Radio Sudan… Coming soon

Posted November 30th, 2009 at 4:20 pm (UTC-4)
1 comment

I am currently working on a post featuring some wonderful and unusual recordings from the Sudan ( jazz, Mambo, rock n’ roll) that were recorded by the Sudanese National Radio back in the 1960s.  In the meantime I thought I’d share some beautiful tracks by a few of the Sudan’s musical legends.  These recordings were given to us by the Sudanese National Radio.

Mohammed Wardi is one of the most famous Sudanese singers of the twentieth century.  These next two songs are wonderful examples of the ‘classical’ big-band style that has made Sudanese music famous throughout the Horn of Africa and the Sahel.  (From Mauritania through Niger and on to Djibouti I have met many rabid fans of Sudanese big-band music).

Sayed Khalifa, who passed away in 2001, at the age of 73, started to make a name for himself in Khartoum in the 1950s.  He was the first Sudanese to formally study music and his songs are classics of the golden-age of the Sudanese big-bands.

Gifts from Listeners

Posted October 28th, 2009 at 8:35 pm (UTC-4)

After several long and time consuming posts, and while I am working on the next long one, I thought I’d squeeze in a brief post featuring some of the many wonderful recordings that our listeners have sent us over the years; this first batch includes a few of my favorites from West African listeners. The constant challenge of creating music programming that appeals to listeners from dozens of countries, each with their own dynamic musical traditions and recording industries, is made easier by the generous impulses of faithful listeners who send us recordings of their favorite music.

Most of the musical gifts we receive come from listeners in Nigeria, and I particularly appreciate all the recordings of cultural music that our sent our way. These are musical universes that are difficult to discover without spending time in Nigeria. These next two cassettes are favorites.

Nwankwo Aghadinagu was born in 1940 and is from Awkuzu in Anambra local government area, of Anambra State Nigeria, in South-Central Nigeria. He was born into a musical family and started performing in 1953. His group is called ‘Anwulika’ and they perform ‘Egwu Ekpili’ music. The listener who sent this cassette writes that Nwankwo ‘has added a new dimension to [Egwu Ekpili] music-that is the electric or casio computer drums and is yet to be equaled’. Nwankwo has released at least six albums and initiated many younger musicians into the secrets of Egwu Ekpili music, including the great Morocco Emeka Maduka.

This cassette is one of six that were sent by the same listener on what appears to be his D.I.Y. cassette label ‘Sweet Sound’. As far as I can tell, this cassette is a compilation of tracks that were commercially released on lps. In ‘Onwu Emelua Madu Aru’, or ‘death has caused a lot of grief to humanity’, Nwanko sings, ‘things are not what they were before. Please God, come and save us. Oh my friends, the world is changing and I’m scared. A friend who was healthy in the morning suddenly started to vomit. I went to help him and took him to the hospital, where he kept vomiting. Before we realized what had happened, he passed away. I cry for him, a nice man, a good friend is gone’. Nwankwo goes on to recite the names of friends and loved ones who have passed away, and after each name the chorus responds, ‘death has dealth with us’.

Next up, another cassette of cultural music from Igbo land in Nigeria, sent to us back in 1999 by Mr. Kelechi Oti, who at the time lived in Pankshin, Plateau State in North-Central Nigeria. This next artist is a living legend in Arondizuogu, a town in Imo State, in South-East Nigeria. Chief Perricomo Okoye, who has been performing for over thirty years, is the master of the music played for the annual Ikeji festival, held every spring in Arondizuogu. The Ikeji festival is celebrated, over four days, to mark the end of the planting season, and is a highlight of the Arondizuogu social, economic and cultural calendar.

Every year the festival draws thousands of members of the Arondizuogo Diaspora from throughout Nigeria, Europe and the United States. The last two days of the festival feature masquerade displays from throughout the region that showcase the diversity of local traditions. Chief Perricomo Okoye, who was given the title ‘Cultural Prime Minister’ by the citizens of Arondizuogu, and his traditional dance group are one of the keys to the success of the annual Ikeji festival. (I am still trying to get the details of how Chief Perricomo got his name. Was the American pop singer Perry Como popular in Igbo land?)

This cassette was released to celebrate the 1998 edition of the Ikeji festival, and features Chief Perricomo’s traditional lineup of Ekwe (the wooden slit drum), Ogene (metal gong), and most importantly the Ojah (wooden flute). In an article describing the Ikeji festival, Uche Ohia describes the role of the Okwa Ojah, or flutist; ‘He deftly communicates with the masquerades-weaving soulful melodies and blending esoteric messages into the intoxicating rhythms of the drums. The flutist warns the masquerade of any impending danger and is capable of inciting the masquerade or individuals to heroic acrobatics and demonstrations’.

Chief Perricomo Okoye, as is usually the case in Igbo music, opens the song ‘Akuko Uwa’ with a proverb, ‘It is not good when children retrieve items thrown into the evil forest’. He then praises and salutes local dignitaries before getting to the meat of his message. He sings, ‘we cannot throw away our culture for something external’, to which the chorus answers ‘no we can’t’. Chief Perricomo continues, ‘can we do without our culture?’, and the chorus answers ‘no we can’t’. Chief Perricomo goes on, ‘there is never a time when discussions for peace will cause problems in a community, let’s talk through our communal problems. The culture of our people is what our ancestors lived with, and that is what we must live with. I am asking young people, are you still observing our customs and traditions? We have to go back to our culture’.

About twenty years ago, Mr. Lamin A. Turay of Freetown, Sierra Leone sent us this terrific cassette of Dr. Oloh. Born Israel Olufemi Cole on March 20, 1944 in Leicester, a small village about 15 miles West of Freetown, Dr. Oloh over the course of a fifty-year career put his stamp on the music of Sierra Leone. He created his own style of music that he called Milo Jazz, a topical, raucous version of Gumbay music. Over the decades, Dr. Oloh built his audience playing at countless moonlight picnics, carnivals, holiday celebrations, and marriages. He toured the United Kingdom several times in the early 1990s, released dozens (if not more) of cassettes like this one, and at least one international CD. Dr. Oloh passed away on October 13, 2007. I met Dr. Oloh in Freetown, back in early 1994, and even at the age of fifty he was still a dynamic percussionist, with more spark than most of his much younger band members.

This long track, which is excerpted from a forty five minute recording, features two songs. The first, sung in Temne, discusses the surprising and immoral behavior of young women in Freetown. Dr. Oloh intersperses his commentary with moral maxims, such as ‘Envy is not good’. The second song begins a little after the five-minute mark, and is one of Dr. Oloh’s most famous. It is called ‘Momoh No Worry’, and was composed in late 1985, during the transfer of power from Siaka Stevens to the professional soldier Joseph Saidu Momoh, who was president of Sierra Leone until April of 1992. Dr. Oloh reminded the new president that his power came from God, not from Siaka Stevens, and that he was indebted to the people of Sierra Leone and not to Siaka Stevens.

This last, but not least and perhaps most interesting, cassette is a four track home-recording demo sent to us, in 2006, by Mr. Nebie I. Abdoul Bassirou, who records under the name of Bass Nebil. Mr. Bassirou lives in Léo, a town in South-Central Burkina, not far from the Ghanaian border. He sings, in several languages, and plays the guitar. These stark songs have a simple melodic charm that has me playing them over and again.

This first song ‘Kassi Bazao’ is sung in Diula and French, and Bass Nebil develops two themes. In the first part he sings, ‘Uncle Bazao is always drunk, his family is miserable, he is always drunk’. In the second part he sings, ‘let’s work the land, let’s fight poverty, let’s modernize our agriculture and fight for the future’.

The song ‘Yéli Konme Wê’ is in Moré. Bass Nebil sings, ‘tell all the children. Many of our compatriots have gone abroad seeking adventure and wealth. Old men, old women, youngsters I have seen them all go abroad seeking wealth. There was a young man who wanted money so bad that he went to see a witch-doctor, he went crazy. There was another young man who chased after money so much that it made him sick’.

Finally, here is Bass Nebil in ‘Djougouya Magni’, which in the Diula language means ‘the world is rotten’.

Very special thanks to all of the Music Time in Africa listeners who have sent us music over the years! And thanks to Chinedu Offor, David Vandy, and Samuel Kiendrebeogo for their help with translations.

Jean Bikoko Aladin The King of Assiko

Posted September 16th, 2009 at 8:54 pm (UTC-4)

When I first started, twenty years ago, to explore the musics of Africa, recordings of many popular African styles, and detailed information about them, were hard to come by. Today, thanks especially to the generous efforts of dedicated African music bloggers (all of whom are more prolific than I am), there is a wealth of terrific recordings from throughout the continent available at the click of a mouse. However, the history of much of the continent’s popular music still remains to be told. Throughout all of Africa, the 20th century was a time of explosive musical creativity; similar historical processes and cultural interactions saw the birth of countless styles and genres across the continent. Whether you’re a relatively new initiate to the joys and wonders of African music, or have been chasing after recordings for decades, there are still many mysteries left to unfold.

As I have tried, over the years, to grasp the breadth and diversity of African musical expression, studying the intricacies of individual genres, in order, ultimately, to understand the relationships between Africa’s different musical microclimates and a larger creative ecosystem (continental and intercontinental, encompassing both Africa and her Diaspora), I have often been confused and frustrated by ‘fuzzy vocabulary’, by names that have multiple meanings, different histories in different times and places.

For example, what exactly do you call the popular musics of the two Congos? Does the term Rumba refer to all of the popular musics of the last six decades, or does it only refer to the sung verses before the sebene, or both? Does the name Soukous mean anything to music fans in both Congos? Can you appropriately call the Mutuashi recordings of Tshala Muana ‘Rumba’ music? Is the ‘Highlife’ a dance, or does the name refer rather to a context of production (i.e. society dance clubs and concert parties), or to a distinct musically identifiable style? Does the name Highlife mean the same thing in Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Senegal or Cameroun?

Another example is the ‘Assiko’. I know of a Senegalese percussion style called Assiko, that may have had its roots in Sierra Leone- where I have also heard of Assiko percussion- recently the Gangbe Brass Band from Benin named one of their albums ‘Assiko’, and in Cameroon there have been at least three different genres of Assiko, sung in different languages with different histories and different offshoots. About a month ago I started going through a set of reels that Radio Doula gave us back in 1974 and a large stack of Cameroonian vinyl, and the more I listened (especially to the recordings of one Jean Bikoko Aladin) the more I yearned for taxonomic clarity and a deeper knowledge of Assiko. Now, several weeks of phone calls and interviews later, here is what I learned about Cameroonian Assiko music and especially about the gifted Jean Bikoko Aladin.

Today, to speak of Assiko music in Cameroon is to speak of the music of the Bassa people from Southern Cameroon. The foundations of Bassa Assiko are the interconnected relationships between the glass bottle and the guitar, and between the earth and the feet; the name Assiko is derived from the Bassa words ‘Issi’ for earth and ‘Go’ for foot. Assiko, like so much of 20th century African music is a syncretic form; it developed, probably over one hundred years ago, when the acoustic guitar, first brought to Cameroon by Portuguese sailors, was married to the Ngola rhythm of the Bassa.

Over the first half of the 20th century Assiko music was the rhythm of celebrations throughout Bassa country, performed by guitar players who traveled the Assiko circuit that took them to Eséka, Mésondo and Edéa, and through all of the villages in between, with detours to the Bassa neighborhoods of Douala. These migrant guitar players, accompanied by a percussionist keeping the pulse on a glass bottle beat with two iron rods, kept Bassa audiences dancing late into the night. And it was on this circuit, performing his way through the villages of Bassa land, that Jean Bikoko Aladin cut his teeth.

Considered the father of modern Assiko music, Jean Bikoko Aladin is one of Central Africa’s great unsung guitar masters. He was born around 1939 (his actual date of birth is unknown) in a village not far from Eséka. After a few years of elementary school at the Catholic Mission in Eséka, Jean Bikoko left his family to find work, and while still in his mid-teens was hired as a cook and servant for a logger in the forest village of Bonepoupa, located 65 miles northwest of Eséka. It was in Bonepoupa that Jean Bikoko first tried his hand at the guitar, building his own rudimentary instrument out of bamboo and bark, and studying the techniques of local guitar players Albert Dikoumé and Hiag Henri.

From Bonepoupa, Jean Bikoko moved to Songmbenguè, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Edéa, where he hauled cinderblocks on construction sites during the day, and entertained at night with his guitar. Frustrated by the difficulties of making a living in Songmbenguè, Jean Bikoko soon moved to Douala, hoping that fate would smile on him in Cameroon’s economic capital. And fate did, when not too long after his arrival he met Alexandre Ekong, a guitar player who performed regularly on Radio Douala. With Ekong’s guidance, Jean Bikoko made his way into the Radio Douala studios, and in the early 1960s (I can’t confirm the date) made his recording and broadcast debuts. Within a short time his Assiko rhythm was a listener favorite.

Impressed by Bikoko’s guitar playing and the enthusiastic audience response, Radio Douala’s recording engineer Samuel Mpoual joined forces with Joseph Tamla (a businessman with stores in Douala, Yaounde and Bafoussam) to launch the Africambiance record label. The label would release 75 Jean Bikoko Aladin singles; Africambiance also released singles by Anne-Marie Nzié, and a variety of modern and traditional groups from throughout Cameroon. All of Jean Bikoko’s Africambiance singles were recorded at the Radio Douala studios, with the master tapes then sent to a pressing plant in France.

With the revenue from his many singles and residencies at several of the most prestigious nightclubs in Douala and Edéa, the 1960s were a prosperous decade for Jean Bikoko. In a 2003 interview, he told the Cameroonian journalist Noé Ndjebet Massoussi that, ‘I made so much money (in the early 1960s) in Edéa, that I was marrying five women a day. By the time I left the town I had forty seven wives’. In 1972, still flush with cash, Jean Bikoko opened his own hotel and restaurant in his hometown of Eséka. In 1969, he represented Cameroon at the First Pan-African Cultural Festival in Algeria, and in 1977, he participated in the FESTAC in Lagos, Nigeria. Jean Bikoko’s golden years lasted until the end of the decade. In the 1980s, however, a new generation of Assiko stars started to shine, musicians like Samson Chaud Gars and Kon Mbogol Martin, both of whom were inspired by Jean Bikoko Aladin.

Although Jean Bikoko would make a few recordings over the next two decades, with notably a few hits in the 1990s, his time in the limelight had come to an end. By the time Noé Ndjebet Massoussi went looking for Jean Bikoko Aladin in Eséka, in 2003, the Assiko legend was trying to keep the power from getting cut to his now rundown bar where he still played on weekends (the hotel and restaurant he built in 1972 burnt down decades ago). The last half-dozen years have seen, however, the resurgence of Jean Bikoko Aladin (his fretboard wizardry earned him the Aladin nickname). In 2003, the Belgium based producer Victor Bidjocka bi Kon brought Jean Bikoko back into the studio for the first of two releases that have appeared on his Sun City Productions label (the first release is called ‘Ruben Um Nyobé’, and the second is ‘Kel Ma Wo’). And just this summer Jean Bikoko performed in Brussels, Paris (at the Zénith), Lyon, and in Germany; Sun City Productions will be releasing a DVD of the Brussels performance this fall.

This first set of four tracks was given to the Voice of America by Radio Douala back in 1974 and features some of Jean Bikoko’s earliest recordings. I haven’t been able to identify dates for any of these tracks; in the absence of written records, none of my interlocutors could recall when individual songs were recorded. These radio recordings could all have been made in the early 1970s, just as they could be archival recordings that Jean Bikoko made in the 1960s. Regardless, all of these tracks illustrate Bikoko’s effortless virtuosity and rhythmic punch. All of the recordings were made live in the Radio Douala studios with one microphone running into a Nagra, with engineer Samuel Mpoual at the controls (I tried to track down Mr. Mpoual, but it seems he passed away in 2000).

First up is ‘Mawan Na Ndong Len’, which opens with Jean Bikoko saying, ‘these days there are no longer any real friends’. This theme, however, is not developed in the rest of the song. In between guitar riffs Jean Bikoko repeats the question, ‘what am I going to do since I’ve come to this meeting?’ Assiko has always been, first and foremost, dance music, and this track is a good example of how Jean Bikoko got his fans on their feet. Before Jean Bikoko came on the scene the Bassa danced the Assiko with their elbows and their torso, with individual dancers taking turns in front of the musicians. Jean Bikoko was the first Assiko musician to tour with a group of dancers who put on an ‘Assiko show’; a show that featured a new style of dancing that shifted the dancer’s center of gravity south to the hips and buttocks. Jean Bikoko’s dancers were also the first to wear the ‘pagne’-the wraparound skirt-with a rolled waistband, an innovation that accentuated the rocking of the hips.

This next song ‘Bi Pom Bi Nol Sara’ may have been recorded in the early 1970s. Jean Bikoko mourns his friend Sara who was killed in unusual circumstances, and asks the police to open an investigation. Traditionally, Assiko guitarists played both the bass and lead parts; Jean Bikoko was the first to bring in another instrument to provide the low-end foundation. At various times he experimented with a bass xylophone, a large three-key sanza or bass-box, and an upright string bass. It sounds to me like these radio recordings all feature the bass-box.

‘Vye Pon Djon’ is a particularly enjoyable track. This song was originally composed by the Assiko guitar player Minka, from the district of Bot Makak, which is about thirty miles north of Eséka. Jean Bikoko sings, ‘he is really foolish. He doesn’t know me’.

‘Boda Ba Mal Me Moni’ is another lamentation. Jean Bikoko tells the story of the day he was robbed. He sings, ‘I was robbed for no reason. What I am going to do? I am wallowing in misery. I was robbed for no reason’.

This next group of songs were also recorded by Samuel Mpoual at the Radio Douala studios, and then commercially released on the Disque Africambiance label. As a whole they sound a little more saturated than the radio recordings but feature some terrific playing (we have a couple dozen Africambiance singles and many of them are pretty terrible pressings). If you look at the record labels you’ll notice they list ‘Jean Bikoko et son Ensemble Federal 67’. I don’t know if the group’s name refers to the year these recordings were made.

In ‘Bonlana Man Ma Nan’ Jean Bikoko remembers and mourns the Cameroonian nationalist leader Ruben Um Nyobé. Although today overshadowed by the likes of Nkrumah, Kenyatta, and Lumumba, Ruben Um Nyobé was one of pre-independence Africa’s great nationalist leaders; and he is in particular a hero to the Bassa people. Um Nyobé was born in 1913, in the village of Song Peck, in the Eséka district and went on to become one of the leaders of the UPC (l’Union des Populations du Cameroun), a political party that fought politically, and eventually militarily, for Cameroon’s total independence from France and Great Britain. Ruben Um Nyobé was killed by the French army in September of 1958, and remains a hero to the Bassa people.

‘A Ma Wanda Boga Bes’ was probably composed soon after Um Nyobé was killed. The title can be translated as ‘let’s go out of the forest’ and this song calls all of the UPC freedom fighters, who were hiding and fighting in the forests of Bassa land with Um Nyobé, to come out of the forests and return to their villages, to continue the struggle for independence through political means.

These final two tracks are more lighthearted. In ‘Nje A Gwe Lilog Li Man?’ Jean Bikoko expresses his astonishment at the health and beauty of a young baby. He sings, ‘who does this chubby little baby belong to?’ And in the final track ‘Papa Ngono Njok’ Jean Bikoko jumps from theme to theme, singing about the beauty of a young girl, and the beauty of nature. This is another showcase for his driving guitar and pulsing Assiko groove.

Jean Bikoko Aladin’s music continues to influence a new generation of Assiko artists, from the Paris based Assiko player Kristo Numpuby and the Douala based Yvette Bassoga, to the successful ‘crossover’ Bassa singer Blick Bassy. But perhaps even more than his guitar playing it is his showmanship that has changed Assiko music. Today, Assiko dance performances are a mainstay of Cameroonian cultural festivals, and specialized Assiko clubs in Douala and Yaoundé feature very popular acrobatic Assiko dance troupes. (To get an idea of the modern Assiko dance show check out the videos of the Olivier de Clovis Assiko group on Youtube).

This post was based on interviews with Francois Bingono Bingono, Blick Bassy, and Noé Djebet Massoussi (a lot of the biographical detail on Jean Bikoko’s life comes from a 2003 feature that Noé published in ‘Le Messager’). A very special thanks to Mr. Paul Bikoi for his help translating the songs, and for sharing his memories of Jean Bikoko Aladin’s golden era with me.

Eritrea’s Guayla King, Bereket Mengisteab

Posted August 25th, 2009 at 8:06 pm (UTC-4)

Several weeks ago, I distractedly picked up my ringing phone to hear a colleague ask, ‘haven’t you been trying to get in touch with Bereket Mengisteab?’ I had, in fact, wanted to interview the Eritrean music legend for quite some time. ‘Well’, my colleague continued, ‘he has just stopped by the VOA’s Horn of Africa service.’ Later that afternoon, Mr. Mengisteab was kind enough to spend an hour in the studio talking with me, through a colleague who interpreted, about his life and music. At seventy one years of age Bereket Mengisteab still looks strong enough to plow a field or spend another harsh winter in the mountains of Eritrea, and his powerful voice still stirs the emotions of listeners throughout Eritrea and her Diaspora.

Bereket Mengisteab was born in 1938 in the small village of Hazega, located about eighteen miles north of the Eritrean capital of Asmara, and this is where he spent the first two decades of his life farming. During these years in Hazega, Bereket taught himself the Krar (a five stringed lyre) and honed his musical skills, participating in all of the musical rituals that punctuate rural life. Then, after spending a few years in Asmara (which was part of Ethiopia at the time), Bereket moved to Addis Abeba in 1961. And it was in Addis that Bereket made his stage debut, as a member of the Haile Selassie Theater Orchestra; during the previous year he spent in Asmara he never performed outside of his circle of friends. Bereket stayed with the Haile Selassie Theater Orchestra for a little over a decade, performing with the group throughout Ethiopia, in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Senegal (at the 1966 Festival mondial des Arts Nègres), and in Mexico (at the 1968 Summer Olympics). During these years he also made his first recordings, nine singles for the Philips label (I don’t know the exact dates and have not been able to find any of these singles).

In 1973, the year before Haile Selassie was overthrown, Bereket left the Haile Selassie Theater Orchestra and started his own group, which he called ‘Megaleh Guayla’ (which can be translated as the ‘echo of the dance’). Just a year later, however, Bereket decided to leave the concert halls and nightclubs of Addis for the mountains of Eritrea, and in 1974, he joined the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) and the fight for Eritrean independence. As did all members of the ELF, Bereket underwent military training, and participated in the Eritrean liberation struggle both on the battlefield with his rifle, and in the military camps with his revolutionary songs; music played a crucial role in maintaining the morale and determination of those fighting for Eritrean independence.

Bereket, to this day, remembers one soldier in particular, a fighter whose courage and battlefield exploits had made him a legend, who always claimed that he would die happy if he could only ‘see the lights of Asmara and hear Bereket Mengisteab’. When this fighter finally got to see Bereket perform, in a military camp, his emotions got the best of him. As Bereket tells the story; ‘in the middle of a song, this soldier got so excited that he stood up and started to fire his rifle in the air. His weapon was immediately confiscated, and only after being threatened with sanctions did the soldier calm down. A few songs later, however, he once again stood up and started shouting with enthusiasm, waving a hand grenade in the air. After this second breach of military discipline, he was subdued by fellow soldiers and ultimately arrested.’

After five years of fighting in the mountains of Eritrea, Bereket laid down his rifle and, in 1979, moved to Saudi Arabia. (By the late 1970s, after years of internal political struggles, many ELF fighters had gone into exile in Saudi Arabia). Bereket settled in the coastal city of Jeddah, where he would live for the next ten years. During this decade, Bereket recorded ten cassettes, and frequently performed in Saudia Arabia, Sudan, and Djibouti. In 1980, he made his North American debut, bringing his love of Eritrea and revolutionary songs to the Eritrean Diaspora. When full independence came to Eritrea in 1993, Bereket was invited to tour the country, performing in Massawa, Keren, and Asmara. With the war finally over, he returned to Addis Abeba and re-opened the music shop that Bereket and his wife had run before he joined the liberation struggle twenty years earlier.

When war broke out again between Eritrea and Ethiopia, in 1998, Bereket left Addis Abeba and settled in Asmara, where he still lives. Over the last eleven years he has continued to compose and record new songs, releasing at least a cassette a year. He is currently working on a ten song CD that will feature his arrangements of traditional songs. When not on tour, Bereket looks after his business, the ‘B. M. Music House’ located on Babylon square in downtown Asmara.

In the last fifty years Bereket has, by his own count, composed 250 songs, of which he has recorded about 200. Near the end of our conversation I asked Bereket which of his songs he was particularly proud of. After protesting that choosing among his songs was like asking a father to name a favorite child, Bereket admitted that his 1970 composition ‘Melay’ has a special place in his heart. Bereket sings, ‘If in your travels you see my beautiful Melay, please say hello to her. Ask her when she is going to come home, I am waiting for her. Melay, I miss you’. After singing of his love and longing for beautiful Melay, Bereket repeats several lines replacing the name ‘Melay’ with ‘Ere’, an affectionate diminutive for Eritrea. Understood in the context of the times, this sentimental love song expresses the dreams of a generation of liberation fighters. This version is not the original recording but a rearrangement that Bereket released several years ago.

The lyrics of these next two songs also had deeper meaning and resonance in the context of their times. In ‘Ufey Biriri’, also written in 1970, Bereket sings, ‘Who is going to tell her how much I love her? Nothing in the world can compare to her. She is beautiful and God created her with special care, may she soon come back to me. If anybody sees her, let her know that I say hello. That I miss you.’

This next song, ‘Nei Shew Beli’, a 1964 composition, is another declaration of love. Sung in the Tigrinya language, like all of Bereket’s songs, this composition is built on a Tigre rhythm, the ‘Bilen’ (the Tigre are one of Eritrea’s nine main ethnic groups, and not to be confused with the Tigrinya people of Northern Ethiopia). Bereket sings, ‘come soon my love. How are you? I am missing you, I am suffering. I’m begging you. The winter is past and the seasons change but you are still not coming. I am still waiting’. Bereket then goes on to describe the beauty of the mountains and valleys of Eritrea.

Bereket’s latest CD is called ‘Hizbi Alem’ and was released in 2008. Through his songs he continues to support Eritrea, and in the title track he sings, “If the people of the world respected each other there would not be so much distrust. Respect can only be built on justice. If there is respect there is no need for the poor to wait for leftovers. Eritrea needs to be free. Free from aid and donations. We must try our best to live freely, to live on our own’.

Music continues to be part of Eritrea’s efforts to define herself. Recognizing the importance of culture as a tool for nation-building the Eritrean government brought together, back in 1994, a group of musicians who had previously performed in several different ‘revolutionary’ music groups. These musicians became Sibret, the national music and dance troupe. Today, under the direction of Kahsay Gebrehewet, Sibret-which translates as ‘heritage’-are staples of Eritrean radio and television programming and represent their country throughout the world, performing songs and dances from each of the country’s nine ethnic groups. In August of 2005, a few days after they had performed at an Eritrean cultural event in Washington DC, Sibret stopped by our studios and recorded half a dozen songs. I thought I’d round out this post with a few of my favorite tracks from these sessions.

This next song, in the Bedawiyet language, is a traditional Hedareb song. (Eritrea’s nine major ethnic groups are the Afar, Bilen, Hedareb, Saho, Kunama, Nara, Rashaida, Tigre and Tigrinya. The Bereket Mengisteab cassette sleeve posted above pictures these nine groups; the cassette is called ‘Hizbi Eritrea’ or ‘People of Eritrea’.) This is a song played during wedding celebrations for the friends of a young married couple.

  • [audio:] Sibret ‘Sera’

Next up is ‘Tikredi’, a harvest song in the Kunama language. The final track is a Tigrinya instrumental that features the amplified krar, bass krar and percussion.

Thanks to Tewelde Tesfagabir for his help with the interview and to Berhan Hailu for her help with translations. I would also like to thank Mr. Felix Pierre-Louis, a Haitian listener who listened one night in his hotel room in Djibouti to a program I did on the Haitian twoubadou legend Coupé-Cloué, and enjoyed it enough to send me a postcard from Eritrea.

Rockin’ Rouicha

Posted July 22nd, 2009 at 7:14 pm (UTC-4)

The late 1980s and early 1990s ‘World Music Boom’, when a decent selection of African music first started to appear in non-specialist shops in Europe and the United States, helped many artists reach new audiences; I can still remember the excitement of discovering Youssou N’dour’s 1990 release ‘Set’. However, despite its many successes, the ‘World Music’ phenomenon had some unfortunate-and I assume, unanticipated-consequences, including the progressive dilution of once unique and powerful artistic voices in the pursuit of ‘crossover dreams’, and the establishment of powerful ‘brands’ whose gravitational pull perverted the market, probably limiting the artists who were produced, distributed and marketed. These ‘brands’ created by particularly successful artists or groups (for e.g. Cesaria Evora, or the Buena Vista Social Club) or out of particular styles- I am still surprised by how many mainstream, and even specialist, journalists (in English, French, and Spanish) continue to refer to all Congolese music as ‘Soukous’-soon became synonymous in the international marketplace with the musical production of an entire nation. Perhaps because Morocco was one of the first countries to capture the imagination of the ‘baby boomers’, the main targets of the 1990s ‘World Music’ marketing push, the kingdom’s musical variety and depth have been particularly obscured by ‘brandlash’.

Building on the Moroccan fascinations of Beat authors like Paul Bowles, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and Brion Gysin, American and European hippies flocked to the kingdom throughout the 1960s, attracted by the mysteries of the souks and the potent hash of the Rif Mountains. Brian Jones, one of the founding members of the Rolling Stones, visited Morocco in the summer of 1968 and two years later, with the release of ‘Brian Jones presents the Pipes of Pan at Jajouka’-often called the first ‘World Music’ album-was one of the first to brand Morocco in the Western music market as the land of trance music and ‘spirit night masters’ (the name given to a 1991 release of Gnawa music produced by Bill Laswell). The steady stream of Gnawa, Aissawa, Jilala, and Jajouka releases that have been produced by European and American record labels over the last several decades could lead even a well informed ‘music hunter’ to mistakenly believe that all Moroccans are in a constant state of psycho-musical delirium. This is not the case.

Morocco is a country with great geographical and cultural diversity, where the majority of the population still lives off the land. The Moroccan musical map includes dozens of regional genres (sung in 4 different languages), urban Chaabi, classical Andalusian music, Arabic classical song (inspired by Um Kulthum and Mohamed Abdelwahab), fusion (the name given to a new generation of musicians mainly in Casablanca and Rabat inspired by reggae and r&b), rap, and probably least visible of all the musics of the Sufi brotherhoods and village rituals that have so captured international attention. To my ears, the most interesting music produced in Morocco, and some of the most popular in terms of sales, are the different regional styles of popular music. While these artists are often celebrities in their regions, few become nationally recognized. One of the exceptions is Mohammed Rouicha, THE star of Amazigh music.

Mohammed Rouicha was born in 1950 in Khenifra, a city in the foothills of the Middle Atlas Mountains about 120 miles south-east of Fes. His family, which belongs to the Zawaniya tribe, the dominant Berber tribe in Khenifra, immigrated to the city from the Tafilalet, one of the largest oases in the Moroccan Sahara, located on the other side of the Middle Atlas Mountains. (There are three distinct Berber groups in Morocco, each of whom has their own dialect and distinct musical traditions; the Tashelhiyt speakers of the Sous Valley of Southern Morocco, the Tamazight speakers of the Middle Atlas, and the Tarifit speakers of the Rif Mountains of the North).

Mohammed grew up listening to the music of the ‘imedyazen’, itinerant musicians who travelled throughout the valleys of the Middle Atlas accompanying their songs on the loutar, a three string lute. On market days he would rush to the ‘halka’, an open space where storytellers, musicians and comedians would perform for tips, to listen to the different troupes passing through Khenifra; the most famous Moroccan halka is Marrakech’s Djema el Fna. He also remembers spending hours, in the late 1950s, listening to Moroccan radio, whose playlists at the time included Egyptian stars like Um Kulthum and Abdelhalim Hafez, Elvis Presley, French chanson, Moroccan Chaabi stars Bouchaib Bidaoui and Hajja Hamdaouia, and the Amazigh music legend Hemmu u Lyazid. Rouicha composed his first song at the age of nine, and by the age of twelve was touring eastern Morocco with Ahmed Wahby, an Algerian singer from Oran whose 1950 hit ‘Wahran Wahran’ made him a star throughout the region.

In 1965, at the age of fifteen, Rouicha made his debut on Moroccan national radio. He then spent the late sixties and much of the 1970s mastering his instrument-he added a fourth string to the loutar-and performing at countless weddings, harvest festivals and village celebrations. It wasn’t until 1979 that, as he put it, Mohammed ‘went professional’. This was the year that he put his own group together and recorded his first cassette for the Tichkaphone label; a Casablanca record label that was founded in 1979, from the ashes of Koutoubiaphone, by Chaouir Hassan, a Berber from Taliouine in Southern Morocco. Every year, usually during the month of Ramadan, Rouicha would go into the Tichkaphone studio located in the basement of le Comptoir Marocain de Distribution de Disque and record a dozen songs, in both Arabic and Tamazight. The label would then release the best tracks from these annual sessions; Tichkaphone have released 85 Rouicha cassettes over the last 30 years, and they still have dozens of unreleased tracks in their archives. Rouicha is no longer ‘signed’ to Tichkaphone.

Over the last three decades, Rouicha has played in almost every town in Morocco, performed on Moroccan national television 95 times, received hundreds of awards, and become a household name throughout the Kingdom. Drawing his inspiration from Morocco’s many musical styles, from Arabic language genres like the Melhun, the Aita Jabaliya, and the Aita Marsaoui, to the Berber musics of the Souss valley and of Northern Morocco, Rouicha has revitalized the popular music of the Middle Atlas Mountains. Perhaps more than any other artist of his generation he is identified with the ‘Izlan’, songs that express the tribulations, joys, sorrows and dreams of migrants who have left their villages in the valleys and slopes of the Middle Atlas Mountains to make their living in Morocco’s urban centers. Rouicha still lives in Khenifra and only performs a few times a month, usually at major festivals in Morocco, and occasionally in Europe.

This first selection features one of Rouicha’s most loved musical partners, the female singer Cherifa Kersit. She was born in 1967, in a village a few miles outside of Khenifra, and started singing as a young girl, accompanying her daily household chores with improvised songs. By the time she turned sixteen, Cherifa was performing at weddings and village celebrations. And it was around this time, in the early 1980s, that Cherifa met Mohammed Rouicha; he heard her sing at a village festival and asked her to join his group. Cherifa, who has become this generation’s most famous female Amazigh singer, released her first solo album in 2000, and has toured Europe several times over the last ten years.

This 2005 recording starts, as most Rouicha tracks do, with an improvised loutar taqsim that introduces Cherifa, whose powerful ‘tamawayt’-an ornamental vocal improvisation in Tamazight-highlights her sharp voice. Cherifa embroiders a proverb, singing ‘a stone from the bottom can never reach the top’. Rouicha then starts the verse, ‘my love for you never leaves me, my heart is always full’.

  • [audio:] Rouicha & Cherifa

In 2004, Tichkaphone released one of Rouicha’s best cassettes. In these next two tracks, Rouicha’s loutar and the two percussionists-who play the alloun, a frame drum covered in goatskin, with a threaded string run across the back of the skin-master the jackhammer rhythms that typify the music of the Middle Atlas. In this first selection Rouicha sings, in Tamazight, ‘my love, you are a gift from God, I can’t leave you. You do all you can to make me happy, and even then, I too often take your love for granted’.

  • [audio:] Rouicha

In this next selection Rouicha again sings of love, but he also introduces a religious theme. He sings, again in Tamazight, ‘tolerance and acceptance come from God. My love, I miss you. My beloved, I miss you. But, with the help of God, I will learn to accept’.

  • [audio:] Rouicha

While Rouicha composes all of the music he performs, he does not write all of the lyrics. He often sings texts that are written for him by a small group of poets and philosophers. Rouicha told me that he draws lyrical inspiration from Koranic verses (in the course of our conversation he illustrated several points by reciting Koranic verses), Arabic and Tamazight proverbs, and the poetry of the Melhun. This next track, in Arabic, is inspired by the texts and music of Sufi worship ceremonies.

  • [audio:] Rouicha ‘Sufi’

In 1992 Rouicha recorded one of his only solo sessions. Rouicha’s parents divorced when he was young and he was brought up by his mother.

After his parent’s divorce, Rouicha suffered at the hands of his many half-brothers and sisters, and was sustained by his mother’s love and support. Both sides of this cassette are a tribute to his mother Aicha.

These final two tracks are instrumentals. The first one, recorded in 1982, featuring Rouicha and two percussionists, cycles through several rhythm changes. The second instrumental, released in the late 1980s, starts off at a more leisurely pace. Rouicha takes his time, embroidering several different melodic ideas. Then, six and a half minutes into the piece, the pace quickens and Rouicha pulls the percussionists into the ‘tahidust’, a rhythmic coda that draws on the rhythms of the ‘ahidus’, the collective songs and dances typical of village celebrations in the Middle Atlas Mountains.

This post is based on interviews with Mohammed Rouicha and Said Boummait, and draws on the writings of Malika Mahmah and Lahsen Hira. Special thanks to Tifa Bourjouane and Cherifa Alaoui el Mdaghri for their help with the interviews, and to Hasnaoui Brahim for help with Tamazight translations. If you are ever in Casablanca, and want to hear some more of Rouicha’s music, stop by Le Comptoir Marocain de Distribution de Disques, located in the heart of downtown at 26 Boulevard Lalla Yacout, the store has walls lined with vinyl and is a beautiful throwback to the record emporiums of the 1960s and 1970s.

Ghanaian guitars

Posted June 3rd, 2009 at 10:37 pm (UTC-4)

One of the qualities, I find, that is shared by many of the musics that most appeal to me is the ability to create and sustain juxtapositions between different, and often seemingly contradictory, moods or ‘feelings’. The mysterious ways in which, for example, the best Brazilian Bossa Nova can simultaneously express contentment and melancholy, or in which Albert Ayler’s music can be both ecstatic and reflective. Ghana’s many highlife guitar-bands of the 1960s and 1970s seem to have mastered the secrets of this alchemical process; creating a music that is both communal and intimate, celebratory and wistful, light and heavy, hot and cold. The singles in this post feature undisputed masters of the genre.

Dr. K. Gyasi was born into a musical family, in 1929, and raised in Patasi, Ghana, a town south of Kumasi. By 1950 he was living in Accra, and polishing his skills playing guitar with Appiah Adjekum’s band. Two years later, in 1952, Gyasi made his first recordings, at a mobile recording studio in Nsawam-a town about twenty miles north of Accra-that was probably operated by Philips (Decca had already built a permanent studio in Accra in 1948). By 1963, Gyasi was already popular enough that President Nkrumah invited him, along with several other musicians, to accompany his official delegation on a trip through the Soviet Bloc and North Africa. Almost forty years later, Dr. K. Gyasi still remembers fondly the golden years of the early 1960s, when his guitar-band, the Noble Kings, opened legendary nightspots like Accra’s Tip Toe Nite club, and played every weekend for packed dance floors in Accra and Kumasi.

Throughout the late 1960s and the 1970s the Noble Kings became one of Ghana’s most popular guitar-bands. Dr. K. Gyasi was the first bandleader to introduce both the electric organ-he was inspired by Geraldo Pino’s Heartbeats-and a horn section to guitar-band highlife. By the mid-1970s, Gyasi was touring Ghana with both the Noble Kings and his own theatrical group, entertaining villagers throughout the country with ‘highlife operas’. In 1977, he released one of the best records of the era, his classic ‘Sikyi highlife’, a masterpiece of minor-key highlife. The political instability and military coups of the late 1970s, however, brought the glory days of guitar-band highlife and the Noble Kings to an end. With repeated curfews, police roadblocks and political pressure, the dancehalls stopped programming live music, and the open-air concert parties lost their audience. Dr. K. Gyasi currently lives in Kumasi, and his many recordings remain classics of guitar-band highlife.

Dr. K. Gyasi and the Noble Kings had a long relationship with Dick Essilfie-Bondzie and his Essiebons Enterprises; the first Ghanaian Gold Disc was a Dr. K. Gyasi and Noble Kings recording on the Essiebons label. These next two singles were produced by Essiebons, the first released on the Phillips label and the second on Essilfie-Bondzie’s Dix label. Neither of the singles is dated, and Dr.K. Gyasi can’t remember exactly when they were recorded, but based on the catalogue numbers I think they are both from the early 1970s.

The A-side of the Phillips single is “Obaa Bako Agyegye Me’, a Dr. K. Gyasi composition. He warns his young listeners to listen to their elders, ‘My parents warned me not to marry that woman, but I didn’t listen, I was hardheaded. Once we were wed, however, my bride started to show her true colors. Sometimes you have to listen to your elders’.

‘Obiara Beka Onka’ is the B-side, and features some nice interplay between the saxophone, lead guitar, and organ (played by Honey, who is the only musician credited on the label). The group sings, ‘Everybody talks. Say what you want and go on your way. There is so much trouble. You think you are the only one who can prosper; you don’t think you are part of the struggle. Whatever it is, say what you want and go your way’.

The A-side of the Dix single is ‘Sama Awo Deme’, another Gyasi composition, again featuring Honey on organ, as well as some nice flute playing.

The lyrics start, ‘I traveled far from my country and didn’t have any woman to keep me warm at night’. Then Gyasi goes into a verse warning those who mistreat orphans to be careful, to think of those who don’t have anyone to protect them.

The B-side features Dr. K. Gyasi singing in Hausa. He remembers that this song came to him one day when he went to eat in a restaurant run by a Hausa women. He sings, ‘Mother at least until I arrive, stop crying. I will tell you the story. I would like to come home but I don’t have the means. I am praying to God that I will come back soon, may God make it possible’.

During their many years of performing and recording the Noble Kings also served as a launching pad for many artists who went on to front their own bands, like the guitarist Eric Agyeman, the singer Bob Akwaboah, and the great Koo Nimo. Born Daniel Amponsah, in 1934, in the town of Foase- in the Atwima Kwanhoma district, not far from Kumasi, the capital of the Ashanti region- Koo Nimo grew up in a musical family; his father was a guitarist and trumpet-player in a local brass band. Introduced to European classical guitar at the age of 15, Koo Nimo eventually developed a repertoire that married classical playing techniques to the rhythms and melodies of the Ashanti.

In 1955, after a brief stint in Accra, Koo Nimo moved to Kumasi where he formed his first regular group. About ten years later, he made his first recordings with Dr. K. Gyasi, and in 1968 recorded his first album ‘Asante Ballads’. By the early 1970s, Koo Nimo had committed himself to palm-wine guitar highlife, performing and recording his original repertoire with a seven piece acoustic ensemble.

This next single, recorded at Ghana Film studios, and released on the Ghana Film label was probably released in 1974. The A side ‘Koo Nimo Ne Gyasi’ is a tribute to Koo Nimo’s first wife who passed away on September 27, 1973; they had nine children together, of which four died young. Listening to this recording over the phone, from his home in Kumasi, Koo Nimo told me that this song remains close to his heart. He sings, ‘In every family there is a person who pulls everyone together, who cements the bonds of the group, if this person should pass away the family can disintegrate’.

The B side ‘Kofi Gemfi III’ is a tribute to a Mr. Kofi Gemfi, a friend who Koo Nimo greatly admired. Koo Nimo starts off singing, ‘during the evening the orphan wants the mother. Koffi Gemfi if you are alone, it’s sad to be alone. The orphan wants his mother’. Koo Nimo then goes into a spoken passage addressing the difficulties of being an orphan, ‘It is so painful the life on an orphan. So those of you who take care of the orphan have patience. As our elders say, if you take care of others yours will get better’.

Pat Thomas was born in 1946, in the town of Agona, in the Ashanti region. Both of his parents were musicians, and Pat grew up singing. In 1968, he joined the Broadway Band and stayed with them until 1970, when he moved to Accra and joined Ebo Taylor’s Blue Monks. The next year, Pat was in Abidjan, Cote D’Ivoire fronting his new band The Satellites. In 1972, Pat returned to Accra and joined the Sweet Beans (the band of the Ghana Cocao Marketing Board), with whom he stayed until he left Ghana in 1977. For the next twenty-three years Pat lived abroad, with extended stays in Germany, Great Britain, Canada, and the United States. He returned to Accra in 2000, and released his latest CD in 2008. He still performs regularly in Ghana and will soon start a weekly residency at the Jokodan nightclub in Accra.

This final single features the golden voice of Pat Thomas with the Ogyatanaa Show Band. The Ogyatanaa or ‘burning torch’ band was founded and directed by Kwadwo Donkoh, a Ghanaian diplomat turned bandleader and producer. These two tracks were released on Donkoh’s Agona label. As the label indicates, Pat was a guest vocalist, and never a part of the Ogyatanaa band.

Pat recorded only a handful of songs with the group, and never performed live with the Ogyataana Band. At least one of these tracks was successful enough that Kwadwo Donkoh wanted to bring Pat back to the studio with the group, but financial disagreements sunk the idea.

‘Mmobrowa’, a Kwadwo Donkoh composition, and the A-side of this single, was the most commercially successful of the Pat Thomas/Ogyataana Band collaborations. It is a song about poor people who cannot afford to buy nice shoes or clothes. Pat advises them to work hard, keep struggling and things will work out.

The B side is a tribute to one of the basic rhythmic building blocks of highlife, ‘Yaa Amponsah’. As Pat explains it, ‘Yaa Amponsah is the first rhythmic pattern that highlife musicians learn to play on the guitar. Everyone plays it in his own way, with his own style’.

This post is based on interviews with Koo Nimo, Pat Thomas, Dr. K. Gyasi, and Dr. John Collins. It also draws on the published research of Dr. Collins and Miles Cleret. Special thanks to Peter Clottey for his interpreting help and for his translations.

E.T. Mensah The King of Highlife

Posted June 1st, 2009 at 9:16 pm (UTC-4)

One of the greatest joys of an intuitively organized-read disheveled-archive is the potential for surprise discoveries. Even after ten years of poking through our stacks of reels I still find interesting recordings I have never heard. Over the last month, whenever I could find a few minutes, I have gone down to the archive and pulled out tape after tape looking for a recording of a Dr. Nico interview. I still haven’t found that interview, in fact I haven’t yet been able to confirm that Dr. Nico was ever interviewed by the VOA, but I did find several interviews with another legend of African music.

In October of 1981, Ghanaian Highlife pioneer E.T. Mensah was invited to New York by some of his former musicians who had settled in the United States. Once word spread that Mensah was in the U.S., a concert was quickly organized in Washington D.C. featuring the golden highlife of ‘The Tempos’. Several days before the concert, E.T. came down to our nation’s capital and stopped by the VOA studios. These next two interviews were made during his brief visit to our studios.

This first interview is the more informative of the two. Leo Sarkisian talks to E.T. about his early career as a pharmacist, his early musical training, his musical favorites, and about 1970s guitar band highlife.

This next interview was done by two journalists from the English to Africa service; they are not identified on the reel and nobody recognizes their voices. Their questions are less informed and often not terribly insightful, but I wanted nonetheless to post this interview because E.T. Mensah peppers his answers with some unaccompanied snippets of some of his more famous melodies.

After listening to these two interviews I started going through our collection of highlife recordings. There are a few that I particularly enjoyed and that I’ll be posting in the next few days.

(The wonderful 1952 picture of the Tempos is from John Collins out of print biography ‘E.T. Mensah, King of Highlife’, that was published in 1986 by Off the Record press).

La Rumba Centrafricaine

Posted April 30th, 2009 at 12:17 am (UTC-4)

Nestled in the heart of the Continent, the Central African Republic is surrounded by some of Africa’s most fertile musical cultures, and over the last fifty years her musicians have struggled, and continue to struggle, to make themselves heard above the din of Cameroonian and Congolese rhythms that flood the region’s airwaves. Despite the many professional and existential challenges Central African musicians have had to overcome (the music industry in CAR is probably the least developed in the region) they have nevertheless created their own ‘ragged but right’ sound; a more relaxed and rambling take on the rumba.

The story of the ‘Bangui Rumba’ starts with the guitar player Prosper Mayélé. He grew up, in the 1940s, listening to the recordings of Wendo Kolosoy, Henri Bowane, Jhimmy Zacharie (whose mother was from the Oubangui-Chari region, now part of the CAR), Camille Feruzi and Leon Bukasa; the first generation of modern Congolese recording artists, and the founders of ‘modern’ Central African music. By the time he graduated from Bangui’s vocational school in 1954, with a degree in carpentry, he was already an impressive guitar player. The young Prosper got a chance to prove his talents, in 1953, when one of his heroes, Joseph ‘le Grand Kallé’ Kabasele, came to Bangui to play the opening of the bar ‘Le Rex’. In need of a rhythm guitar player-the African Jazz’s ‘Dechaud, the great Dr. Nico’s brother, couldn’t make the trip to Bangui- Kallé hired Prosper for their New Year’s Eve gig, and was impressed with the results.

Encouraged by Kallé’s compliments, Prosper decided to start his own group. The ‘Tropical Jazz’, Bangui’s first ‘modern’ orchestra, was born in 1954, and for the next five years was the house band at ‘Le Rex’. In 1963, after a few years as the house band at the ‘Mbiye Bar’, a recording debut at ‘Radio Bangui’ (which was opened in 1958), and enough success to create some tensions, the group split in two. Prosper Mayélé’s new band was ‘l’Orchestre Centrafrican Jazz’, and for the next eleven years they were the most popular group in the Central African Republic.

In the mid-seventies the orchestra’s glory days came to an end. The story goes that President Bokassa-soon to be emperor Bokassa- felt threatened by their popularity (he was supposedly particularly envious of Prosper) and pulled the plug. In 1976, Mayélé, who must have been at least in his late thirties by then, was conscripted into the army and assigned to the ‘Commando Jazz’, a military orchestra that was under Bokassa’s thumb. Prosper Mayélé passed away on October 12, 1997.

This 1966 single features two tracks recorded in the studios of Radio Bangui, and released on the ‘Disques France-Afrique’ label; a label that belonged to Herve Victor Lejuste, a Franco-Caribbean who arrived in Bangui during the colonial era and left in 1972. The b-side is an instrumental that features Prosper Mayélé’s guitar playing. Over a rhythm that he calls the ‘Lingbonga’, Prosper plays a series of muted riffs that bring to mind the traditional harps or xylophones of the Central African Republic.

The A-side of this single features the singer and composer Dr. Wetch, considered one of the greatest lyricists of modern Central African music. He was born Darma Michel in Cameroun in the early 1940s, and while still a teenager was a member, along with his friend Tchana Pierre (who had a string of regional hits in the 1970s), of the ‘Sonorita Jazz’. For several years the group had a regular gig at the Pezzena Bar in the Madagascar neighborhood of Yaoundé. In 1964, Dr. Wetch moved to Bangui and became one of the lead vocalists of ‘l’Orchestre Centrafrican Jazz’. Dr. Wetch was with the group until they fell apart in 1974.

About ten years ago, along with ‘Mimox’ another original member of the group, Dr. Wetch reformed the ‘Centrafrican Jazz’. The group is currently recording at Bangui’s Studio Bonga Bonga, and hopes to have a new CD on the market by the end of 2009. This next track is the first part of a very popular four-song sequence that tells of a dispute that Dr. Wetch had with his wife Marie. One morning Marie asked Dr. Wetch if she could go back to her village to see her parents. He consented and Marie left. Four months later Dr. Wetch started to grow frustrated, he missed his wife, and was tired of doing the cooking. Dr. Wetch then composed a song to remind Marie of her marital duties. Marie responded that her visit had been prolonged because she was helping her parents work their fields. In the final song of the series he expresses how happy he is to have his wife back by his side.

While the Bokassa years spelled the end of ‘l’Orchestre Centrafrican Jazz’ they were the golden age of the ‘Tropical Fiesta’. The group was formed by Charlie Perrière, who was born on August 12, 1946 in Bangui and started singing with his church choir in 1957. In the early 1960s, Charlie played guitar in both ‘l’Orchestre Centrafrican Jazz’ and with the ‘Orchestre Vibro-Succès’ (the other group that was born of the split of the original ‘Tropical Jazz’). On February 2, 1965 Charlie founded the ‘Tropical Fiesta’ to perform at a local kermesse, or church fair.

In 1966, President Bokassa adopted the ‘Tropical Fiesta’, and the group became the unofficial national orchestra. Over the next six years the group would represent the Central African Republic in Romania, France, Greece, Egypt, the Cote D’Ivoire, Cameroon, Gabon, Uganda, Zaire, and Nigeria (the group performed at the Festac in 1977). With Emperor Bokassa’s overthrow in 1979 the ‘Tropical Fiesta’ lost their primary sponsor and much of their audience. The group disbanded and Charlie Perrière spent most of the 1980s in France. In the mid 1990s Charlie returned to Bangui, handed the ‘Tropical Fiesta’ over to Aggas Zokoko, and devoted himself to religious music. Under Zokoko’s leadership the group has released 5 cassettes in the last fifteen years, and currently plays every Sunday evening at the Hotel Levis, in Bangui’s Lakoanga neighborhood.

These next two cuts were composed by Zokoko. The first track on this cassette, ’50eme anniversaire’ was written to celebrate Aggas’s fiftieth birthday. The track features a nice vocal cameo by one of the group’s longtime fans, a Senegalese silversmith by the name of Seck. Aggas told me that Seck loved the ‘Tropical Fiesta’ so much that he used to show up for all their rehearsals and all their concerts. He would sit back and sing along lustily with his favorite songs. Impressed with his voice, Aggas invited Seck to sing a verse in Wolof on this birthday tribute. Seck left Bangui several years ago and moved to Maroua in eastern Cameroon.

Next up is ‘Francilienne’, another Aggas Zokoko composition. He tells the story of one of his close friends’ marital troubles. This is a rumba that features some nice guitar playing by Yamssa Yaya, who just celebrated his fiftieth birthday two weeks ago.

The group ‘Tchuna BG Excellence’, led by the singer and composer Petit Centro, has been together for about eight years. They continue to perform occasionally at the Excellence Bar in Bangui, but like many groups in the Central African Republic they struggle to keep their musical dreams alive. (One musician I spoke with told me that most of Bangui’s groups do not own their own instruments, and are forced to rent guitars, amplifiers, drumsets, etc… whenever they get a gig).

These next two tracks feature the lead guitar playing of ‘Major Danger’.

One of the Central African Republic’s most interesting musical styles was born back in 1981, when two different groups of young musicians in the southern city of Mbaiki, the provincial capital of the Lobaye region, were brought together by a civil servant named Wanto Athanase. The new group was called ‘Zokela’, and they called their style of music the ‘Montè-Nguènè’, which translates as joy or pleasure. Their music drew on the traditional repertoires of the Ngbaka, Mbati, and Monzombo ethnic groups; the guitar parts in particular were inspired by the ‘N’Gombi’ or 10-string harp popular in the Lobaye region. Wanto Athanase set the musicians up with instruments and in 1983 brought them to Bangui to record at the ABC studios. These first recording sessions, with hits like ‘Waligno na Lambaki’, launched the group’s national reputation. Over the next twenty years Zokela toured throughout the Central African Republic and turned the ‘Montè-Nguènè’ into a nationally appreciated genre, with lyrics in Sango-often dealing with social problems-that spoke to all Central Africans.

The group’s popularity created tensions and in 1999 the Zokela split into four rival groups; Zokela del Wantal, Zokela Mon Ticket, Zokela Iti Maiti, and Zokela Montè-Nguènè. Today, only two of the Zokelas remain, Zokela del Wantal which has become Zokela de Centrafrique under the direction of Kaida Monganga, and Zokela Iti Maiti under the direction of Dibaba Alagom.

These next two tracks were recorded, in 2005, by Zokela de Centrafrique at Bangui’s Studio Bonga Bonga. Both of these songs were composed by Kaida Monganga, and feature the exciting guitar playing of Tongo Star. The group’s biggest hit is ‘Affaire Visa’ which tells the story of their difficulties with the French embassy. In 2004, the group was preparing for a tour of France and after weeks of gathering contracts, affidavits, passports and deposits, the French embassy, on the day they were to fly out of Bangui, scuttled the trip. Kaida expressed his frustrations in this song.

‘Sanfou Nakoli’ tells the story of an independent woman, who doesn’t depend on any man, she has her own job, and provides for herself.

Kaida Mongana and the Zokela de Centrafrique continue to perform occasionally on Friday evenings at the ‘Cave des Copains’, a bar in Bangui’s Castor neighborhood, and at weddings and traditional ceremonies in Bangui. The group has a new album already recorded but has not yet found a producer willing to release it.

This post is based on interviews with Regis Sissoko, Dr. Wetch, Aggas Zokoko, Kaida Monganga, and Dibaba Alagom in Bangui, and draws on the research of Sultan Zambellat (check out his website devoted to Central African music Special thanks to Alex Balu and Thierry Mbomba for their help.

The Great Dahmane el Harrachi

Posted March 25th, 2009 at 3:16 pm (UTC-4)

Ten years ago, I spent a few weeks with a friend in the Belleville neighborhood of Paris. Every evening, as I walked down the final block to our apartment I passed in front of a noisy Algerian café. At one end of the café a dozen men were usually leaning against the zinc countertop of the bar, arguing and laughing, while another forty or so men (always men, I never saw any women) sat at a half dozen tables playing dominos, cards or checkers. The café had none of the aesthetic appeal of Paris’s many brasseries and welcoming neighborhood cafés. The tile floor was dirty, covered with cigarette butts, scraps of paper and matchboxes, the yellow walls were unadorned, and the light from the overhead fluorescent bulbs barely filtered through the nicotine smog.

But there was music; yearning, epic music, which made me slow my steps, that made me want to take a spot at the bar and drink in the melodies pouring from the stereo speakers. I never went in (mostly out of respect; I’d walked into similar scenes enough to know how one ‘curious stranger’ can change the mood), but, as I passed by, I always asked the few patrons lingering in front of the café who was playing on the stereo. The answer was often ‘Dahmane’ or ‘El Harrachi’. The great Dahmane el Harrachi spent almost thirty years of his life performing in similar cafés throughout Paris, and twenty years after his death his songs still spoke to the Algerian immigrant experience.

Abderrahmane Amrani was born on July 7, 1926 in El Biar, a neighborhood on the heights overlooking Algiers, and grew up in El Harrach, a large suburb 10 km east of the heart of the city. Like most children of his generation, Abderrahmane went both to Koranic and public elementary school. In his mid teens he started working as a cobbler, before taking a job, which he would hold for seven years, as a conductor on the tram between El Harrach and Bab el Oued. A self-taught musician, it was around this time that Abderrahmane started to perform under the name of Dahmane el Harrachi (his father, Cheikh el Amrani, was the muezzin of the great mosque of Algiers, and disapproved of popular musicians). Before long Dahmane, who was a virtuosic banjo and mandola player, was accompanying the Chaabi legend El Hadj Menouar, and Cheikh El Arbi on tours throughout Algeria.

In 1949, Dahmane left Algeria and moved to France, where he first spent five years in Lille, then four in Marseille, three in Lyon, and three in Metz, before settling in Paris in the early 1960s. By the time he settled in the ‘City of Lights’, his reputation and recordings had already made him one of the Algerian community’s most loved singers. He performed weekend after weekend in the cafés of Paris, singing songs that expressed the frustrations, regrets, and hopes of the thousands of emigrants who spent their days working at the Renault factory, and their nights dreaming of their neighborhoods, villages, and families left behind in Algeria.

His audience was torn between the Algeria of their hearts, and the France of their livelihoods. At a time when the French army was engaged in a violent war with Algerian freedom fighters, the French worried that this generation of emigrants were a ‘third column’ of revolutionary infiltrators, while many of their Algerian compatriots scorned them as unpatriotic cowards, enjoying the safety and comforts of exile. The music of Dahmane el Harrachi was their refuge.

On the last day of August of 1980, on one of his return visits to Algeria, Dahmane el Harrachi died in a car accident on the coastal road between Ain Benian (west of the capital) and Algiers. He was 54 years old. Today, his son Kamel el Harrachi, who was born in 1972, is keeping his musical legacy alive. Kamel’s first CD is scheduled to be released this spring.

There are several recurring themes that run through much of Dahmane’s repertoire. The bedrock of his musical universe, however, was his constant longing for his ‘home’. In ‘El Bahja yal Bahia’ he praises Algiers and Oran. He sings, ‘El Bahja (a nickname for Algiers), the shining light, full of life and charm, with your winding streets and renovated palaces, your hidden gardens, and shady boulevards. El Bahia (a nickname for Oran), the flirt, at the crossroads between Spain, Africa, and the Orient, your bay is sung by the poets, your name is carried throughout the world by our musical breeze’.

Dahmane’s second original composition was inspired by the Algerian struggle for independence. In ‘Bilad Elkhir’, or ‘The Good Country’, he sings, ‘How can I forget my good country? How can I calm my heart, full of joy when I think of you? I want to thank Algeria, the door to paradise, God has blessed her. From the southern Sahara, to Tlemcen in the east and Annaba in the west, Algeria is ours, God has blessed Algeria’.

Some of Dahmane’s most famous compositions had moral lessons. In ‘Elli Yzraa Errih’, or ‘Who sows the wind’, which is one of his masterpieces, he sings, ‘He who sows the wind shall reap only dust, so it goes for the life of man. He is cold-hearted, he is stone-faced, and every day brings him its share of misery. Beware of this man’.

In ‘Lezem Esmah Binatna’, or ‘We have to forgive each other’, he tries to heal some of the wounds of the Algerian war. ‘The solidarity and brotherhood that we knew in the past must once again return; it will be the source of our future happiness. If we soften our hearts, our future will be brighter. Those who tried to divide us are the cause of all these conflicts and all this pain. What happened is done, let us forget what separates us and not provoke our enemies’.

The song ‘Ouine Houma Hbabna’, which translates as ‘Where are our brothers?’, deals with similar themes. Dahmane sings, ‘Where are our brothers? Where are the neighbors, the people we grew up with, the people we can trust? My family has forgotten all that I’ve done for them, only those who have forked tongues are strong enough to walk the line, to keep going. Heed my advice; never listen to the words of a liar, they only light fires that burn friendships’.

Dahmane also wrote many songs about women. In ‘Yal Hajla’, he compares a beautiful woman to a partridge. He sings, ‘The hunter saw you as the sun was rising, you stay hidden behind your beauty. You are desired. Your mysterious look and your feet painted in henna can’t soften your heart of stone. When he first saw you his heart burst with joy, his love for you made him sick. He thought the hunt was over, but he has no chance. The next hunter is already waiting for his turn’.

The song ‘Zouj Hmamat’ tells the story of a man split between two women, one traditional the other modern. ‘You who are so hungry for friendship and love, why do you spend your nights alone looking at the stars? If your heart is suffering it is because you have known love and separation. Your eyes go back and forth; you look at two women with the same desire. One of them wants to travel and see the world, the other wants to stay close to her fields, anchored in her culture and traditions’.

In ‘Dak Elmaqnine Ezzine’, Dahmane compares a beautiful woman to a dove. He sings, ‘This dove that I set free has taken my mind with her. I have lost the key that opens my house, my fortune. The dove is free, coming and going as she pleases, visiting friends and family, her life is nothing but joy’.

This final song, ‘Ya Rayah’, is Dahmane’s most famous. Recorded in the mid-1960s, ‘Ya Rayah’ distills the anguish of the Algerian immigrants of his generation. In 1993, the Franco-Algerian singer Rachid Taha’s version of this song was a massive hit. Dahmane goes for the jugular, ‘You, the candidate for exile, how far are you willing to go? Sooner or later you will tire and return to your source, your country. You have visited rich countries; you have wasted a lot of your time. You will never achieve anything in a foreign land. It was your destiny. Your heart is heavy. Your youth is gone and time is wearing you down. Happy is he who lives a joy as deep as my misery. Listen to my advice; before you rush after money and wealth, think hard about what is most important to you’.

This post draws on the work of Rabah Mezouane, Ahmed Hachelaf, and Achour Cheurfi. Special thanks to Zineb Senhaji for her translations of the lyrics.

Listeners and lost nuggets

Posted February 26th, 2009 at 9:19 pm (UTC-4)

I am just about to head out of town for a few weeks and I haven’t had the time to wrap up several features I have been working on. I had hoped in particular to post, before I left, a piece on Dahmane el Harrachi, one of the greats of Algerian music, most of whose recordings are now, frustratingly, very difficult to come by.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, perhaps the greatest reward of being a broadcaster is the feedback you get from your listeners. I broadcast nine different radio programs each week, in both English and French, which are followed by listeners-on shortwave, mediumwave, and fm- in over 30 countries. In ways that often surprise me, and always move me, I get to share many intimate and mysterious moments with millions of strangers throughout Africa.

Music, and music programs, elicit emotional responses and attachments that are different from other radio shows, or television programs: I am obviously biased but, can there be any greater small pleasure in life than hearing a radio DJ play the song you’ve requested, after the anticipation of the wait, the joy of hearing a favorite song played just for you, while simultaneously being able to share it with millions of other listeners.

Over the years I have received pictures from listeners throughout Africa, I cherish them all and, in lieu of the Algerian feature I had hoped to post, I thought I’d share a few of my favorites with you.

Listeners often send us pictures of their radio receivers, the magic boxes that bring them the music, and this snapshot is one of my favorites.

I could fill a scrapbook with the fantastic pictures Nigerian listeners have sent. This picture has been on my refrigerator for many seasons.

Mr. Onuorah Matthew O. McSteve of Nsukka sent a beautiful series of formal portraits and candid snapshots.

Mrs. Raliyetu Salihu and Mr. Abubakar Yakubu recently got married in Kogi State Nigeria and this picture was included in a poster they printed for the wedding guests.

This young listener from Ghana listens to Music Time in Africa every Saturday evening.

Pierre Boubré from Burkina Faso wrote me a long letter telling me about his favorite music and he kindly included this picture of himself.

Mr. Abiy Asnake from Nazareth, Ethiopia just sent me this portrait last month.

Magellan Bin Mbuta sent this picture from Goma, in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, several years ago.

Mr. Anthony Pinnell, of Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, is a devoted shortwave radio listener. Several times a year he sends us notes of encouragement written on wonderful homemade cards.

I thought I’d end with a few ‘outtakes’ from the last year of blogging. These are all tracks that I love and have wanted to feature on the site. For different reasons-no information, slightly distorted recordings, etc…- I did not post them.

First, an unreleased early Radio Mali recording of one of my favorite Ali Farka Toure songs. He rerecorded this one for his World Circuit CD Niafunke.

I still have not indentified the artists in this song. It is another recording that was made by Radio Mali. I have always loved the melody and the relaxed delivery.

  • [audio:] Mali ‘Badalabourou’

These next two tracks come off a reel that was sent to the Voice of America from our embassy, in what was then Zaire, back in the 1970s. For my money, the Mutuashi is one of the toughest grooves on the planet. This is the root of all modern Luba music-think Tshala Muana. The second track is a sweet Kikongo guitar rumba.

  • [audio:] Troupe Luba ‘Mutuashi’
  • [audio:] Groupe Kikongo

This final track is from the same reel as the tracks featured in the Ethiopia post. It didn’t ‘make the cut’ but is charming nonetheless.

  • [audio:] Ayele Mamo

I’ll be back in a few weeks. Thanks as always for your time, help, support and encouragement.



Heather Maxwell produces and hosts the award-winning radio program “Music Time in Africa” and is the African Music Editor for the Voice of America. Heather is an ethnomusicologist with Doctorate and Master’s degrees from Indiana University specializing in African Music. She is also an accomplished jazz and Afrojazz/Afrosoul vocalist and has been working, researching, and performing in Africa and the U.S. since 1987.

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