Africa-Zalila Ngoma (Africa, the drums are crying)
Acoustic Music 319.1204.2
The flyer with this CD says that Ďone has to look very hard to find any sound carrier bearing music from Zambia,í and my shelves only carry a couple of CDs, and three and a bit LPs. Their content is either the music of acoustic guitarists, making the transition from tribal to industrial life in the fifties, or kalindula, the modern Congo-influenced guitar band music. Brian Zanji is described by the press release as both Ďthe most notable traditional musician in Lusaka,í and virtually the only one, and he and his ensemble (three men, one woman) seem to be ploughing a lonely furrow. Zanji plays thumb piano, marimba and drums, and his accompanists various drums and percussion, and they perform songs that are either traditional, or composed within traditional idioms. On this disc, Zanji sings in Luchazi, Tumbuka, Bemba and English as well as his native Nyanja; the final track, which features all the languages mentioned, is both a call for decent behaviour to the afflicted, and a demonstration of how the message would be sung in different parts of the country. Zanji seems to have mastered the various tribal idioms successfully, without trying to acculturate them to each other.
Given that Zambia is three quarters of the size of Western Europe, it behoves a commentator who doesnít speak the local languages, and hasnít heard much of the countryís music, to be careful when generalising. However, itís self-evident that Zambian music relies on polyrhythms, and itís sometimes possible to hear a liking for 6/8 triplets against a 4/4 pulse, a trait which John Storm Roberts highlights when discussing the guitar music heard on African Acoustic Vol. 3 - From the Copperbelt (Original Music OMA 112). This, for instance, is from Mayo Nafwa; as well as showing the polyrhythmic qualities of the music, and the use of call and response, it gives a good idea of the hypnotic sound of the friction drum, played by Mary Musangi, which features on a number of the performances. (sound clip) What links, if any, there may be with the sega of the Indian Ocean islands, which has a similar chugging conflict of 6/8 and 4/4, is an interesting question. Elsewhere, the unaccompanied Tamaya demonstrates a pretty clear influence from South African male choral groups like Ladysmith Black Mambazo. (sound clip)
Otherwise, though, itís hard to comment, other than on the impact of the performances as sonic landscapes. Most of them are very enjoyable, notably the charming Piki Piki, a counting song in Bemba (but with the numbers in English), which has a very pretty texture, arising from the interplay of twanging kalimba, mellow marimba, and an unpredictable (to these ears, anyway) hand drum pulse. (sound clip) Itís followed by the very different Kalyaba, a driving harvest dance of the Tonga people from the south of the country, played on drums and a scraper of some kind. (sound clip) There are occasional longueurs; Mama Africa is not much more than a telephone directory of African leaders, accompanied by kalimba figures that sound like a musical box. As such, it manages to be twee and dull at the same time. (It also reminds at least one British listener of ĎMr Everything Comes From Indiaí in Goodness Gracious Me - but thatís not Brian Zanjiís fault!) Tulembeza (Put the Basket Down) is another uninvolving track, on which Zanji translates the lyrics into English between the verses. The result is to disrupt the flow of the performance, and to annoy the listener, who wants to know why the two women villains of the piece decide to kill a blind womanís newborn baby.
Those reservations apart, Africa-Zalila Ngoma is a likable CD, well recorded and well played. Valuable as documentation of a number of little recorded, but evidently vibrant, musical traditions, it is also valuable simply for the enjoyable diversity of its contents.
Chris Smith - 18.5.00
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