African Favorites – starting point for appreciating acoustic guitar music of Mali, Guinea, and Congo

by

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For those who have inquired about recommended African CDs, here is a concise starting point for appreciating the precious and startling acoustic guitar music of Mali, Guinea, and the Congo, along with brief product descriptions from the producers.  Missing are anthologies of northern Malian, South African,  and Zimbabwean guitar–I’m not aware of any relevant collections of this caliber.  A lifetime of listening here.  Enjoy.

Origins of Guitar Music: Southern Congo and Northern Zambia, 1950-’58, recordings by Hugh Tracey (Sharp Wood SWP015)

In the new urban culture that invented itself during the fifties in the copper mining towns of Katanga Province in southern Congo and on the Copperbelt in northern Zambia, the guitar became an important status symbol and quickly local styles developed. This also happened in the big southern African railway connection of Bulawayo in Zimbabwe. This collection of recordings is an exciting document, the emergence of a new sound – including some famous names such as Mwenda Jean Bosco and George Sibanda, but also others like the wandering Copperbelt minstrel Stephen ‘Tsotsi’ Kasumali, the swing Zambian harmony of the Four Pals, and the raw rumba from up north in Kisangani, plus a couple of tracks from Malawi testifying further the speedy spread of the guitar in central southern Africa at this time. Total time: 72’05”. 24 page booklet.

Roots of Rumba Rock: Congo Classics 1953-1955 (2 CDs, Crammed Discs)

The origins of Congolese rumba, its strange links with traditional music, French crooners and Belgian brass bands… the spectacular reappropriation of Afro-Cuban music by Kinshasa musicians who recognized some of the old likembe (thumb piano) patterns originally brought to Cuba by deported Congolese slaves and proceeded to adapt them to the electric guitar… the social context, the lifestyle of Congolese musicians in the early Fifties… all of that and much more is extensively described in the liner notes written by Kenis and based on interviews with musicians from that era.

In the early Fifties, Kinshasa (then called Léopoldville) became a musical beehive. Being the capital of a country the size of a continent, it was a meeting point for a wide variety of ethnic groups which soon merged their traditions to create new musical styles. But the main reason why the music of Kinshasa grew so strong and conquered all Africa lies in its spectacularly successful reappropriation of Afro-Cuban music, which was instantly recognized and adopted as a prodigal son coming back home. Which of course it really was: only two generations had passed since the end of the slave trade from Congo to Cuba, and most elements in Cuban music sounded very familiar to Congolese ears.

The World Is Shaking – Cubanismo From The Congo, 1954-55 (Honest Jon’s Records)

Echoes of music exported in the slave trade came home on radios and records. Congolese musicians who strayed from the traditional realm with its plethora of lutes and likembes (thumb pianos) — all the various indigenous instruments — began to master imported guitars and horns by mimicking what they heard. The jazz of Louis Armstrong and the ballads of European torch singers like Tino Rossi captured the imagination of the rapidly expanding working class — and then the familiar-sounding music of Latin America, in the form of the shiny shellac of HMV’s GV series of 78s (G for the English Gramophone Company; V for Victor in the US).

Listen to likembe player Boniface Koufidilia as he makes the transition from traditional to modern in the first few seconds of Bino, which then hits you with a vamping violin whilst he muses about death (including that of the popular Brazzaville musician Paul Kamba). Andre Denis and Albert Bongu both echo the the sounds of palm-wine brought to the Belgian Congo by the coastmen. The sweet vocal harmonies of Vincent Kuli’s track were learned perhaps in a mission church. Rene Mbu’s nimble, likembe-like guitar plucking shines on Boma Limbala. Is Laurent Lomande using a banjo as a backdrop to Elisa? Aren’t those kazoos, buzzing along on Jean Mpia’s Tika?

Guitar Seche (Popular African Music)

This is the first release in the African guitar series, featuring this imported instrument, affordable and easy to carry around. Guitare Sèche is the French term for acoustic guitar, and the album features four of these: a new one, a fairly good one and two battered specimens. The album has been recorded in Conakry directly onto digital 8- track. Guitar music, without vocals, which you hear everywhere when travelling in Guinea is hard to find on record.

Djessou Mory Kanté, a younger brother of Kanté Manfila now living in Paris where he is one of the most requested session guitarists, came up with the idea for this album. it features: Papa Diabaté, the father of modern Guinean guitar playing. Djessou Mory’s brothers Bakary and Djekoria Mory Kanté plus Moriken Kouyaté – all three much in demand in Guinea. With comprehensive notes by Eric Charry, of Wesleyan University, an authority on Mande guitar music.

Big String Theory (Xenophile Records, Amazon mp3)

This project was instigated in 1992 by Globestyle Records’ Ben Mandelson. The idea was to make a fiery, acoustic recording of the Malian music known as “bajourou”- literally “big string” or “big tune.” This recording focusses on guitars highlighting intricate exchanges between two of this genre’s top guitar players: Djelimady Tounkara and Bouba Sacko.

Intent on bringing these two great players together for the first time. Mandelson and Lucy Duran travelled to the Mali capital, Bamako. Djelimady Tounkara is best known as lead guitarist of the Super Rail Band–the band that launched the careers of both Salif Keita and Mory Kante. Bouba Sacko has an impressive career of accompanying top jelimoussow–female griot singers–including the great Kandia Kouyate. President of Mali’s fledgling music union and former Rail Band singer Lafia Biabate completed the team.

Big String Theory was recorded direct to DAT in Bamako on acoustic instruments, and the session was followed by a 1993 tour of the UK. Critics were immediately won over by the group’s dynamic energy. Bringing Tounkara and Sacko together was an idea that would never have happened without the input of the two English producers. While the two guitarists remain friends, they have never played together in recent years. So this recording has the added spark of two masters jostling for position in each others’ worlds.

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