Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Dawn of the Age of the Medley

In the last twenty years or so there has emerged a trend in the African music scene toward "Greatest Hits" compilations rerecorded "Megamix" style in 15-20 minute continuous medleys. This tendency was kick-started around 1990 with the release of the Soukous Stars' smash CD, entitled, appropriately enough, Megamix Vol. 1 (Syllart 38779-2, below left). Not only is the Soukous Stars' success pegged on mixes like this, another group, Soukous Vibration, has arisen that specializes exclusively in this sort of thing, and there have been mix albums released from all over Africa: Madagascar, Mali, Nigeria, even Chad.

I'm a bit distressed at this fad (which, truth be told, has already faded considerably). One would like to see African musicians stretching themselves and developing new syntheses, not just rehashing the old glories. Still, in a way it's a good thing, because it brings the classic sounds to new generations.

Before Megamix Vol. 1, there was another great megamix-style album, probably the first of the genre. I'm talking about Syran Mbenza's Africa: The Golden Years (AMG 007), released sometime in the late '80s by the DC-based label African Music Gallery
. Although it's arguably the best of all of the megamixes and probably directly inspired the trend, it's faded completely from sight.

Mbenza, a native of the Congo, is well-known to African music fans, having been a stalwart of the Kinshasa-, West African- and Paris-based African music scenes since 1968. He's been involved with numerous groups including Sam Mangwana's African All-Stars, Le Quatre Etoiles and the supergroup Kekele.
Africa: The Golden Years is notable for its synthesis of classic Congolese rumba with West African highlife. I'm sure it had been done before, but probably not to such great effect.

Here's the album. For more information on the songs and the musicians, click on the picture at the bottom of this post:

Syran Mbenza - Adjoa-Sawale-Mbanda Kazaka

Syran Mbenza - Mabele Ya Paulo-Bottom Belly-Super Combo

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Mysterious Ali Chuks

Some years ago an acquaintance passed on a cassette of a Nigerian musician who was previously unknown to me; the tape was simply labeled "Ali Chuks." "He's an Igbo, and he's a Muslim," my friend explained. Which caught my attention, because if there's one thing that would seem to be hard-wired into the DNA of every Igbo man, woman and child, it is an abiding allegiance to the Christian faith. The reasons for this are rooted in history. Suffice it to say that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries the Igbo embraced Christianity with a vengeance after stubbornly adhering to their traditional religion from time immemorial, and this identification was only strengthened during the privations of the Biafran war. An Igbo Muslim? Who had heard of such a thing?

As a matter of fact, there are small communities of Igbo Muslims, not only in the Islamic north of Nigeria but in Igboland itself. My friend Maurice O. Ene of Kwenu magazine describes the efforts of one Suleiman Onyeama, scion of a prominent Igbo family, who established an Islamic school in his home town of Eke.

Which is all beside the point, really, because as far as I've been able to find out, Ali Chuks, better known as Ali Chukwuma (his LPs also tag him "Ali Chukumah" and "Ali Chukus"), was a true-blue Igbo Christian and not a Muslim at all. Apparently he took his name from Ali Baba, a famous African wrestler of the sixties and seventies (and if you want to learn about yet another African "Ali Baba," go here.)

I have heard varying accounts of Chukwuma's origins and activities before he became a well-known musician, but he was apparently from Aboh in the "Anioma," or Igbo-speaking area of present-day Delta State. He is said to have moved to Atani near Onitsha following the death of his father and made the acquaintance there of native son Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe. He spent some time in the great master's Nigeria Sound Makers band and later left to form his own Nigeria Peace Makers.

Chukwuma died of liver failure in the mid-'80s, leaving a legacy of much-loved highlife music.

I had wanted to showcase selections here from various points in Chukwuma's career, but listening to the different recordings, one album stands out: Club 25 (Editions Namaco ENLPS 54), recorded sometime in the late 1970s. Therefore, I'm offering it to you in its entirety, and in future posts I'll present other recordings by this master of Igbo roots music.

"Club 25" is another typical praise song about one of the many Igbo social and charitable clubs. Chukwuma recites the names of and praises the various officers and notable of the organization:

Ali Chukwuma & his Peace Makers International - Club 25

"Henrietta" apparently is addressed to a demanding young woman who thinks she can do better than the narrator. "Henrietta, onye d'imma n'azu:" "Who is beautiful behind their back? Who has everything they want or need in this world?"

Ali Chukwuma & his Peace Makers International - Henrietta

"Onye Melu Ogo Amazi" means "The person I did a favor for doesn't realize it." Chukwuma sings, "What you don't know won't kill you. The good that I do for someone will not kill me." He further sings that no one will carry this world on their back when they die. In other words, your wealth won't do you any good in the afterlife:

Ali Chukwuma & his Peace Makers International - Onye Melu Ogo Amazi

"Ezi Okwu Bu Ndu" means "A truthful word is life." Truthfulness leads to a perfect life. Truthfulness is worth more than money. Further, "Nkem fulu n'anya, bu ezi okwu, nkem nulu n'nti bu asi," or "What I saw with my eyes is true, but what I heard with my ears is lies." In other words, don't believe it unless you see it yourself. Chukwuma further sings that a very good friend is better than family. He recounts that when he first started making music everyone said he was a fool, but now that he is famous they all want him to sing their praises. He sings that he went to Kano, Kaduna, Sokoto and Nnewi and mentions various individuals. "Asi na Chinedu nwa ogbenye. Asi na ifeyi nwa": "They say that God guides the poor man's child. They say that a child is priceless":

Ali Chukwuma & his Peace Makers International - Ezi Okwu Bu Ndu

Discography of Ali Chukwuma

Thanks to my wife Priscilla for her help translating these songs. Any errors in transcription are my own.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Farewell, "Mama Africa"

We were all saddened to hear of the death yesterday, November 10 of the esteemed South African singer Miriam Makeba. She was 76 and suffered a heart attack during a concert in Italy.

Makeba, known as "Mama Africa," was an artist who suffered greatly for her outspokenness on behalf of the oppressed, but she shouldered that burden gladly. Already a major star in South Africa, she was stripped of her passport in 1960 after speaking out against the apartheid system while on a world tour. In exile, she achieved global fame with her hit song "Pata Pata" in 1967, but her career suffered another setback in 1968 when she married civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael. Without a recording contract and unable to find bookings in the United States, she and her husband took up residence in the republic of Guinea as guests of President Sekou Touré. It was in Guinea that she suffered the tragedy of her daughter Bongi's mental illnesss and subsequent death.

In 1987 her career was reborn in the wake of Paul Simon's album Graceland. She toured the world with Simon and other South African musicians and released Sangoma, an album of the traditional Xhosa songs of her youth.

To promote Sangoma, Warner Brothers Records made available to media outlets Miriam Makeba: The Sangoma Interview (Warner Brothers PRO A-2974, 1988), a recording of a one-hour session with journalist Roger Steffens. In honor of Mama Africa, I'm pleased to present it here:

Miriam Makeba - The Sangoma Interview Pt. 1

Miriam Makeba - The Sangoma Interview Pt. 2

Miriam Makeba - The Sangoma Interview Pt. 3

Miriam Makeba - The Sangoma Interview Pt. 4

Update: As you might expect, the blogs have been all over this story. Matsuli and With Comb and Razor, of course. Also Spinning in Air and Undercover Black Man. World Service offers a rare "pre-mix" version of Sangoma, while Zero G Sound features a download of her 1960 debut US LP. Meanwhile, Global Groove has the 1965 RCA Victor album Makeba Sings! There are many more tributes than I can list here, naturally.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

R.I.P. Baba Orlando Owoh, King of Toye

By way of Comb & Razor I've learned that Orlando Owoh, the Nigerian master of Toye music, passed away Tuesday, November 4 after a long illness following a stroke.

Owoh was 74 when he died. He was born in Owo in Oyo State in the former Western Region of Nigeria and played in the early '60s with Fatai Rolling Dollar, who had earlier employed Ebenezer Obey. While he's long been hugely popular in Nigeria, he came to the notice of most World Music™ fans in the West when the now-defunct label Original Music released Dr. Ganja's Polytonality Blues (Original Music OMCD 035, 1995), a compilation of two of his Nigerian LPs. While his musical style, variously called Toye (which is also Yoruba slang for marijuana) or Kennery, is often classified as "highlife," it is more properly a fusion of that style and jùjú music, with Owoh's own idiosyncratic affectations. As John Storm Roberts puts it in his liner notes to Polytonality Blues:

. . . Like so much downhome African music, Owoh's style can baffle westerners used to the polite worldbeat of bands aiming for international stardom. Not only can some of the more polytonal playing sound as though the toye was stronger than usual, but the band (like many other street-level juju bands) uses tunings different from the standard European tempered scale. Like the sweet-sour offbeat chord in many Tex-Mex polkas, or the acidic pitch of virtuoso klezmer clarinetist Dave Tarras, Owoh's band uses dissonance to give its music an extra edge.
I present here in its totality Owoh's 1976 LP Ifon Omimah Ni Moti Wa (Afrodisia WAPS 317). My knowledge of Yoruba is less than minimal, so I can't tell you anything about the lyrics, but maybe someone out there can oblige us. This is a great example of "Dr. Ganja's" mature style:

Dr. Orlando Owoh & his Young Kenneries Band - Ifon Omimah Ni Moti Wa / Baba Ma Fi Ku Ma Wi

Dr. Orlando Owoh & his Young Kenneries Band - Late Gabriel Jejeniwa / Olobele Mo Bele / Ajuwa Sawasawa

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Digital Ethiopia Pt. 2

As I explained in
"Digital Ethiopia Pt. 1," the last decade and a half have seen an explosion of Ethiopian musical releases recorded in the United States. While these productions have the benefit of state-of-the-art recording facilities, they tend to lack the freshness and immediacy of the home-grown recordings of the '70s and '80s. In this post I'll be highlighting some of the great Ethiopian female singers who have made careers in this country but I also want to post a couple of tracks by a musician who doesn't fit into that category.

Tadesse Alemu was from Wollega province in western Ethiopia and seems to have begun his recording career in 1997, when he released Ethiopian Wedding Songs (Ethio Sound Productions). This is the only recording I have by him, but he released several others, all in the same vein: traditional melodies updated for modern times. Here are two tracks from Ethiopian Wedding Songs:

Tadesse Alemu - Shinet

Tadesse Alemu - Hedach Allu

Alemu is said to have passed away in 2007, but he has a number of videos on YouTube, including this adaptation of a traditional Ethiopian Orthodox hymn (I think some of the footage is lifted from The Passion of the Christ!):

Hamelmal Abate's song "Kalkidan" was included on my compilation African Divas Vol. 1. Her career began during the dark days of The Derg when she performed with the National Theater (formerly the Haile Selassie 1 Theater) and recorded several hit cassettes. After stints with the Roha Band and the Ethio-Stars she moved to the United States in the early '90s. "Tirulegn" is from her 2006 CD Gize Mizan (Amel Productions):

Hamelmal Abate - Tirulegn

Hana Shenkute, singing with the Abyssinia Band, graced 1992's Music from Ethiopia (Caprice CAP 21432), and she's been getting rave reviews lately for her performances across the US with the Either/Orchestra.
I'm pleased to present this tune by her from her debut solo release Hana (Yared Cahen Productions YCP-HSD 001). A pleasant change from most of the synthesizer-driven sounds here, backup is by the Admas Band (more about them below):

Hana Shenkute - Addis Fekere

A tune by Abonesh Adnew was featured on my collection African Divas Vol. 2. Currently residing in Washington DC, Abonesh is one of Ethiopia's finest new vocalists and sings in many of its languages. Here's a video featuring her music, and here's another. "Limitawey" is taken from her excellent 2004 release Bahilen (Electra Music & Video Center):

Abonesh Adnew - Limitawey

One of the most popular postings on Likembe has been "Ethiopian Honey", featuring Kuku Sebsebe's outstanding '80s cassette Munaye. Of course you know I'm a huge fan of this wonderful singer, and I wish I could tell you more about her. All I know is that she was apparently resident in DC for a number of years, recently had a "comeback" and is said to have returned to Ethiopia. Although I don't think her recent work measures up to Munaye, I'm happy to present another tune by her, from her 2003 CD Tinish Geze Sitegn (Nahom Records):

Kuku Sebsebe - Hallo Belat

My daughter Aku asked, "Is Chachi Tadesse trying to be the Ethiopian Beyoncé?" There's no question this sexy LA-based singer has what it takes in the looks department, although her musical stylings are quite different from those of the former Destiny's Child member. While her debut release Global Rhythm (C.T. Records, 1994) went for a "World Beat" (God, I hate that term!) feel, 2000's Medina (C.T. Records) hews closer to the standard Ethiopian sound. Here are two tracks by Chachi, one from each CD:

Chachi Tadesse - Africa

Chachi Tadesse - Medina

In the course of researching this post, I came across a very informative interview with Kay Kaufman Shelemay, a professor of music and African and African American Studies at Harvard University. Among other things, she discusses the musicians who make up the Admas Band, a group that is ubiquitous on Ethiopian recordings made in the US, in fact they play on most of the tunes showcased in this post and in
"Digital Ethiopia Pt. 1." Fasil Wuhib, Abegasu Kibrework Shiota, and Hennock Temesgen, shown below (l to r) comprise the core of the group:

Bassist Fasil Wuhib played with the Dahlak Band and the Ethio-Stars before emigrating to the US in 1990. Abegasu Shiota, who plays keyboards
, was born in Japan of a Japanese mother and an Ethiopian father. Like Mulatu Astatqé, he studied at the Berkeley College of Music in Boston and recently returned to Ethiopia, where he has a recording studio and teaches young musicians at the Yared School of Music in Addis Ababa. Bassist and producer Hennock Temesgen has also returned to Ethiopia. Together, these musicians have performed with just about all of the Ethiopian artists who have made their way to the United States.

None of these recordings are available through the usual channels, but they are well worth searching out. An excellent source in Los Angeles
is the Merkato Ethiopian Gift Shop, 1036½ S. Fairfax Ave. (323-935-1775) which is in the middle of Little Ethiopia, a one-block stretch of restaurants and shops.
n Chicago, Abyssynia Market, 5842 N. Broadway (773-271-7133) and Kukulu Market, 6129 N. Broadway (773-262-3169) both have nice selections of music. I understand a good source in DC is Ethio Sound, 2400 18th St. NW (202-232-6076), and there are many other sources in the area. Online, AIT Records and Nahom Records are both good.