Category Archives: Africa

Granmoun Lélé – ‘Zelvoula’

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La Réunion is an island in the Indian Ocean, between Madagascar and Mauritius, and it’s a département of France. This means it’s as much an integral part of the French nation as Brittany, Alsace or Corsica. (Not incidental examples!) Unsurprisingly, though, Réunionese creole culture doesn’t have a huge amount in common with that of L’Hexagone (mainland France) – including the music. Possibly the most interesting local music is maloya. Maloya consists of lots of percussion and call-and-response vocal chants. It’s often compared to the blues, although I don’t really know why; I’m not a big blues expert but I think blues tends to feature a lot more melodic instruments and a lot fewer rhythmic ones. Maloya was once banned on Réunion since it was used by the local communist party to agitate for the island’s independence. When François Mitterand became president of France in 1981, however, the Parti Communiste Réunionnais decided to give up that fight, and playing maloya became less of a political act. The music became less underground and more popular, and seems to have only grown in popularity. The last ten years or so, in particular, have seen a wealth of new talent coming up, including the likes of Christine Salem and current hot property Maya Kamaty, while slighter older figures like Danyèl Waro have started to receive more attention outside of the island.

Maya Kematy playing a slightly more relaxed version of maloya than Granmoun Lélé’s

The album I’m discussing here, however, is by one of the great old guard – the people who kept maloya alive during the underground years. Julien Philéas, aka Granmoun Lélé – ‘Granmoun’ meaning ‘grandfather’ and ‘lélé’ being a corruption of ‘le lait’, apparently because young Julien always used to beg for milk from his mother – sung maloya for most of his life, but only made his first recordings in his late 60s (the music being illegal may have had something to do with it). Having worked most of his life in a sugar factory – presumably under slightly better conditions than the sugar plantation slaves who created maloya on Réunion – Lélé became the grandfather figure to the whole genre. He was not only a musician, but also a magician and priest. Like superficially similar percussion-based music in Cuba or Haiti, maloya is linked to creole religious cults, and often its lyrics are encoded with secret references – again a link to the days of slavery, when things needed to be kept secret from the overseer. The Granmoun was an intensely religious man, praying to his personal god every day, and he was renowned for the dramatic performances at his chapel. Piety doesn’t have to stand in the way of a good time, of course; this is loud, danceable, trance-inducing music, and apparently plenty of rhum was involved in Lélé’s ceremonies too. (If you’ve never tried rhum agricole – ‘French-style’ rum, as produced in the Indian Ocean and Martinique and Guadeloupe – I thoroughly recommend it.)

Lélé made four albums, all of which are great. ‘Zelvoula’ is the last, recorded in 2004 – the year the great man died – and possibly the best. Although Lélé was getting on in years by the time he recorded ‘Zelvoula’, and had suffered ill health from many years, you’d never know it from listening to his voice. He sings exactly like you would expect someone who is used to commanding ceremonies over loud percussion to sing. He chants lyrics in Réunion Creole and Malagasy – Lélé’s mother was from Madagascar – and is backed up by a chorus and drum group largely composed of his children. One of the main instruments is a shaker called a kayamb (or caïamba), along with a large bass drum called a rouleur. Another important instrument is the twanging musical bow called a bob or bobre, which is similar to the Brazilian berimbau. The musicians here also use the West African djembe, along with several other percussion instruments I haven’t heard in any other context. Although the music is largely percussive, there’s a few tracks here featuring saxophone and bass clarinet played by someone calling himself Professor Jah Pimpin, best heard on the instrumental ‘Groovelélé’. Lélé’s group are credited with introducing new instruments to maloya which have gone on to become part of the standard instrumentation now. Despite his knowledge of the tradition, Lélé and his group never played maloya in its ‘purest’ form, but innovated within the tradition while remaining true to it – as all the truly great musicians do.

The relentless rustling of the kayamb gives the music its main pulse, and the various patterns of the other drums make this much more danceable than blues. The production on this album has to be mentioned, as every instrument comes through loud and clear. The main focus in Lélé himself though, of course, and his strident voice. He is joined on three tracks by the great Malagasy salegy singer Jaojoby, showing Lélé reaching out to his roots across the Indian Ocean. Jaojoby also helps Lélé return to his roots in another way, by singing on a new version of ‘Namouniman’, the title-track of Lélé’s first album and a massive hit on Réunion when it was first released. Although the lyrics to these songs will remain a mystery to anyone who doesn’t speak Creole or Malagasy, the songs – which include originals songs as well as traditional tunes – cover topics such as folk stories dealing with morality and magic, Lélé’s real-life health problems in ‘L’Année 2000’, and even two songs adapted from Tamil wedding dances (Réunion’s creole population includes a large South Indian element). Whatever the exact topics of the lyrics, the endless drive of the drums is bewitching, and Lélé’s own charisma and energy can be heard in every note he sings.

The original version of ‘Namouniman’ without Jaojoby

Whether or not it’s similar to the blues in being derived from the days of slavery, ‘blues’ is so called because it sounds miserable. Granmoun Lélé’s maloya definitely doesn’t. Listen here.

Not Coming Soon To A Cinema Near You

With Oscars season over for another year, and everybody taking smiley pictures of themselves with their celebrity mates as they celebrate films about slavery, space and the depths of human suffering and terror, I thought it might be fun to imagine which figures might next be picked up on for awards-bait biopics. The Academy loves films which feature a lot of suffering but in the end show the triumph of the human spirit (or something), and there are plenty of musicians who’ve had the sort of lives that would make Walk The Line and Ray look like an episode of Teletubbies.

Of course, there are loads of people I could have picked here. The most obvious candidate is Fela Kuti, but he’s been excluded – mostly because I already mentioned his crazy life here, but also because he soon is to be the subject of a Hollywood film, after the success of the musical Fela! on Broadway and the West End – although the movie isn’t based on the musical. Apparently the original director was going to be man of the moment Steve McQueen– now that would have been something.

Mariam Makeba

I think the only reason Miriam Makeba’s life story hasn’t been made into a big budget movie is that it would have to include some subjects that would be just a bit too touchy for the US – namely the side of the Civil Rights movement that wasn’t Martin Luther King’s peaceful brand of campaigning. Makeba was certainly a big enough star to merit a film – nicknamed ‘Mama Africa’, she’s probably the most famous and popular singer the entire African continent has produced. Born in 1932 in Johannesburg, her mother was arrested for selling homebrew when Miriam was only eighteen days old, so the first six months of the infant Miriam’s life were spent in prison. Her singing career began with the vocal harmony group the Manhattan Brothers in 1954, and she then joined the all-female Skylarks with whom she really made her name. Her fame grew through her role in the ‘jazz opera’ King Kong in 1959, the same year Miriam made an appearance in an anti-apartheid documentary. Touring with the cast of King Kong in the UK, she met Harry Belafonte who helped her gain entry to the USA in 1960.  In 1963 Miriam testified to the UN on the horrors of apartheid, and so she was stripped of her South African citizenship and unable to return to her birth country.

Nevertheless, Miriam’s career went from strength to strength in the US, due to her mega-selling duet album with Belafonte, and re-recordings of her earlier hits like ‘Pata Pata’ and ‘Qongqothwane’ (retitled ‘The Click Song’ for American audiences). In 1968, Miriam married her fourth husband, Stokely Carmichael, one of the leaders of the Black Panthers (her previous husband was one of South Africa’s other great stars, the trumpeter and singer Hugh Masekela). Marrying a Black Panther did not do Miriam’s career any wonders in the US and she was effectively blacklisted. She and her husband thus moved to Guinea, where they became very close for a while with President Seckou Touré, proving that if nothing else, Miriam sure could pick friends who might land her in trouble. In the meantime, she was growing into the figure of Mama Africa, singing in Nairobi at Kenyan independence, in Luanda at Angolan independence, at the Rumble in the Jungle and many other such events. Eventually, she was able to return to South Africa at the personal invitation of Nelson Mandela when he was released from prison. From then on, she continued to perform and to campaign to raise awareness of such issues as HIV and child soldiers. She died after a heart attack suffered during a concert in Italy. Proving that Miriam was a fighter til the end, the concert was to support the writer Roberto Saviano in his campaign against the Camorra.

Recommend album: Despite her star quality and power as a singer, Miriam’s albums are, in general, notoriously patchy. There’s about a bazillion different compilations available, mostly recycling different versions of the same songs she recorded again and again. ‘Best of the Early Years’ is a very good selection of her ‘township jazz’ days, although the liner notes are disappointingly scant. ‘The Guinea Years’ shows how different a later period of her career was, at a time that saw a lot of fantastic music coming out of Guinea, although you’ll have to hunt around to find it on CD.

Esma Redzepova

Esma Redzepova has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize twice and was awarded the title of ‘Queen of the Gypsies’ by Indira Gandhi in 1976 at a Roma festival. She has not lead a boring life. Esma is a Roma singer from Macedonia (although she’s been outspoken about the breaking up of Yugoslavia and the division it has caused), and she has a singing voice like no other. She has been a professional singer since the age of 13, when she was ‘discovered’ by the Macedonian accordion player Stevo Teodosievski, who became her main musical collaborator and husband. At the start of the 1960s Esma and Stevo had a series of big pop hits throughout the Balkans, and they ended up moving to Belgrade. As with so many talented musicians who are co-opted as national icons, Esma ended up serving the needs of a less than savoury politican, as Tito decided Esma and the Ensemble Teodosievski were to be Yugoslavia’s musical representatives abroad.

Once Tito was out of the picture however, and Yugoslavia collapsed, Esma used her fame to campaign to help people as much as possible. She has worked for women’s education, rights for the Roma, inter-ethnic communication and helped persuade the Macedonian government to give refuge to those fleeing ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Kosovo. Esma’s charity begins at home, however. Since the age of thirteen – yes, really – she has been adopting Roma orphans and runaways, and thus now has nearly fifty children. She and Stevo worked to give all of the children an education and music and so, since Stevo’s death in the 1990s, Esma’s band has been composed of her children.

Esma is a national icon for Macedonia, a figure of pride for Roma, and a global star. She has a diplomat’s passport, has been a local councillor in Skopje, and has set up a Roma TV station that ran from the basement of her immense house – a house which has now been turned into a museum, while Esma moved to more modest surroundings. She has lived through difficult times but her generosity and her voice have risen above it all.

Recommended album: Esma is nowhere near as well-represented in album releases in ‘the West’ as she should be, and some of her most acclaimed recordings are on the World Network compilation ‘Gypsy Queens: Flammes de Couer’. I really like her 2007 album ‘Gypsy Carpet’; the young(ish) band are composed of later generations (!) of her children, and they give a real punch to the music. Esma sounds as feisty and full of energy as ever.

Tau Moe

If there’s one of these stories I can imagine actually becoming a movie, it’s this one. The story starts in Hawaii, Hollywood’s go-to ‘exotic’ (but not too foreign) location, and then spans most of the twentieth century before concluding with a rags-to-riches final act.

Born in Samoa in 1908, Tau Moe (pronounced Mo-ay) started playing slide guitar in Hawaii in the 1920s. In 1927, the band Tau had with his uncles was joined by a falsetto singer and dancer called Rose. The band became called Mme Riviere’s Hawaiians, as they were managed by a French professor, and they toured extensively through Asia, from India and Burma to the Phillipines, Japan and Indonesia. Rose and Tau were married and had a son, who was born in Tokyo. After recording a few songs in Tokyo, Mme Riviere’s Hawaiians split up, and Tau, Rose and their son Lani began to play as a trio, while Lani was just five. The trio recorded a few songs in Shanghai, and then gigged around India for a while, before journeying to Egypt, almost penniless. They managed to find work playing music in Egypt’s bigger cities, and travelled throughout the Levant and then into Europe, ending up in Germany. Unfortunately, something called the Second World War began, and so the family soon had to be on the road again.  Arriving in Baghdad, the Moes boarded a ship to finally return to Hawaii – but, through an even worse stroke of luck than the one that had led them to Germany, Pearl Harbour had been bombed just before they arrived! The family turned back and travelled halfway round the world (again) to India. The Moes had a daughter, Dorrian, in 1945, who was soon part of the family band too, dancing and singing. After playing around India for about ten years, the family went back to Europe and stayed there til the end of the 1960s and played many gigs and appeared on TV programmes and in movies, travelling throughout Europe. After still more travelling in Asia, Australia and the USA in the ‘70s, the family band’s five-decade long world tour finally came to an end as they moved back to Tau’s childhood home in Hawaii.

That story would be good enough, but the final chapter is the icing on the cake. In 1986, the American blues guitarist and Hawaiian music expert Bob Brozman (who went to make many excellent cross-cultural collaboration albums) got a letter from Tau ordering one of Brozman’s albums. Brozman, who, as a record collector, owned the only known copy of one of Mme Riviere’s Hawaiian’s recordings, phoned up Moe right away to find out if he was the same Tau Moe who played guitar on that record. “Oh sure!” said Moe. “My wife sang on those records – wanna hear?” Rose then apparently sung that song down the phone to Brozman – “in the same key!” the amazed Brozman wrote. Brozman arranged to meet with the family band a few years later and together they recorded an album recreating, entirely from Tau’s memory, those now-lost recordings from the 1920s and ‘30s – a style of music that, given the Moes’ influences, was already a bit old-fashioned when it was first recorded! Apologies for the quality of the video below; the music shines through all the same.

Recommended album: You can hear some of the 1920s recordings on a compilation called ‘Vintage Hawaiian Music: The Great Singers 1928-1934’, but the pick has to be the album the Moe family recorded by with Bob Brozman, ‘Ho’omana’o I Na Mele O Ka Wa U’i’, or ‘Remembering the Songs of Our Youth’. It has to be one of the most joyous albums you will ever hear; the octogenarian Rose’s voice is incredible, and the slide guitar, courtesy of Tau and Brozman, is just a delight.

Gilberto Gil

Cheating slightly here, as Gil has actually been the subject of (at least) two documentary films, one about the Tropicalismo style of music he pioneered, and a film that came out last year called ‘Viramundo’, where Gil travels around the world and meets various local musicians. Still, I think Gil could merit the biopic treatment too.

Gil did not have radical beginnings. He grew up in a fairly comfortably middle-class family in the south of Brazil, and by his early twenties, he was composing advertising jingles, had moved to Rio, had his own TV show, and his songs were being recorded by big hitters like Sergio Mendes and Elis Regina. Things took a turn however when Gil founded Tropicalismo in 1968 with his friend Caetano Veloso, with the album ‘Tropicalia: ou Panis et Circenses’. Tropicalismo is a blend of various Brazilian regional styles of music – experimental enough in itself – with tricks learned from British and US rock music, and poetic, dense lyrics. It was an exciting time in Brazilian music, with many of the most famous stars just beginning to break through – Maria Bethânia (Caetano’s sister), Gal Costa, Tom Zé, Chico Buarque and so on – and there was an amazing amount of creativeness. Unfortunately, Brazil’s military government weren’t so keen on the radical music which was popular with the youth of the time – who would think it, eh? – and in February 1969, Gil and Veloso were arrested, spending three months in prison and four months under house arrest. Apparently they got off lightly – less famous musicians simply had their tongues cut out. They were freed on the condition they left the country, and they both eventually settled in London. It seems like Gil ended up having a rare old time in the UK, discovering reggae (which had a big influence on his music), helping to organise the 1971 Glastonbury festival, and performing with bands like Yes and Pink Floyd.

Gil was able to return to Brazil in 1972 and has released plenty of albums since, in various different styles. He has also developed a parallel career as a politician. In 1987 he was elected to a local government post in Bahia. He worked in various positions, particularly promoting environmental matters, and in 2003 was chosen to be a cabinet member under President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. As the Minister for Culture, Gil worked on projects like grants to help children from poorer areas learn music, staging big concerts in favelas, and working to create a freely downloadable archive of Brazilian music (although this seems yet to actually materialise). Lula da Silva must have valued Gil, as Gil had to request to step down from his position three times before this was finally accepted. Having dealt with some health issues, Gil continues to make music and serve as an elder statesman for Brazilian culture. He made not be as radical as he once was, but he certainly keeps himself busy.

Recommended album: Given that he’s had such a long and varied career, everyone seems to favour different albums of Gil’s. Some of his earlier albums apparently sound like Zappa-esque noisy rock, while also he’s flirted with reggae, psychadelia, acoustic twiddling and more besides. The album that started so much, ‘Tropicalia’, is now, crazily, out of print, so my pick would be his 1979 album ‘Realce’, where Gil provides his own version of funk and disco. Maybe not as politically serious as some of his other work, but a whole lot of fun.

The Kings of Black Music: James Brown vs. Fela vs. Franco

In the world of black music, from both sides of the Atlantic, there’s three men that cast longer shadows than most – James Brown, Franco and Fela Kuti. All three relied on the talents of many star backing musicians, many of whom went on to be stars in their own right, from the bands The JBs, OK Jazz and Fela’s Nigeria 70 (later Africa 70 and then Egypt 80). But it’s the three men themselves who are always the focus. Larger-than-life performers, they transcended national boundaries and became and remain icons across the world, often for their personalities as much as their music. The music released by these three covers a long period, from the early ‘50s up to the start of the ‘90s (though Fela began a bit later than the other two), but their careers all reached a high point in the ‘70s, with a fascinating process of mutual influence occurring. Although James Brown’s influence on the other two – Fela getting more groovy and funky, and Franco introducing more horn sections and keyboards – is often mentioned, James Brown’s trip to Zaire, Franco’s home turf, in 1974 undoubtedly influenced him too.

But enough love and respect, it’s time for a face-off. All three are icons, all three played music that defies you to sit still, and all three had such ridiculous lives that they can’t be made into movies for being too inbelievable. Who is the best, most important, funkiest, most ridiculous of the lot? Le Sorcier, Soul Brother Number One or The Black President?

The other great black music icon from the same time period is Bob Marley. Although he’s just as famous and influential as Fela, JB and Franco, his music follows a different theme from the others, and there wasn’t quite the same give-and-take of influences. Also, no-one needs to hear that bloody live version of ‘No Woman No Cry’ yet again, whereas you can never hear ‘Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine’ or ‘On Entre OK, On Sort KO’ enough.

Outrageousness of personality

Franco: 5/10 ‘Excess’ could have been Franco’s middle name if he didn’t have so many others already. By 1960, only the seventh year of OK Jazz’s career, they numbered fourteen instrumentalists and six singers. By the mid-‘80s, Franco was employing around forty musicians, who made up two different bands, one in the Congo (Zaire) and one in Belgium. His band were huge, and so was he: at one point he weighed about 300 pounds.  Even his death was lavish. Having released a song called ‘Attention na SIDA’ (‘Beware of AIDS’), he died from the disease that same year. There were four days of national mourning in Zaire, and the radio played nothing but OK Jazz the whole time. Although every aspect of OK Jazz was enlarged, Franco’s biography isn’t really filled with the same sort of ridiculous details as JB and Fela. His attitude to women was about as, er, un-reconstructed as theirs though, and he had, in Ken Braun’s words, “several wives and innumerable mistresses, some of them quite young and a few stolen from friends and colleagues.”  It was a couple of songs about women, ‘Helène’ and ‘Jacky’, that led to Franco being arrested for obscenity, his second prison spell after having been put away for dangerous driving twenty years earlier. Franco’s life was pretty exciting compared to most of ours, but in comparison to JB and Fela’s biographies, he can’t compete.

James Brown: 9/10 There are about as many James Brown stories as there are hiphop songs built around JB samples. There’s the fact his band members had to wear uniforms, and if they didn’t wear exactly what Brown said, they were fined. Ditto for every wrong note they played. There’s the police car chase he was involved in while high as a kite. There’s the fact he was arrested for beating his thirty-year-old wife when he was in his 70s. There’s the fact he was on PCP around the time he recorded ‘Public Enemy Number One’, which is about drugs being bad. There’s the time he apparently threatened with a knife the worker who’d come to fix the electricity in his house, because he’d dared to JB’s toilet while he was there. That’s all to say nothing of his extravagant performances, featuring the many titles he gave himself (Mr Dynamite, The Hardest Working Man in Show Business, Soul Brother Number One, The Godfather of Soul…) and his cape routine, which even gets its own section on his Wikipedia page.

Fela Kuti: 10/10 Fela is probably about as famous for his biography as his music. Aside from his political activism, which was pretty incredible in itself, he was definitely outrageous. He and his family lived and performed nearly every night in a huge venue/village/nightclub called The Shrine. Fela declared it an independent country. He also decided to marry all his backing dancers on the same day. All 27 of them. Really you’d need a whole film to explain what Fela’s life was like…

Instrumental prowess

James Brown: 6/10 Obviously JB is most famous as a singer, and even there you could argue that he’s not actually that great; his rough voice doesn’t have the effortless sound of the likes of Marvin Gaye, or the aching quality of Otis Redding. But Brown wasn’t just a singer, he was a vocalist, and his grunts, shouts and “get on up”s are some of the most infectious sounds in music. It’s often overlooked that he wasn’t a bad musician either. He relied on having some of the finest sidemen there were, from Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker to Bootsy and Catfish Collins, but he played a large part in the arrangements himself, and he could play the organ pretty well, as shown on early tracks like ‘Grits’ or ‘Devil’s Den’.

Fela Kuti: 7/10 Fela played a couple of different instruments, and surely gets points just for diversity: he could wig out on the keyboard just as easily as on the saxophone. He wasn’t a bad trumpet player either, as shown on the daft but enjoyable early single ‘Omuti Tide’ where he incorporates a bit of ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’ into the tune.

Franco: 10/10 No-one can compete with Franco here. His nickname ‘Le Sorcier’ (‘The Sorceror’) comes from the fact that his rivals apparently believed his guitar skills to come from black magic – there couldn’t be any other explanation for it. He’s commonly cited as about the best, and most influential guitarist to come out of the whole African continent.

Danceability/funkiness

Franco: 7/10 There’s a big difference between the three minute, jump-up-and-dance rumba of OK Jazz’s early stuff, and the rolling jungles of guitars that sprawl over their ‘70s or ‘80s material. There’s plenty of groove throughout, but it’s of different kinds. The longer, more intricate soukous songs can be surprisingly relaxed even as they’re musically pretty complex. There’s still plenty of motivation to sway along to them, but for me, the immediacy of the ‘50s stuff is a lot more likely to get you moving your body.

Fela Kuti: 9/10 Fela has got to be second only to James Brown. From the urgent pounding funkiness of ‘Roforofo Fight’ to the slinkiness of ‘Gentleman’, there’s probably not a single tune Fela recorded that you can’t move to in some way. Even the more sinister songs like ‘Coffin for Head of State’ have their own dark grooviness that worms its way inside your head and shoulders. Given that most of his songs easily pass ten minutes, there’s plenty of time for them to do their work too.

James Brown: Good God, I jump back, wanna kiss myself/10 He’s James Brown.

Sticking it to the Man

Franco: 6/10  Franco was surprisingly contradictory when it came to politics. Companies paid him to record songs that were basically adverts: one of his biggest hits outside Zaire, ‘AZDA’, is about a Kinshasa Volkswagen dealership, and there were also songs about brands of soap or cigarettes. It’s a short step from this to tunes praising people, culminating in songs for President Mobutu. There’s no need for a history lesson, but time hasn’t proved Mobutu to be One Of The Good Guys. Franco was never completely on the side of anyone except himself though, and he recorded plenty of songs that were critical of the status quo, often in the tradition of ‘mbwakela’, coded or allegorical criticism. He did in 1960 when Congo’s sudden independence caused problems for the region, and he did throughout the ‘70s as Mobutu’s regime really took hold. Given Franco’s position as Africa’s most famous singer, the regime relied on his support almost as much as he did on the regime’s, and undoubtedly the power wielded by both Mobutu and Franco meant each made the other uncomfortable.  Franco’s imprisonment for obscenity probably wasn’t quite as clear-cut as all that.

James Brown: 6/10 Like Franco, it’s not easy to label JB as either a total sellout or a full-on fight-the-power rebel. He famously sucked up to Nixon, which hardly endeared him to… well, anyone much. But one of his most powerful records is ‘Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud’, recorded in the midst of the ‘60s’ climate of political activism. It’s a record that JB said people were waiting for him to make: as one of the biggest black stars of the time, people wanted to know if he’d take a stand. If you were being uncharitable you might argue that it was a canny commercial decision for him to record the song, but its militancy and directness doesn’t leave you in any doubt that he meant it, too. As his attitude towards his band and his various arrests show, though, JB didn’t seem to think too much about whether he was sticking it to the Man or siding with him, as long as it helped James Brown.

Fela Kuti: 10/10 What rock bands are famous for protesting? The Sex Pistols, the Clash, Bob Dylan maybe? Fela makes them all look like Daily Mail hacks. Famously outspoken and a constant critic of Nigeria’s government, he was so disgusted with the status quo that he declared his home a separate country, and was famous and charismatic enough to be able to pull off a stunt like this. The government had had enough by this point though, and the army stormed the compound, beating Fela, raping his wives and killing his octogenarian mother by throwing her out of a window. Fela’s response was to record more songs criticizing the government for their brutality, including the furiously angry ‘Coffin for Head of State’ and ‘Zombie’. In and out of prison for various offences – some political, some simply for drugs – Fela never kept quiet and even ran for president at one point. His son Femi is continuing the family tradition: when he was given a Land Rover as a gift by a political party, Femi drove it round Lagos with ‘GOVERNMENT BRIBE’ painted on the sides.

Impenetrability of discography

James Brown: 6/10 Compared to most American rock singers, Brown recorded a lot of singles and albums, but stacked up next to Fela or Franco, his oeuvre isn’t too difficult to navigate – the key albums are quite easy to find, and there’s a lot of good compilations too. The only difficulty comes from the hundreds of low-budget comps that recycle badly-recorded live versions of the same songs.

Fela Kuti: 7/10 It’s famously difficult to pick just one Fela album, because he recorded so much, and because most of the records pretty much sound the same, in terms of quality as well as sounds. Although most of his more famous albums are easy to find, good luck tracking down everything… unless of course you go for the boxset of The Complete Recordings, as rereleased by Wrasse records. Even this doesn’t quite include everything though, omitting some of his earlier highlife-style records – although this shouldn’t really bother anyone except obsessives and collectors.

Franco: 9/10 His career lasted about forty years, he released something like 150 albums and nearly one thousand songs. There is a lot of Franco music out there. To make matters worse, it’s been promoted surprisingly badly in the English-speaking world: for a good while, there were only a few compilations available, none of which really include much information about the songs or the other musicians involved.

Recommended starting point

Franco: Despite the history of rush-job compilations, Franco’s legacy has been given the treatment it deserves in Stern’s marvellous two-volume Francophonic compilation, which get full marks in terms of length, song choice and notes.

Fela Kuti: Despite it being difficult to recommend one Fela album above any other, ‘Zombie’ is probably the one that gets named most often. It’s difficult to make good compilations of Fela’s music, given the length of most tracks, but ‘Anthology Vol. 1’ is a good start, taking in some nicely obscure early highlife records, the first developments of the Afrobeat style, and a couple of funk odysseys like ‘Water No Get Enemy’ at the end too. Just get that Complete Recordings boxset though, you’ll want it in the end anyway.

James Brown: For pretty much any other musician, recommending a four-disc boxset as a starting point would seem ridiculous, but for James Brown, it’s mandatory. ‘Star Time’ covers everything from his early material with the Famous Flames right up to his collaboration with Afrika Bambaataa. As well as including more hit songs than you can shake a stick at, it ranges from doo-wop through funk to hiphop, and so it’s also a potted history of late twentieth-century US black music. Can’t be recommended highly enough.

 

Baaba Maal – ‘Missing You (Mi Yeewnii)’

Almost regardless of his music, Baaba Maal is quite an incredible human being. He’s one of Senegal’s Fulani people, and is a proud representative of not just his country but also his ethnicity. He doesn’t sing in Wolof, the language of Youssou N’Dour, and the majority of Senegal, but Pulaar, spoken by the Fulani, a traditionally nomadic people ranging from Guinea to Sudan. He still regularly performs at home, in villages no less, dresses in beautiful traditional robes and is apparently even regarded as having magical powers – if he sings in an area where there has been drought, he can bring rain. Yet he is also the epitome of Afro-European modernity, completely fluent in English, French and several other languages. He looks sharp in designer suits and has worked with Brian Eno and John Leckie, who produced the Stone Roses’ first album. On his most recent UK tour, which I was lucky enough to see, Baaba was only accompanied by a drummer, and the British actor Kwame Kwei-Armah. Although Baaba did play some marvellous acoustic songs, in a similar style to the clip below, most of the evening was him being ‘interviewed’ by Kwei-Armah. He was never less than fascinating. How many musicians, from anywhere in the world, could put on a tour where they just sat and told stories about their lives for most of the evening – and actually pull it off?

However, the balance between Baaba’s rootedness in Fulani tradition, and erudite ‘Western’ modernity hasn’t always shown itself in the best way in his music. His big breakthrough outside of Senegal was with the acoustic album ‘Djam Leelii’, recorded with his longtime musical partner Mansour Seck, but since then Baaba experimented more and more with fusion – reggae, hiphop, electronic drumbeats… This culminated in the album ‘Nomad Soul’, which involved seven different producers (!) and is generally spoken of in the same terms that Metallica fans talk of ‘St. Anger’, or punk fans discuss The Clash’s last album. Suffice to say, that is not very flattering at all. (The word I’ve probably seen used most often in connection to ‘Nomad Soul’ is “nadir”.) So it’s entirely to Baaba’s credit that his next album, ‘Missing You (Mi Yeewnii)’, is a marvellous example of how to blend European and West African elements in a subtle and understated way, to create an album that probably disappointed no-one.

‘Missing You’ is mostly acoustic, and was apparently recorded outside one of Baaba’s homes at night. It really does sound like a relaxed campfire singing session – you can even hear children playing, or crickets chirping in the background of some songs. The principle focus is of course Baaba’s incomparable voice, at once tender and intense above his acoustic guitar. It’s not surprising at all to learn that his father was a muezzin, who called people to mosque to pray.

It’s testament to both subtlety of the songs and the production (courtesy of John Leckie) that the whole thing sounds so relaxed despite the fact that the instrumentation is, at times, pretty dense. In addition to Baaba’s wailing voice and guitar, there’s plenty of different drums used in the best Senegalese fashion, as well as familiar West African instruments like the kora (a type of harp) and balafon (similar to a xylophone). ‘Western’ instruments creep in too, but in an unobtrusive fashion that sounds perfectly natural – even down to the electric guitar solo on ‘Fa Laay Fanaan’. That’s not to say the band can’t step it up a gear when the occasion calls for it: there’s a particular track that features such a percussive change of pace that I feel like it’d be a crime similar to a film spoiler if I were to describe it further.

The lyrics, helpfully translated in English and French in the liner notes, include a thoughtful plea for Africans to be proud of Africa, a song exploring the changing nature of women’s role in society and family life and, perhaps more surprisingly, a traditional ghost story. But it’s perfectly possible to listen to this record without the slightest idea of what the lyrics mean and find it totally satisfying. It sounds so easy-going that it’s almost as easy to listen to as any ‘70s singer-songwriter record, and yet careful listening will reveal something new each time, so intricate is the music – both at the level of the notes the musicians play (the kora is played by the legendary, now deceased Kaouding Cissoko), and what instruments are present in the mix. Not that there’s any doubt that the star of the show is Baaba Maal and that voice.

There’s very few other musicians that seem so comfortable in straddling both Europe and Africa, and modernity and folk traditions. Youssou N’Dour is arguably one; Oumou Sangare is another. But perhaps only Baaba Maal could really have made an album like this. Perfect listening for warm summer nights, the only frustrating thing about it is whether or not he’ll ever make an album this good again.

Franco & le TPOK Jazz – ‘Francophonic’

Practically everything written about François Luambo Makiadi, a.k.a. Franco, will assure you that when it comes to African music, there is simply no beating him. Even articles or anthologies sensible to the fact that ‘Africa’ is not one place, and that ‘African music’ is a huge kaleidoscope of styles rather than one genre, still affirms that Franco is, you know, the guy. Fela Kuti might be more well known in the UK– presumably just because of the fact that Fela sang predominantly in English, albeit pidgin  – but in terms of fame, stature, influence and even physical size (at one point he weighed 300 pounds!), Franco takes the top prize every time. To let the statistics speak for themselves, his career lasted around forty years; he released roughly 150 albums and three thousand songs, of which Franco himself wrote about one thousand; while Franco’s band fluctuated in size throughout the years, at one point it included forty musicians. That band, founded in 1956 in Leopoldville, then-capital of the Belgian Congo, as OK Jazz, went on to become TPOK Jazz, le Tout Puissant Orchestre Kinois Jazz – the All-Powerful Kinshasa Jazz Orchestra.

In spite of all this fame and influence, it has been relatively difficult to get hold of Franco and OK Jazz’s music, in the Anglosphere at least. There are compilations of some of OK Jazz’s early material, but they only represent a fraction of the band’s power, and at any rate, most are out of print now. They’ve all been rendered irrelevant anyway by Stern’s marvellous two-volume ‘Francophonic’, which is about one of the best retrospective compilations you could wish for for a musician. This first volume includes two CDs focussing on the earliest years of Franco’s career – starting from a track from his very first session in a recording studio, made at the age of 15, three years before OK Jazz – up to his stay in Brussels in 1980 (the second volume covers the ‘80s). In addition, the liner notes are so extensive that they practically constitute a book.

While this is a lovely package, it wouldn’t matter a jot if the music was no good, but of course it is fantastic. The earliest material on here is relatively similar to much of the other Congolese music that was being produced in the late ‘50s – largely influenced by Afro-Cuban music, but with the instrumentation slightly changed to create a distinctively Congolese sound. The main ingredient that separated this from Cuban music was the electric guitar, of which Franco was one of the undisputed greats. This early track typifies that sound, with its blend of languages including French, Spanish, Lingala and nonsense rhymes.

Although Franco wasn’t the founder or lead singer of the band, his guitar – and forceful personality – soon became the main focus. OK Jazz became very successful very quickly, and there were many line-up changes as members came and went and the band grew and grew, in both success and number of members, over the years. There’s not point trying to detail all this, partly because it’s a very complex story and partly because I couldn’t possibly do as good a job as Ken Braun does in his notes to this boxset – so the next big change that’s worth pointing out is the revolution in Congolese music that became known as soukous. Franco didn’t event the style – in fact, he was apparently slightly late in picking up on it – but boy, was he good at it.

One of the keys to the style is the part known as a sebene, where the track tempo changes and the guitarist really steps the whole track up a gear. Unsurprisingly, this was where Franco shone. See if you can listen to this, originally recorded in 1973 by the band now named TPOK Jazz, without smiling.

‘AZDA’ wasn’t one of TPOK Jazz’s biggest hits, but it eventually became more popular outside of the Congo and was the band’s most successful record in Europe for a long time. This is hilariously ironic, given that it is about a subject of such local interest: it’s an advert for a particular Congolese Volkswagen dealer (the song’s “vay-way” refrain is a local pronunciation of ‘VW’), who had provided each member of TPOK Jazz with a new car in return. Still, who cares about commercialism if the music sounds this much fun?

You can hear how much the band’s sound had changed from their earlier records, as the songs expanded to allow for more flowing melody lines, more expansive guitar parts and more instruments overall. The band, too, only went on to become more successful and even bigger – eventually Franco set up two completely different line-ups of the band, one for playing at home in Kinshasa and for one touring, based in Belgium. The only constant was Franco himself, sometimes both singing and playing lead guitar, sometimes not even writing the song, but always playing incredibly intricate guitar parts that never lose sight of danceability despite their complexity.

As I said above, there’s too little space to outline the whole story, but this boxset really is the only thing you need to start listening to this absolute giant of world music. Beginning as one of many similar Congolese bands, OK Jazz eventually eclipsed all others in terms of success and longevity, and Franco, as head honcho, has an assured place in the musical palace of the greats. With two CDs of uniformly great music, a great selection of tracks, and very thorough notes and photos, this compilation a fitting tribute to the great man, the ‘Congo Colossus’ known to friends and rivals alike as ‘The Sorcerer.’


Apparently the ninth of fifteen songs in a two-hour broadcast!