|Mukwesha nema Gwenyambira
|Matare: the Power of Mbira
|Ngoma Nkurira: pure spiritual drum grooves from Zimbabwe
|Farai: High Energy Jiti
|Sierra Leone People: Fankadama for Peace
|Oliver "Tuku" Mutukudzi
To judge by this batch of releases, the German Shava label is largely dependent for its material on Zimbabwean singer and mbira (lamellophone) player Virginia Mukwesha (who is, incidentally, the daughter of another famous mbira player, Stella Rambisai Chiweshe.) Apart from appearing as performer, arranger and composer on both the traditionalist 004 and the Afro-pop 006, she produced 005, gets an A&R credit on 007, and wrote or co-wrote the notes for her own CDs and Oliver Mutukudzi's. No doubt all this hyperactivity is mutually beneficial, giving Shava a flow of material to release, and a facilitator in Zimbabwe, and providing Mukwesha with a musical and rhetorical outlet. What do the results amount to in terms of musical achievement by the artists, and enjoyment for the listener?
Matare, although cued up as six tracks, is in fact 61'14" of uninterrupted music, by seven mbiras, ngoma (hand drums), hosho (rattles) and occasional whistling. As the notes - interesting, but hard to read, having apparently been transcribed from tape by someone whose native language is not English - explain, this music is created by the interplay of tone patterns of (4 x 12 =) 48 beats. As the eye links together still images on a film strip to create perceived movement, so the ear and brain generate, from the interlocked patterns, melodies that are not actually being played. This sort of procedure is also found in East Asian music, and has been adopted by Western minimalist composers. In Zimbabwe, however, there is much more at stake than the organisation of pitch and rhythm as an intellectual exercise; the sound of the mbira is an essential component of matare ceremonies, during which spirit possession is induced so that families can consult their ancestors about problems in the world of the living.
The music on this CD is produced by five players: Virginia Mukwesha doubles mbira and hosho, and three of the other four musicians play two mbiras apiece. There must, therefore, be extensive overdubbing by all involved, apart from the ngoma player. Since the usual line-up for matare ceremonies is two mbiras and hosho, what appears on this CD seems to be a species of art music, inspired by, rather than a replication of, the music of trance ceremonies. Nevertheless, the musicians seem to be working within the cultural context outlined in the notes: "mbira encompasses a religious system, a philosophy, a healing system, a dance and a number of social or individual occasions." Few listeners in the Northern world are going to be able to participate at those levels of cultural complexity (although some will no doubt persuade themselves that they are doing so); but most will find it a relaxing and soothing experience to surrender to the five themes and 35 variations that Mukwesha and her assistants work through. Picking out a sound clip is almost to defeat the purpose of this music, which is meant to be heard at length, but here's the point, 30 minutes into the performance, at which the hoshos enter. (sound clip)
Chinembiri Chidodo is a much in-demand percussionist who plays in a number of Zimbabwean bands, including Virginia Mukwesha's, and has been a member of the National Dance Company of Zimbabwe (in which case, I probably saw him at the Commonwealth Institute in the mid-eighties). Here, occasionally assisted by Leonard Ngwenya, he runs through a set of eight religious and/or social dance rhythms on nine tracks. (Sic - the opening Kwa Murehwa is reprised in a "dry version" as the final item - or nearly final; every one of these CDs ends with an identical minute or so of unlisted, and unexplained, percussion.) Chidodo is a master drummer, and the CD is well recorded. As with Matare, almost any excerpt will show both these attributes; here are the opening 30 seconds of track 1. (sound clip)
Despite Chidodo's undoubted brilliance, however, I found that over an hour of percussion was rather a lot, especially since the music is under-explained. (What makes that "dry version" dry, for instance?) The notes briefly describe the function of each rhythm; it would have been helpful if they could have been expanded with an account of which instruments are used on each track, and with a description, or preferably, notation, of the basic rhythm in each case. The sounds that are heard here are used in religious ceremonies, to celebrate good fortune, or to accompany the erotic dancing of jiti ("some kind of African Rock 'n' Roll") and mbende, ironically retitled Jerusarema to divert the suspicions of the missionaries. Despite the music's having all these life-affirming qualities and purposes, and despite - or perhaps because of - Chidodo's technical brilliance, as a listening experience this CD is more like an instructional record, with insufficient instructions, than entertainment.
No such problems arise when listening to Farai, which claims to be "the first album from Zimbabwe to exclusively feature the real Jiti rhythm. The songs on Fari [sic] present a dallas-like [sic] insight into this true Rock 'n' Roll of Zimbabwe which is Jiti music. It is like a soap-opera show presenting you with a culture of making jokes and insults while dancing and singing together." Jiti is said to have been inspired in the fifties by South African kwela, but it was, as the notes observe, "transformed drastically once it caught the imagination of the rural folk. The flute, the saxophone, the guitar and the bass fiddle were dropped. Human voices in four part harmony, conga-like drums and dancing became the most compelling features. To these voices were added two Ngoma hand drums."
As heard on this disc, jiti seems to have traveled a long way from its kwela origins, to have been re-urbanised to a considerable degree, and to have become, like the music of Thomas Mapfumo and others, a vehicle for incorporating mbira music into an urban, popular sound. The lineup is the Western lead guitar, bass guitar and drums, soprano and alto marimbas, playing mbira-inspired lines, percussion and hoshos, a lead vocalist (Mukwesha, who is a forceful, surprising tenor), with up to nine supporting voices, singing in call-and-response style. Jiti is, indeed, high-energy music, with lyrics that often comment on social and political issues, but just as often simply celebrate and accompany having a good time. Here's an example of the way traditional and modern are blended, with a children's rhyme ("We believed that if you cite it [sic] when the new moon appears you would stay healthy for the rest of the month") making a smooth transition from unaccompanied harmony into the guitar- and marimba-driven sound of the dance halls. (sound clip) A very enjoyable CD.
Less successful is the only non-Zimbabwean record under consideration, by vocalist, rhythm guitarist and multi-percussionist Ansumana Bangura, from Sierra Leone, but resident in Germany. He - and, of course, his overdubs - are accompanied by lead and bass guitars, keyboard, and backing vocalists. The CD starts in superb form, with Fighting My Way, which sets Sierra Leonean calypso commentary to a airy, spacious electric version of the West African palmwine guitar sound. Thereafter, however, that standard is seldom attained again, partly because of a reliance on the keyboards for cheesy, synthesised "horn" riffs, and partly because of the poor quality of the backing vocalists, in particular Natalie Gabriele Politz, introduced as born in Germany, and evidently owing more stylistically to American soul singers than to Africa.
African musicians have been adopting and transmuting American and Caribbean music all through the era of recording, from rumba to jazz to soul to reggae, so in itself a soul influence is not necessarily undesirable; the problem is that Ms Politz is grafted onto, rather than built into, the band's sound; she's also simply not very good. This extract from One Day You Go Suffer (sound clip) displays the strengths and weaknesses of the record as a whole. On the plus side are Bangura's fine singing, sweet but impassioned, and his driving rhythm (Bangura was formerly a member of Miriam Makeba's band, who dumped him and two other members in Hamburg!). On the down side there are Ms Politz, lead guitar lines that sound like a cheap synthesiser, and lyrics that address the problems of war, development and corruption in Africa on a rather platitudinous level. (Please understand that in saying this, I don't wish to belittle Ansumana Bangura's concern for the sufferings of the people of Sierra Leone, or his attempts to offer solutions; but for me Fela Kuti's biting, satirical commentaries are the yardstick of African political music, and Bangura's pleas for everyone to be nice to each other fall far short.)
Best of the bunch, without a doubt, is Oliver Mutukudzi, a new name to me, but evidently a star, with over 40 albums to his credit. His music, "tuku", is said to combine mbira with South African mbaqanga, which itself incorporates elements from all over southern Africa. It's interesting to note, in passing, that the obligatory credentials of star status in African pop seem to be, simultaneously, a basis in tradition, and a style that can plausibly be claimed as one's own creation. Ansumana Bangura calls his music fankadama, which means "mix everything", and the result is indeed a rather lowest common denominator sound. Mutukudzi, on the other hand, although his rhythms are reminiscent of other Zimbabwean artists, such as the religious singer Machanic Manyeruke, is clearly a creative and original artist, so much so that, paradoxically, he is confident enough to perform other people's songs, and is apparently the only artist - which surely means 'pop artist' - in Zimbabwe to do so.
I would be interested to know to what extent this emphasis on originality is imported from Western popular music, and how far it has African roots. (The emphasis on originality in Western pop, motivated partly by artistic urges and partly by publishing income, is itself a fairly recent development. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones were originally cover bands, and in the sixties and seventies, so I've been told, Zairean bands would start the night with a couple of hours of American and British chart hits; I have Zairean recordings of Beatles and Percy Sledge numbers!)
Ndega Zvangu means 'all alone', and is Mutukudzi's first solo album, almost all of it recorded with only acoustic guitar accompaniment (there is occasional, discreet percussion). It had been intended to record the songs with his band, the Black Spirits, but tragically, his keyboard playing brother, his guitarist, and his drummer all died. There is no way that this CD can be regarded as a compensation for such events, but it is an altogether magnificent recording, for Mutukudzi possesses one of the great soulful (as opposed to soul) voices of African music, and accompanies himself with clean, complex guitar lines. This (sound clip) is from the end of Handiende, composed by Steve Makoni, with Mutukudzi's soaring reading of a serious lyric about family breakup riding out into a joyous, scat singing fade. Wonderful, and if I were still living within reach of Stern's, I would be in there tomorrow, to see what else by him is available.
Chris Smith - 25.6.98
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