d’Afrique Volume 1 — African Fiesta Club. The only differences from the first are that I added the Wax d’Afrique graphic to each individual track as well as crediting myself for the selection in the Comments box. Original discographical information is also included in the Comments box.


1. Nico — African Fiesta Congo (from Kwamy Nico Rochereau — Les Merveilles du Passé 1965, African 360.145)
2. Kabassele — African Mokili Mobimba (from Joseph Kabassele et L’African Jazz — Hommage Au Grand Kalle Vol. 1, African 360.142)
3. Pamelo Mounk’a avec Les Bantous — L’Amour et la Danse (from Pamelo Mounk’a avec Les Bantous — L’Amour et la Danse, Black Music BM 002)
4. Nino Malapet — 5e Dan (from Nino Malapet — Mokilimbembe, Music-Press 33004)
5. Tchico — Nostalgie D'Afrique (from Le Commandant Tchico — Full Steam Ahead, GlobeStyle ORB 007)
6. Zao — Moustique (from Zao — Moustique, Bleu Caraïbes 82418-1)
7. Golden Sounds — Casque Colonial (from Golden Sounds — Casque Colonial, Vol 2, DTC 021)
8. Black Styl — O Sambo (from Black Styl — Golden Collection Vol.1, TN 594)
9. Prince Lessa Lassan — Djalenga (from V/A — Swahili Records Presents Djalenga, Albion SWAH 001)
10. Tjahe — Afric' Ambiance (from Tjahe — Afric' Ambiance 1000% Makossa IV, General Modern Enterprise 005)
11. Kwamy — African Club (from Kwamy Nico Rochereau — Les Merveilles du Passé 1965, African 360.145)

DOWNLOAD Wax d’Afrique Volume 1 — African Fiesta Club

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Wax d’Afrique Vol. 2 — Ambiance! Ambiance!

In the mid 1980s the music usually known as soukous from the countries then known as Zaire and the Congo was my favourite African music. I was as crazy for it as I’ve ever been for any music and I bought almost every LP that came my way. The shouted exhortations to the guitarists and dancers, the zippy guitar lines, the sometimes jazzy R’n’B feel of the horns, the clattering drums, its sweetness and joie de vivre all combined to lift my heart and move my feet.

As a DJ I loved spinning soukous in the clubs of San Francisco, at least those that were open-minded enough to hire me to play the mix of musics then known as world beat. This was several years before the “invention” of “world music” at the notorious Empress of Russia meeting of various English music industry dissidents, malcontents and hustlers — but that’s another story.

Soukous appealed to me as a DJ because it was basically impossible to mix on the beat with the songs frequently beginning slow and working up to a frenzy. To tell you the truth, I was a pretty lousy beat mixer anyway, but I liked doing fades from song to song. The varied pacing of soukous with its relatively long songs, its focus on having a good time, and its occasional sonic ferocity fascinated me in other ways. It was at once both a contrast to prog rock, pub rock and punk — all musical genres I admit I had previously obsessed over — and a strange combination of their significant elements.

At the time, soukous also provided a welcome relief to the dismay brought about by the right-wing crackdowns of Reagan and Thatcher, which were beginning to bite down hard on our accustomed freedoms of previous decades. It was fun music, nothing much political to it. Even though it came from countries suffering through the post-colonial traumas that have become such ugly ongoing features of the world today, it was escapist to us and didn’t have the political-correctness baggage that South African music had with the then-current struggle against apartheid.

To some extent, African music was soukous to me for a couple of years. I’d heard Osibisa (Do they count as African music? Sure, they do!) years earlier and Manu Dibango’s mighty “Soul Makossa,” but both had rather faded from the scene. King Sunny Ade’s Juju Music had recently reawoken me to African music, but that and Prince Nico Mbarga’s classic “Sweet Mother” was about all that was available for a time besides soukous, which was presented on various albums and compilations from Island and GlobeStyle. For about five minutes, it looked as though soukous might be “the next big thing” on the music scene — but that was a naïve thought formed before the imperatives of homegrown culture and the conservative influence wielded by industry gatekeepers became obvious. (I should have known better having seen how punk was received in the United States.)

Kanda Bongo Man was the artist I absolutely adored. His cries of “Ambiance! Ambiance!” just enthralled me and Diblo’s guitar carried me right along into that ambiance. In 1984, I embarked on a bicycle tour of southern England. After a few days of slogging along the South Downs, we reached Petersfield in Hampshire, which may be considered my hometown if I have to have one (I wasn’t born there and haven’t lived there since 1966, but a few years of moderately happy childhood were spent there). There, I picked up a copy of NME, then still a readable and credible music magazine. I learnt that Kanda Bongo Man was to perform at the Ashton Court WOMAD festival, on the outskirts of Bristol, that weekend. We got on our bikes and rode for three days along the edge of Salisbury Plain, straining ourselves up and wearing our brakes out down the sides of some steep and narrow valleys. We even stopped to look at the cathedrals of Winchester and Salisbury on the way. On the morning of the fourth day, we were lost riding around Bristol looking for the festival. Eventually we found it. Kanda Bongo Man was superb — the first live soukous I had seen. Afterwards riding back in the dark to our campsite in Bath, my girlfriend fell off her bike and broke her arm. Such was the feel-good power of soukous even that didn’t ruin our day!!

The history of soukous is a complicated tangle of shifting alliances between musicians with added difficulties for outsiders due to the frequently long Lingala names and the geographical confusion of the two competing capital cities of Congo and Zaire, Brazzaville and Kinshasha, facing each other across the Congo River, not to mention the changing names of those countries. It is much and variously told in African music reference books. There is little agreement even about the name used for the music, some preferring rumba, rumba rock, or various Lingala words referring to specific styles covered by the convenient overall umbrella of soukous. Perhaps the quickest, more detailed introduction for the neophyte is the Wikipedia page on the subject.

In its heyday, soukous was popular throughout Africa, pretty much the fabled Pan-African sound, with substantial migration of musicians to both Kenya and Abidjan in Côte d’Ivoire. Later, as conditions worsened in Zaire, Paris became a place of refuge and many musicians relocated there. However, ultimately Paris was not good for the music. Production styles became increasingly technological with drum machines and synthesizers substituting for the musical interplay between humans. Much of the emphasis even shifted from the music to the extravagant high-style suits worn by the musicians. The sapeur movement, as this was known, was considered to be a sophisticated fashion statement and “the antithesis of hippiedom.” To this old hippie, it was more like the antithesis of music. Thankfully, in the past few years artists such as Kékélé, Sam Mangwana, Papa Noel, and Mose “Fan Fan” have all revived the earlier, more organic styles of Congolese music with an impressive series of releases. RetroAfric, Crammed, Syllart, and Network Medien have all released reliable compilations of the early days of Congolese music, while Stern’s has a selection of later soukous titles.

Ambiance! Ambiance! is a personal selection of fine soukous tunes from the decade between the mid 1970s and the mid-late 1980s. Some purists might quibble that a couple of the earlier songs predate the general definition of soukous. No matter! It’s all great music of the time with plenty of feel-good exuberance from Congolese-Zairean musicians. All are taken from original vinyl, as you will hear in a couple of spots despite my efforts with SoundSoap — that’s the nature of the wax. As far as I can ascertain, only one track can be found on any sort of current release — that would be Kanda Bongo Man’s “Djessy,” available on a GlobeStyle compilation, Non Stop Non Stop, and a song that exemplifies the call of “Ambiance! Ambiance!”

Enjoy! That’s the point of soukous!


1. Franco et Orchestre T.P.O.K. Jazz — Matata Ya Muasi Na Mobali Ekoki Kosila Te
2. Tou Lè Dè — La Vieille Marmite Prepare Toujours De La Bonne Soupe
3. Les Bantous De La Capitale — Boumamou Sili
4. Moro Beya Maduma — Mamema
5. Fidele Zizi — Ma Musique A Moi
6. Nino Malapet — Mokilimbembe
7. Arlus Mabélé — Africa Mousso (Femme d'Afrique)
8. Kanda Bongo Man — Djessy
9. Shaba Kahamba et Les Esprits Saints — Naweyi
10. Lutchiana Mobulu accompagné par Empire Bakuba — Malata

Further discographical details, originating labels and catalogue numbers, are bundled with the individual tracks.

In a couple of weeks, I will repost Wax d’Afrique Vol. 1— African Fiesta Club for those who missed it the first two times around when it was available via Matsuli Music or as part of the African Serenades series.

NEW DOWNLOAD SITE!!! Wax d'Afrique Vol. 2 — Ambiance! Ambiance!

DOWNLOAD Wax d'Afrique Vol. 2 — Ambiance! Ambiance!