Home Music Various Artists: The Origins of Congo & Zambia Guitar Music

Various Artists: The Origins of Congo & Zambia Guitar Music

The roots of any kind of popular music are always fascinating, and this album more so than most. Because although the guitar no doubt arrived in Congo, Zambia, Malawi and Zimbabwe via the horrors of colonialism, it wasn’t until the years after World War II that it became a popular instrument among the musicians of those countries, and it proved to have a decisive impact on their music. The recordings captured on this album were made by the English farmer and – more importantly — ethnomusicologist Hugh Tracey, founder of the International Library of African Music, which is still among the largest such archives in the world. It’s hard not to be a little dubious of the idea of a white ethnomusicologist freely travelling all over colonial Africa – his first recordings were made in what was then Rhodesia – to catalogue what he found there, but as with John and Allan Lomax, Alan Merriam and others, modern listeners have much to be grateful to him for. While Tracey’s earlier work had focused on indigenous instruments such as the mbira, by the time of his journeys into parts of southern Congo and northern Zambia towards the end of the ‘50s, he was venturing into the new urban culture of the copper mining areas, where the guitar had begun to overtake more traditional instruments in popularity. In doing so, it entirely changed the focus of African music, but although there is at times a discernible influence of western popular music – literally western, as one of the big influences on local guitarists came from the soundtracks of cowboy movies, as popular in Africa as they were pretty much the world over – the songs preserved on The Origins of Congo & Zambia Guitar Music have entirely their own sound and spirit.

The basic nature of the field recordings means that there’s no such thing as “production” – these are just the sounds of guitarists and singers performing for a tape recorder. But for the most part that apparent negative becomes a positive, giving the recordings an immediacy that reduces the distances of time and geography between the performers and listener to zero. It highlights too the easy virtuosity of musicians like Zambia’s Musonda, who manages to overcome potentially disastrous obstacles such as the – to put it kindly – uncertainly-tuned guitar of “Amatstotsi Mama Amaononge Chalo.” The sheer force of a superb vocal performance takes the off-key guitar in its stride, and rather than sounding like a dissonant mess, it makes for a beautifully textured sound.

The songs are arranged geographically in groups, visiting Congo (four songs), Zambia (10 songs), Malawi (two), Zimbabwe (three) and Congo again (five more). The pair of songs from Malawi – Pearson Kapeni’s “Akazi” and “Elube” by the Ndirande Pitch Crooners – reveal, as one might expect, a distinctly different musical identity, and one which seems more related to western music of the time. “Elube” in particular has a song structure and ebullient but gently bluesy quality that is quite unlike the harmony singing of Congo, while the music of Zimbabwe seems – perhaps by chance – more intimate and less gregarious than the other countries represented.

The recordings are not presented in chronological order – the first 16 date from 1957-8 and the last eight from 1950-‘52 – which interestingly gives an almost opposite sense of the evolution of music in Congo. In the first section, the music seems to western ears almost entirely African, especially when – as on the first group of Congo recordings, the main singer is joined by a group of backing vocalists. The last section of the album, Congolese recordings from 1950-’52, however, is notable for the almost mento/calypso-like music of Bembele Henri, especially on “Beni,” where the guitar is augmented by what sounds like saxophones. The nimble guitar playing and earthy vocals are still what drives the song, but the beautiful backing singing and sax seems to be propelling the music forward into a style that is immediately more familiar to 21st century ears. In fact, this makes sense as, presumably, the artists recorded in 1957 had evolved a style over the years that adapted the instrument more to their and their audience’s taste and away from the slightly alien structures of western music. These earlier recordings also include the artists who would go on to become among the best-known names in African music of their era, Zimbabwean singer/songwriter/guitarist George Sibanda and the pioneer of Congolese fingerstyle guitar Mwenda Jean Bosco. In particular, the songs of Sibanda, who had been discovered by Hugh Tracey a few years earlier, have a catchiness and deceptively simple appeal that led to his “Gwabi Gwabi” being covered (as “Guabi Guabi”) by US folk singers like Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Arlo Guthrie among others, but also a kind of gentle laidback melancholy that feels subtly different from the more extrovert lyricism of most of the other artists here, perhaps because he performs unaccompanied by other musicians or singers.

In contrast to its unwieldy title, The Origins of Congo & Zambia Guitar Music is a beautifully selected and sequenced collection of elegant, life-affirming and masterfully played music that leaves the listener wanting more. From the promotional material it’s not clear what kind of sleeve notes will accompany the release – and the absence of them would in no way mar the album – but with an introduction this vibrant and unexpected it would be good to know more about the artists and the culture that gave rise to this beautiful music.

A superb collection that will hopefully open the door for further releases documenting the pioneers who shaped the sound of 20th century African guitar music.
80 %
Thrilling time capsule

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