Sunday, August 22, 2010

Disco Benga!

Those listening to the album Muungwana (CBS ACP-CBS 1203), by Kenya's Sylvester Odhiambo & the Ambira Boys, may be reminded of the 1973 smash "Lunch Time" and other hit records by Gabriel Omolo & his Apollo Komesha. That's not surprising, as according to the liner notes Mr. Odhiambo sang on many of those recordings.

I have no idea what Mr. Odhiambo is singing about here (no doubt in keeping with Kenyan fashion the lyrics are pithy and ironic), but Muungwana is an infectious example of mid-'80s Swahili benga - propulsive, fast-moving, the synthesizer giving the music a sophisticated "disco" sheen. Enjoy!

Download Muungwana as a zipped file here. "Lunch Time" and other recordings by Gabriel Omolo & the Apollo Komesha, featuring Sylvester Odhiambo on vocals, may be found on the compilation Kenya Dance Mania (Sterns/Earthworks STEW 24CD), and I posted the flip side of "Lunch Time" here.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

From Congo via Nigeria

Priscilla tells me that in the 1970s, when she was a girl in Awo-Omamma, Nigeria, the family used to sit around the short-wave radio almost every night to catch the broadcasts from Radio Brazzaville. I imagine the music they heard sounded an awful lot like the contents of Music from Zaire Vol. 6 (Soundpoint SOP 044, 1978), today's featured recording.

Congo music, of course, was huge in the 1970s all over Africa, and especially in Eastern Nigeria, where it sparked the development of a whole new genre of guitar-based highlife music exemplified by Oliver de Coque, the Oriental Brothers and their many imitators and camp-followers. The numerous Nigerian pressings of Congo music that were made in the '70s feature the musicians that influenced this trend, in the case of Music From Zaire Vol. 6 the artists in Kiamuangana Verckys' stable like Orchestres Kiam, Lipua-Lipua and Cavacha. The music echoes down through the years. I was amazed, on viewing a video of my father-in-law's funeral, made in 1998, to hear an Igbo-language version of Lipua-Lipua's "Nouvelle Generation" played by one of the local bands. No doubt you could hear the same thing in Yaoundé or the backwoods of Kenya - truly it's one of the most influential African songs of all time.

As much of this music is already available through many reissues and postings on the internet, I was hesitant to tack it up here. But recently both Worldservice and Global Groove posted Stars From Zaire Vol. 4 (Soundpoint SOP 042), another installment in the series. That got me to thinking: Is there something about these particular Nigerian pressings that makes them unique? I think so. For one thing, as Worldservice points out, there is a tendency to not include the slower "A" sides of the various recordings and go directly to the big payoff: the "sebene," the faster, more improvisatory second half. This structure is typical of Igbo guitar highlife recordings of the '70s and '80s as well. Just listen to Oliver de Coque or Kabaka and compare them to Music From Zaire Vol. 6 and see what I mean!

The picture of the Yoruba drummers on the back of the record is also interesting:

Here, then, is the music. Just sit back and imagine you're listening to a shortwave radio in Awo-Omamma, Nigeria in the '70s . . .

I believe track 6, "Mwana Yoka Toli," was misattributed on the album sleeve. I'm following the liner notes of Jeunes Orchestres Zaïrois 1971/1973/1974/1975 (Sonodisc CD 36517, 1992) and crediting it to Orchestre Bella-Bella. To download Music from Zaire Vol. 6 as a zipped file go here, and following Worldservice's example, I'm making the "complete" versions of "Baya-Baya," "Mombasa" and "Shama Shama" available here. I'll probably be posting more of these Nigerian pressings of Congo music in the future.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Benin (The Empire, Not the Country)

Back in Eighth Grade, my Social Studies class was given one of those typical assignments where we were supposed to pick out some country and write a report about it. Most of the kids picked well-known countries (I chose Austria), but one young lady, Susan Norman, chose the West African nation of Dahomey.

"Dahomey? Are you kidding?" our teacher Mr. Vezie sneered, no doubt thinking that Susan chose this obscure country to get out of doing a lot of work on the project, but she was adamant.

What does this have to do with the subject of today's post? Well, nothing, really, except that in 1975 the Republic of Dahomey changed its name to the Republic of Benin, after the Bight of Benin, which in turn was named after the Benin Empire, a powerful entity that existed from 1440 to 1897 in what is today Nigeria. "Benin" is a Portuguese corruption of "Ubinu," the administrative center of the Empire, which is today called Benin City, capital of Edo State.

Dahomey's rechristening in 1975 has caused no end of confusion ever since, so to clarify things: Benin City (& hence the historical Benin Empire) is approximately 250 miles east of Porto Novo, capital of the present-day Republic of Benin. The two entities have no historical connection! The map at right shows the sphere of influence of the Benin Empire at the height of its power. To further muddy the waters there was once another "Republic of Benin," which was established by retreating Biafran troops in the early days of the Nigerian civil war (see map below, from John de St. Jorre's Nigerian Civil War, Hodder & Stoughton, 1972, click to enlarge). This historical curiosity was proclaimed at 7 a.m. on September 20, 1967 and collapsed eight hours later!

The Benin Empire encompassed Ijaws, Igbos, Itsekitris and Urhobos, among other groups, but the Edo people constituted the core of the nation. Even today they are celebrated for their artwork, a sample of which is at the top of this post. Much of this was destroyed when Benin City was captured by the British in 1897, and much of the remainder was dispersed around the world. Today Benin City is renowned as a center of education and culture in Nigeria.

All of this exposition is by way of making up for the fact that I can't tell you a whole lot about today's featured artists. While Victor Uwaifo is justly famed as Benin City's foremost musical exemplar, the area has produced numerous other talents, like Patrick Idahosa, who had a similar sound. I can't say much about him, but among Edo musicians he was probably second only to Uwaifo in popularity during his heyday of the '70s and '80s. In the late '90s, Mossiac Records of New York released a CD compilation (Mossiac MMCD 0302) of his greatest hits, from which the following are taken:

Patrick Idahosa & his African Sound Makers - United Brothers

Patrick Idahosa & his African Sound Makers -

Patrick Idahosa & his African Sound Makers - Tamiyaregbe

The Amunataba Dance Band are similarly obscure to me, but what a fine album Akenzua (Mikii MAK 504, 1978) is! Sweet guitar highlife in the Peacocks mode, and isn't the front cover great?

Amunataba Dance Band - Eronmwon

Amunataba Dance Band - Akenzua

Willy Adamosa Osagiede got in touch with me many years ago, and even sent me a CD of his recent recordings. Like all of the musicians here, he was most popular in the '70s and '80s. He's presently based in the San Francisco Bay Area, and you can access his MySpace page here. Here are some tracks from his 1976 LP Ukpakon (Afrodisia DWAPS 70):

Adamosa Osagiede & his International Band - Amayamwen Nue

Adamosa Osagiede & his International Band - Igho Nogie

Adamosa Osagiede & his International Band - Wa Gha Hio

Osayomore Joseph's Afro-funk sound has recently drawn some notice thanks to his contribution to the recent Soundway compilation Nigeria Special. Here's a song from his 1982 LP Ulele in Transit (Emotan EMOLP 01):

Osayomore Joseph & the Ulele Power Sound - Efewedo

And here's one from another 1982 album Over the Bar. . . I Beg You . . . (Emotan EMOLP 02):

Osayomore Joseph & his Ulele Power Sound - Alele

Winding things down in style with Idemudia Cole's Talents of Benin, whose Talents of Benin Vol. 5 (Shanu Olu SOS 127, 1981) is as wonderful an example of Edo highlife as you'll ever find:

The Talents of Benin - Ovbiokhokho

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Somali Songs of the "New Era"

Thanks to Roskow Kretschmann of Black Pearl Records for passing on a unique historical recording, the LP Somalia Sings Songs of the New Era (Radio Mogadishu SBSLP-100) issued in 1972 in the first flush of Somalia's "Scientific Socialist Revolution."

Mohammad Siad Barre (right) came to power in Somalia on October 21, 1969 as the result of a coup d'etat following the assassination of Abdirachid Ali Shermarke, Somalia's second president. The governing Somali Revolutionary Council undertook a number of arguably progressive tasks such as standardizing the Somali language and making efforts to lessen the role of clans in Somali society.

Close ties with the Soviet Union, the adoption of "Marxism-Leninism" as the ruling ideology and the development of a Stalinoid "personality cult" around Siad Barre obscured what was basically an old-fashioned military dictatorship with grievous violations of human rights and mounting popular opposition from the mid-1970s on. Following Somalia's defeat by Ethiopian and Cuban troops during the Ogaden War of 1977-78, Somalia broke with the Eastern bloc and aligned itself with the United States. Subsequently the banner of "Scientific Socialism" in the Horn of Africa would be borne by Ethiopia under Mengistu Haile Mariam's Dergue.

Opposition to Siad Barre's regime had reached a fever pitch by the late 1980s and he was overthrown by Mohammad Farah Aidid's United Somali Congress on January 26, 1991. The resulting chaos in Somalia is well-known, with various armed groups jockeying for power in the years since. Siad Barre died in Lagos on January 2, 1995.

Not only are vinyl recordings of any kind from Somalia hard to come by, I'm fascinated by
Somalia Sings Songs of the New Era as a historical artifact. I asked our friend Sanaag, who was so helpful in the posts "Somali Mystery Funk" and "More Somali Funk," for his insights. Here are his thoughts:
. . . As you've already noticed, the tracks on the album are mainly contemptible praise songs for Siad Barre's ego. The lyrics are very poetic but, the anti-apartheid song and parts of "Gobanimo" and "Soomaalida Maanta" excepted, they are further devoid of any praiseworthy substance. So, I won't dwell long on their content. Instead, I'll try to shed some light on the context.

Since time immemorial, poetry has been the primary means of mass communication and cultural expression in Somali society. It's highly valued and has a tremendous impact on all walks of life. So much so that, according to an Amnesty International report dating from early 90's, poetry (and not the warlords) was the foremost weapon that tumbled the Somali military regime from it's high and haughty throne!

Siad Barre and his Jaalleyaal (comrades) understood the power of that tool all too well and tried to exploit it to promote their cause. They had initially a progressive agenda and rhetoric based on justice, socio-economic development, equal opportunities for all, protection and promotion of women's and minorities' rights etc. The political discourse was pregnant with noble promises and the expectations were high. Gutted by the corruption and nepotism rampant during the preceding civilian governments, many Somalis were enthusiastic about the new 'revolutionary course' and many artists lauded Siad Barre's initial goodwill and positive intentions. Unfortunately, it didn't take long before oppression, fear and mutual distrust were all the midwife could announce to the parturient crowds.

The artists on this series were all members of Waaberi, the house-band of the Ministry of Information and National Guidance. The name says it all: Propaganda and indoctrination! It was a large troupe with hundreds of members embracing dramaturgy, folklore dance and music.

It seems the ones on this album were carefully selected to rally support for the military regime. They were among the most popular in that period and, equally or maybe even more important, they came from practically all regions and clans. Their incipient stance in favour of the military regime, as depicted in these songs, may be genuine, fake, forced ... or all three at the same time, as dictatorial schizo-paranoia has its unfathomable ways. However, poet and playwright Sangub (composer of "Soomalida Maanta" & "Midab Gumeysi Diida") is to my knowledge the only one in this bunch who never disavowed Siad Barre's atrocities. That's why he's strongly despised across the board, notwithstanding his impressive and diverse body of literary work. The other protagonists in this album spoke their mind in subsequent songs and were, along with many others, arrested and/or exiled.

For instance, Abdi Muhumud Amin (composer of "Aynaanka Hay" & "Ha Iilan") was a prolific songwriter and a highly respected poet-playwright. A teenage member of the anti-colonial Somali Youth League (SYL) in the 40's and 50's, he composed many patriotic songs geared towards fighting against colonialism. Disenchanted with the post-independence civilian authorities, dominated by depraved SYL stalwarts, he soon switched into instigating the masses to rise up against the homegrown neo-colonialists. When the Armed Forces toppled the civilians in 1969, he sided with them and composed revolutionary songs. Only to realize within a few years that Siad Barre's regime was as nefarious as the ones it replaced and his criticism was ubiquitous and fierce. He later joined the Somali Salvation Democratic Front (SSDF), the first armed opposition to Siad Barre's reign. Given his courageous and hapless track record, It's no wonder that Abdi was repeatedly imprisoned by the successive colonial, civilian and military administrations in Somalia. He died in 2008 in exile in Kenya where his funeral was attended by thousands of mourners, friends and foes alike.

Speaking of exile, Abdi was the composer of a song you previously asked about that I've already mailed to you - "Dalkeygow!" (Oh, my land!) by Faadumo Qaasim:

Faadumo Qaasim - Dalkeygow!

This is the passage telling why (s)he chose to live as a refugee:

. . . Oh, my land!
I didn't leave you as a tourist
No paradise on earth can replace you
In my body and soul
In my head and heart
Why am I roaming about in foreign countries?
Why am I obliged to beg and hold my hands up for strangers?
Why did I choose to live like a damned stateless person?
Why is it in my interest to opt for the status of a cursed refugee?
Oh, my land!
When clans and factions attacked each other
When relatives, friends and neighbours
Stabbed each other in the back and belly
When peace was denied and denigrated
When elders were not spared
When children were sent to the front
When all it belched was concentrated poison
That is when I had no choice
But to cross the borders
To seek a safe haven
To save my life . . .
Check out the oud solo starting at about 3:30; it summarizes this sad story pretty well.Here is Somalia Sings Songs of the New Era, with explanations of the songs from the liner notes:

"This song is one of the highly valued and widely spread songs of the New Era composed by the nationalist artist, Abdi Muhumud and sung by himself with the help of the Waaberi chorus.
This widely admired song which met international recognition of many artists from friendly countries is dedicated to the beloved leader and Father of the Nation, Jaalle Maj. Mohamed Siad Barre. Its main theme goes: 'The right path you have shown us; Our beloved leader march on; Our triumphant cause be its maintainer; Towards ultimate victory lead us ever":

"The composer of this number, Hussein Aw Farah, is one of the outstanding Revolutionary and patriotic songs composers in the Somali Democratic Republic. In this song he points out the reason why the Armed Forces, with the overwhelming support of the Somali people, took over the power from the corrupt civilian regimes who misruled the country for nine years. He explains that our sovereignty was in danger of total collapse, but the Armed Forces are now ready to defend it at the cost of their lives":

"These are the first words of the song: 'A Revolution dawned in Somalia today - October 21st - and is taking gigantic strides toward progress every year, every day, every hour and every wink.' This song, composed by the talented composer Mohamoud Abdillahi Singub, marks the international cause of the Revolution in Somalia as can be observed in the first few words. It also emphasizes Somalia's call for equality for the whole of mankind without arrogance and domination by some over others, for the elimination of colonialism; for international effort toward such elimination and for the execution of the human principles asserting the right of self-`determination of various peoples in every part of the world":

"This is one of the numerous Revolutionary songs aimed at encouraging the Father of the Nation, Jaalle Maj. General Mohamed Siad Barre, to hold high the banner of the blessed Revolution and to fight against colonialism and all its traces. The composer Abdi M. Amin, who has been honoured for his Revolutionary thoughts, again puts more emphasis in his words which goes: "Forward ever, Backward Never!":

"This song was composed by Mohamoud Abdillahi Singub & sung by Waaberi Artists with Abdi Ali Baalwan & Daleis in the leading role. the composer calls the African leaders to be united against the evils of colonialism, imperialism and Apartheid. The first words of this song point out why colonialism finds its way in Africa. 'Without strong bulwark, Ian Smith would have not dared to snatch off Rhodesia, nor Portugal tried to stay in Angola and Mozambique and to perpetuate genocide against African people, not the memory of the invisible knives to kill the freedom of Guinea in the dark faded away yet. We are also aware of the plight of Africans in South Africa":

Download Somalia Sings Songs of the New Era, complete with cover & liner notes, here.