The Conjunto Africa Negra of Sao Tome

Posted February 10th, 2009 at 10:00 pm (UTC-4)

Every Saturday and Sunday evening, during the four months of the dry season (June through September), villages throughout Sao Tome come together to shuffle to the warm pulse of the island’s most popular dance rhythms. These weekly dances, or ‘fundoes’ (which literally translates as ‘the bottom’, as in the old blues line ‘down in the bottom’, and refers to the public spaces that were cordoned off for dancing) bring together Sao Tome’s different communities; the Creoles, descendents of Portuguese colonists and African slaves, the Angolares, descendents of Angolan slaves who settled in fishing communities, with the descendents of Cape Verdian and Mozambiquan contract laborers who came to work on the island’s coffee and cocoa plantations. With no nightclubs or national theatre where they could perform, several generations of Sao Tome’s best orchestras built their reputations entertaining the farmers, fishermen, merchants, civil servants and mechanics who crowded these open-air ‘fundoes’.

In the early 1970s a butcher from the town of Sao Tome (the capital city) named Horacio, and his friend Emilio Pontes decided to start a music group. Whenever Horacio could get away from his butcher shop, he would meet Emilio in the town of ‘San Guembo’ (located 3 km from downtown Sao Tome), and the two would kill a few hours playing guitars and writing songs. The two friends quickly pulled together the first lineup of musicians who, in 1974, would officially become known as the ‘Conjunto Africa Negra’. The group’s greatest hits were built around the melodic and languid lead guitar playing of Imidio Vaz, the steady rhythm guitar of Leonildo Barros, and the raspy voice of Joao Seria. In a recent conversation I had with Leonildo Barros, he reminisced about the hours he used to spend with Imidio Vaz, listening to the latest records from Gabon, Zaire and Cameroun, drawing inspiration and copping guitar phrases from the greats of Central African guitar playing.

The 1980s were the high-water years for the Conjunto Africa Negra. The group performed frequently throughout Sao Tome and Principe, made regular trips to Portugal, visited Angola nine times (touring across Luanda, Benguela, and Cabinda provinces), and were a huge success in the Cape Verde Islands. It was through their constant performing that they perfected their version of Sao Tome Rumba, what their fans call ‘MamaDjumba’ music. Leonildo Barros explains that their music earned its nickname during a 1981 concert, in Portugal, to celebrate the eighth anniversary of Guinea-Bissau’s independence.

Africa Negra was sharing the bill with the great Super Mama Djombo from Guinea-Bissau, with the two bands alternating sets for over four hours. Near the end of the evening, the audience was asked which band they wanted to bring back on stage to close out the show. The largely Guinea-Bissaun crowd spurned ‘Super Mama Djombo’, and started chanting ‘Africa Negra’. Sao Tome’s favorite sons obligingly returned to the stage, and to ease the tension with their disappointed colleagues, they started their encore set with a tribute to Super Mama Djombo. Within minutes the crowd was repeating the simple chant ‘Africa MamaDjumba’. When the Conjunto Africa Negra returned to Sao Tome, news of their Portuguese triumph had preceded them, and at their next concert they were welcomed to the stage with the same chant, ‘Africa MamaDjumba’.

Africa Negra’s MamaDjumba sound was immortalized in a series of 40 or 50 songs, that the group recorded at Radio Sao Tome, the best of which were released on 3 lps. In the early 1980s, the broadcast and recording studios of Radio Sao Tome were located at the eastern edge of the capital city of Sao Tome, in a small house overlooking the ocean. The broadcast and recording booths were too small to accommodate a large group of musicians, so Africa Negra would set up in the courtyard, facing the incoming waves, and lay down tracks surrounded by their most loyal fans. Many of these recordings continue to be a staple of Sao Tomean radio broadcasts.

One of the group’s biggest hits was improvised live on stage. As the band was preparing to take the stage one Friday evening in the suburbs of Sao Tome, Leonildo Barros was approached by a desperate young man who needed a favor. The young fan explained that, on his way to the ‘fundoes’, he had gotten into a fight with his girlfriend that was serious enough to end their relationship, and he needed Africa Negra’s help to win her back. The only solution, he told Leonildo, was for the group to sing a love song for Alice, his now ex-girlfriend.

Leonildo protested that they were just about to go on stage, had no lyrics, and no time to put together an arrangement. The now frantic suitor persisted and promised to buy a round of beers for the entire orchestra if they could help bring her around. Near the end of the set, Leonildo mentioned the request to his bandmates and told them to follow his lead. His opening guitar riff brought the band in nice and easy and Joao Seria, to kill time as he waited for inspiration to strike, starting repeating the phrase ‘Alice, remember, Alice’, and the drummer Olinto took it from there, answering Joao with ‘oh, how can things be this way?’, or ‘what could I have done to you to deserve this?’ After a couple of minutes of this, Joao backed away from the microphone and let the guitar players wrap things up. No one can remember whether the young lover won Alice back that night, but the group did get their case of beer, and two days later they went to Radio Sao Tome and recorded ‘Alice’.

The song ‘Carambola’ was written by a songwriter named Horacio from the village of Trindade, and rearranged by the group. Joao Seria sings, ‘Carambola (a female nickname) from the village of Nova Moca (a town 15 km from the capitol city) told all of her friends that she was going to the city to make a name for herself, to show off what she has, now everyone is playing her, kicking her back and forth like a ball’.

My favorite Africa Negra track, ‘Bô Lêgo Caço Modebô’, or ‘You let the dog bite you’, tells the story of a young woman who unexpectedly became pregnant. Seria sings, ‘Oh Mama! What are you going to do? Since the very beginning we have tried to warn you to be careful, to always study the tides before you dive in the ocean. You let the dog bite you and now how are things going to be?’

Most of the group’s songs use metaphors to sing about mores and social dilemmas.

In ‘Minô bô bé quacueda’, Joao addresses his friend Mino. He sings, ‘Mino, my friend, you saw what happened. You threw the rock but tried to hide your hand and now see how much you suffer. When the sun rises, we don’t want to listen to you cry. We warned you, but you threw the rock, and tried to hide your hand’.

The lyrics to ‘Quà na bua ne ga fa’ are more abstractly metaphorical. ‘You can’t deny what has happened; you ran from the spear but were killed by the knife. You can’t run from the truth. Me, I am like the barking dog, I make noise but I don’t have the courage to bite. You decided to befriend the worms because they don’t bite, but they urinated on you and now you run all over trying to find a cure’.

In a similar vein, and equally abstract is ‘Nao Nao Senhor’. Joao Seria sings, ‘No, No, Sir. My neighbor, what is this? You slept out in the fields, rolling in the dew; there is no cure for you. You did everything to make this happen; if you only do what you want, we are not going to worry about you.’

This final track is a bittersweet homage to Sao Tome, one of a number of politically engaged songs the group recorded. ‘San Tome is a little island that is full of riches; all that is missing is self-control and discipline. Sao Tome is a little island rich in cocoa and coffee; all that is missing is control’.

These golden years of Africa Negra came to an end when the group toured the Cape Verde Islands in 1990. The tour was so successful that it tore apart the Conjunto Africa Negra. When it came time to return to Sao Tome, the lead singer Joao Seria, who was one of the founding members of the group (but not, as many believe, the bandleader), along with the bass player Pacheco decided to stay in Praia. Without their front man, Africa Negra started to slowly drift out of the limelight.

Today, the group is still together, and last year they released a CD of new songs called ‘Cua na Sun Pô Na Buà Fa’, or ‘Even if you think it is worthless’. In spite of diminishing interest in live bands in Sao Tome-one of the group’s current singers complained that audiences today prefer to dance to DJs-Africa Negra continues to perform several times a month in Sao Tome, but they no longer are invited to perform abroad. The only ‘original’ band member still in the group is the lead guitar player Imidio Vaz.

For many of the musicians who were part of the group during the 1980s, the decade remains a source of treasured memories. I asked Leonildo Barros to share some of his most memorable experiences with Africa Negra, and he told the story of a 1985 music festival in Luanda, Angola. The group’s flight to Luanda had been canceled and Africa Negra landed in the Angolan capital the day after they were to perform. As they got off the plane, they were told that the music festival was closing, and that most of the public had already left the stadium.

Determined to make an appearance, Africa Negra nonetheless headed downtown, and as they worked their way through Luanda traffic, they started to notice a large crowd following them to the stadium. A local radio had announced that Africa Negra had finally arrived in Luanda, and were making their way to the stadium; the group’s fans started to head back towards the stadium, and escorted the band-bus the final half mile to the show. The group played for over four hours, to a packed crowd of thousands.

This post is based on interviews with Leonildo Barros (who joined Africa Negra in 1978 , and was with the group until he moved to Portugal in the early 1990s) and Antonio de Menezes, who has been a member of Africa Negra for the past fifteen years. Special thanks to my colleague Sosimo Leal for his help with the research and for translating, and to Nico Colombant for sharing his beautiful pictures of Sao Tome (I love the barbershop picture!!).

Unreleased Fela and Koola Lobitos, 1965

Posted December 31st, 2008 at 3:52 pm (UTC-4)

I have recently fallen into the end of the year holiday-induced doldrums, and have not had the time to finish the research on several posts I have been working on. Nonetheless, I wanted to end 2008 with some good music (recordings that don’t need much commentary). I thought I would feature what is arguably the most ‘famous’ tape in our archive; Leo’s never-released 1965 reel of Fela Ransome-Kuti and his Koola Lobitos that caught the Afrobeat pioneers at an interesting time in their careers. Fela had returned to Lagos two years earlier (after several years of musical study at Trinity College in London) and the Koola Lobitos were starting to get noticed in Nigeria. Leo’s recording session with Fela and the Koola Lobitos came at the end of a six week trip to Nigeria that I have discussed in this previous post.

Over the past several years, several different compilations have released Koola Lobitos tracks from the same era; these recordings however were made for Voice of America broadcasts, and I don’t think any of them have been commercially released. However, given that none of the tracks are longer than 4 minutes, I suspect that Fela may have hoped to release these recordings. (According to Toshiya Endo’s great Fela discography, different versions of two of the songs Fela recorded for Leo were released, and four were never re-recorded, or at least no other versions are currently accounted for).

As you listen to the tracks you will hear Fela introducing each take. Unfortunately we do not have any of the false takes. Leo’s best recollection is that these false starts and alternate takes were erased when he got back to the VOA African Program Center in Liberia; no sense in wasting valuable tape stock. These recordings, for reasons that no one can any longer remember, are also the only ones from Leo’s 1965 Nigerian trip that he recorded in monaural.

A couple of months ago, while looking for some Angolan radio tapes I found a few other items of Fela-bilia. The most interesting is a 1967 interview that Fela gave to Sean Kelly, then the VOA correspondent in Lagos. Fela’s years as an international ‘icon’ were still ahead of him; Fela was still a Lagos bandleader trying to push the boundaries of Nigerian popular music. This nine-minute feature includes a live cut of the Koola Lobitos performing ‘Lai-se’, and ends with Fela’s assessment of the West African music scene.

This final track does not feature Fela himself, but rather his paternal grandfather the Reverend Canon Josiah J. Ransome-Kuti, an Anglican pastor and composer of religious hymns. This recording is one of many from the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation archives that were given to the Voice of America by the great Nigerian composer Fela Sowande, who in the early 1950s had been the director of Music and Music Research at the N.B.C. This piece was composed by Reverend Ransome-Kuti but I am not sure if this recording also features his voice.

For a wonderfully detailed examination of Fela’s life and career check out Michael Veal’s biography ‘Fela: The Life and Times of an African’. Best wishes to all for 2009!!

Bembeya’s First

Posted December 10th, 2008 at 4:42 pm (UTC-4)

This past week marked the one-year anniversary of ‘African Music Treasures’. Thanks to all of you who have responded, over the past year, for your contributions, suggestions, and encouragement. Over the last twelve months I have tried to feature genres, artists, and recordings from throughout Africa that don’t get much attention in the music press, on blogs, or by record companies. As I have spent more time going through the reels, vinyl, and cassettes in our archive I have stumbled (literally) on lots of wonderful recordings I had not heard; 45s from Algeria, the Central African Republic, and Mauritius, reels of Burundian Taarab groups from the 1980s, Tunisian Maalouf from the 1960s, or radio recordings from the Comoros, cassettes from Togo, Madagascar, Djibouti, and Chad. With so much interesting music I want to feature, I remain frustrated by the time it takes me to put together new posts and I thank you all for your patience!!

To mark our first birthday I thought I’d feature some of the more ‘famous’ recordings in our collection. In 1959, the year after Guinea won its independence from France, Leo arrived in the capital city of Conakry, with his wife Mary and a Jeep full of recording equipment. He had spent the previous year in Ghana, recording regional musics for the Tempo International record company, and his boss ‘Colonel’ Irving Fogel wanted Leo to document the ‘new music from the new country of Guinea’. Over the course of his three years in Guinea, Leo traveled, with his partner El Hadj Sidiki Diabate (one of the most famous Griots of the modern era), and recorded groups-traditional and modern- in every region of Guinea.

(Leo and Sidiki Diabate arrive at the airport in N’Zerekore with Leo’s recording gear)

Over a series of ten lps, Tempo International released the cream of Leo’s Guinean recordings (see here for a discography of Tempo’s Guinean releases). Leo started to work for Tempo International records in Hollywood, California back in the late 1940s, soon after ‘Colonel’ Irving Fogel founded the company. Fogel got his nickname, and I suspect many of his business contacts, during his years of military service. In the spring of 1942, Fogel, who was already involved in the Los Angeles music business, was hired to help get the newly created Armed Forces Radio off the ground. During his years of military service, Fogel was part of a team that came up with creative solutions to the technical challenges of broadcasting programs throughout the world (these were the pre-satellite days). In 1944, as part of the allied invasion of Italy, Fogel also helped rebuild the Radio Audizioni Italania, which subsequently became Italy’s public radio and television network.

After the war, Fogel returned to Los Angeles and launched several businesses that drew on of his army experiences. His varied endeavors included music publishing, producing film soundtracks (he would buy the rights to musical scores, then send a conductor to Austria or Yugoslavia to record, taking advantage of cheaper orchestras), installing the first ‘entertainment systems’ in US submarines (these were twelve track tape machines, with each track featuring a particular genre of music), and Tempo International records. The bulk of Tempo’s catalog consisted of movie soundtracks and light pop music (think Lawrence Welk in Hollywood). The most interesting lps on the Tempo label are the lps of Afghani, Ghanaian and Guinean music that Leo produced. As far as I can tell, Fogel’s goal was to amass a collection of field recordings from throughout the world that he could sell to Hollywood studios for use in films.

Soon after Fogel hired Leo in the late 1940s, Leo and his wife Mary drove to Hollywood and moved into ‘Colonel’ Fogel’s castle in the hills outside of town. Over the next two years Leo trained as a recording engineer, cutting his teeth as an assistant on sessions with different symphonic orchestras. From Hollywood Leo was sent to Washington D.C. to work with Tempo’s sister company US Recording, which built customized reel machines, generators, and battery units for field recording. In 1953, Leo was sent to Pakistan, where, working with the music director of Radio Pakistan he spent six months recording music throughout the country. At the end of the year, Leo and Mary drove their jeep across the Khyber Pass and settled in Kabul, Afghanistan, where they would spend the next four years, before moving to Ghana, in 1958.

None of the Tempo International releases of Guinean music were commercially released. When Leo would return to Conakry from his various recording trips, he would go through his raw recordings, select the most interesting takes, and then edit the lp masters. These master tapes, along with his unedited field recordings, pictures, and liner notes, were then sent to Tempo International in Hollywood, where all of the ten Guinean lps were pressed in limited editions of 2,500. Tempo sent the bulk of each pressing to the Guinean government, and none of these lps were commercially released. Unfortunately, most of the master tapes from Leo’s Guinean years were lost in a fire that destroyed most of the Tempo International archives. We have in our collection only a handful of Leo’s Guinean field tapes. All of the tracks below are taken from the lps.

The first five Tempo lps (numbers 7008-7012) featured some of Guinea’s most appreciated Griots interpreting masterpieces of the classic Mandingo repertoire. The next four lps (numbers 7013-7016) were the first recordings released of modern Guinean dance bands; a musical style that the Syliphone record label, fanatical collectors, and recent CD reissues have anchored in the mainstream of popular African music history, alongside Fela’s Afrobeat, Congolese Rumba, Senegalese Mbalax, and South African Mbaqanga.

(Leo’s recording session with Bembeya Jazz)

Historically, perhaps the most interesting of these lps is Tempo 7015, which was released in 1962 and features the first recordings of Bembeya Jazz (the label mistakenly uses the name ‘Orchestre de Beyla’. The Bembeya Jazz was the regional orchestra from the town of Beyla in southern Guinea). The Bembeya Jazz was formed in March of 1961, and Leo showed up in Beyla several months later. For a detailed history of Bembeya Jazz, and a good account of Leo’s time in Guinea check out this Afropop feature from a few years back. Here is what Bembeya sounded like six years before their first Syliphone release, and before they plugged in!

Leo recorded the group when they were still a little ragged and working on their sound. These recordings are, I think, particularly interesting because they caught the group at a time when they probably weren’t ready yet to record. I can’t think of any other recordings of a seminal modern African group that were made so soon after the formation of the group. My favorite track on the lp is ‘Seneiro’ which features a nice guitar solo by Sekou Diabate, who at the time was the youngest member of Bembeya Jazz.

This next track, ‘Din Ye Kassila’ is listed on the label as a ‘Cha-Cha-Mambo’ and features the female singer Jenne Camara. ‘Lele’ is a percussion rave-up that is described as a ‘Rhythme Africain’.

Musically speaking, I think the most interesting of the Tempo records is Tempo 7013 which features the Orchestre de Danse de Gueckedou.

Of the four ‘modern’ groups Leo recorded they were the most together. Tempo released two lps by the Orchestre de Danse de Gueckedou that featured their repertoire of Boleros, Cha-Chas, Calypsos, and Beguines.

The fourth lp of modern Guinean music (Tempo 7016) featured two groups from the southern town of Kissidougou.

The A-Side featured Bemba Traore and his group. My favorite track from the group, however, was featured on Tempo 7008. The last track on the lp is ‘Kebendo’, a popular dance melody of the Kissi ethnic group.

The B-Side of the lp featured the most stripped down of the modern groups that Leo recorded, the Orchestre de Kissidougou.

‘Yanfa’ is described on the record label as a rhythm Donkoura’ and ‘Sekou a l’Onu’ is a bolero that commemorates Sekou Toure’s (the first president of Guinea) visit to the United Nations.

For more information on this era of Guinean music and the later developments of the Syliphone era check out Eric Charry’s book ‘Mande Music’.

The Kawere Boys

Posted November 12th, 2008 at 3:53 pm (UTC-4)

Over the last two years- through the thousands of emails, phone calls and letters I have received from listeners throughout Africa- I have gained some insight into the many ways in which the presidential campaign of Senator Barack Obama inspired the continent. This enthusiasm blossomed into collective euphoria when, one week ago, Senator Obama was elected the 44th President of the United States of America. In phone calls from Algeria, Guinea, Cote D’Ivoire, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda and Somalia, and in emails from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ghana, Ethiopia, Zambia, Mali, Niger, Djibouti, Burkina Faso, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Tchad, Rwanda, Burundi, Angola, Senegal, Togo, Benin, Cameroun, and Zimbabwe listeners expressed their love for ‘their’ President-elect Obama, and for the United States.

Ibrahim Barry from the Cote D’Ivoire wrote, ‘I have been up all night waiting for the election results and praying for Obama’s victory. When the news broke in the early morning all of Abidjan was out in the streets celebrating.’ From Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of the Congo, Romain Pierre Mienahata wrote, ‘One man’s ambition became the hope of an entire continent, of an entire generation. And now the day has arrived, a young black man dared and prevailed! Given the continent’s paternalistic political systems, could what just happened in the United States have happened in Africa?’ Mr. Sanya Aina from Festac Town, Lagos, Nigeria send this message, ‘now that God has ordained Mr. Obama to be OUR president, we all have to support him.’ Ms. Nima Hussein from Djibouti’s message was short, ‘I’m so happy’, she wrote, and Mahamad Mansur from Niger sent this two-word message, ‘I’m proud’.

The histories of the United States and Africa have been intertwined for centuries, but never, it seems, has this shared destiny been as celebrated as it was on the evening of November 4, 2008. And never have the hopes for a better future, of both the United States and Africa, the varied individual dreams of so many citizens, been so tied to the same individual. To kick-off this new American and African era I thought I’d feature a stack of singles from the land of President-elect Obama’s roots, Western Kenya.

The Kawere Boys were formed by Cheplin Ngode Kotula in Kericho, Kenya in 1974, and over the next four years became one of the more popular Benga groups in Luo land. Cheplin Ngode Kotula (he is the gentleman sitting in the picture above) was born, in the late forties or early fifties, in the Kawere neighborhood of the town of Saye Konyango, which is located on the road (the C-26) between Oyugis and Kindu Bay, in Nyanza province, Western Kenya. Cheplin Kotula’s first musical mentor was Joseph Lango, who recruited Cheplin to play acoustic guitar with his pick-up group at village ceremonies in Saye Konyango. (While I haven’t been able to confirm this hunch, I imagine that Cheplin started his musical career playing the nyatiti lyre or orutu fiddle, like several of the other Kawere boys).

In 1971, after failing his Certificate of Primary Education exam, Cheplin decided to make a career of music. Sometime in 1972, he joined Daniel Owino Misiani and his Shirati Jazz, who were, at the time, the house-band at the Kanyangao bar in Mathare, one of Nairobi’s largest slums. After two years, and one too many financial misunderstandings with Misiani, Cheplin decided to start his own group.

Cheplin, along with rhythm guitar player Juma Charlie, and bassist Otieno Ogor-who had both been with Misiani before Cheplin joined the Shirati Jazz- turned to A.P. Chandarana of Kericho for help. According to his younger brother Rasik, A.P. Chandarana started his music business back in 1958, and would eventually release several thousand 45-rpm singles (on at least 15 different labels) featuring a wide range of Kenyan (Luo, Luhya, Kipsigiis, Swahili) and Tanzanian groups. Cheplin Kotula and A.P. Chandarana had met when the Shirati Jazz traveled to Kericho to record for Chandarana (I haven’t yet been able to identify which titles Shirati Jazz recorded for Chandarana between 1972-1974). When Cheplin, Juma Charlie and Otieno Ogor arrived in Kericho they had no musical instruments and no place to stay. Chandarana put them up in an apartment and lent them instruments to rehearse and record.

By the time the singer Herman Dinda joined the group in late 1974, the Kawere Boys had already released several singles, purchased their own instruments, and grown to include singers Juma Silas and Osumba John, Aloo Jossy ‘Jarapethii’, and Juma Charlie playing rhythm guitar, Otieno Ogor on bass, Sadok Otieno and Manase Aroko on drums, and Paul Dinda, Ouko McKenzie, and Cheplin Ngode Katula playing lead guitar. The Kawere Boys relationship with A.P. Chandarana lasted until August of 1975, when Oluoch Kanindo, a Luo music impresario who also served as a member of parliament, and became deputy secretary of education under President Moi, brought them to Nairobi. The Kawere Boys made several recordings for Kanindo at the High Fidelity studios in Nairobi, before heading back to their homes in Oyugis.

The success of the Kawere Boys led to disputes, and the group split in two in early 1978. One group of musicians-which included singers Herman Dinda, a new recruit named Elis Olela, and probably Otieno Ogor, Paul Dinda, Ouko McKenzie, and Manase Aroko-were brought to Kisumu by Oluoch Kanindo, where they performed as the Kalausi Band. The other splinter group, led by Cheplin Kotula, took the name of Kawere Jazz, and included at least Aloo Jossy, and Juma Charlie. After six months of struggle (and some say sabotage by Oluoch Kanindo, who had started to neglect the Kalausi Band to heavily promote Colella Mazee’s group) the different Kawere factions regrouped, once again under the leadership of Cheplin Kotula.

This reformation lasted only until the end of 1978, when recently joined guitar player Paul Omari, and a faction of disgruntled band members, parted ways with Kotula and started the Kawere B band (they also recorded as the Kawere B Kings). And although different versions of the Kawere Boys kept performing at least into the early 1980s, the group stopped recording regularly in 1978. Cheplin Ngode Kotula passed away in 1994. Paul Omari’s Kawere B band broke up in March 2007. Two of the original Kawere Boys, Herman Dinda and Aloo Jossy continue to perform in Oyugis with the Super K (Kawere) Rangers.

This group of Kawere Boys tracks were released on A.P. Chandarana’s Hundhwe label, and recorded by Chandarana himself at his studio in Kericho. A.P. Chandarana ran the board, and recorded the Kawere Boys live to tape through three microphones. These recordings were not only popular throughout Luo land, but also sold well in Tanzania, Malawi, South Africa, Nigeria, Cameroun, and West Africa. Rasik Chandarana, A.P.’s younger brother, remembers traveling to Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Mali, Togo, Ghana, Zambia, and South Africa to sign distribution deals for Chandarana releases. (A colleague of mine from Northern Cameroun can still remember the lyrics to Kawere singles he listened to as a boy.) The Chandarana family has all of A.P.’s master tapes and until very recently continued to sell copies of their recordings at the Chandarana store in Kericho.

First up, ‘Auma Sily’, a love song that was recorded back in 1974. Herman Dinda sings, ‘Sily from Kosa, let me sing for you. When I think about you I can’t sleep.’

These next two tracks are the A and B-sides of a 45-rpm single that was also released in 1974. Most of the songs in the Kawere repertoire seem to be praise songs for patrons who had invited the group to perform. These songs can be thought of as pre-internet age social networking. The singer usually starts by introducing himself, goes on to introduce the object of his praise, as well as the patron’s relatives, friends, and neighbors, before explaining the nature of his relationship to the patron in question. For example, in ‘Muma Ben’, the song starts with an introduction of ‘Muma Ben from Saye Konyango’, then introduces Muma Ben’s family, and ends with praise for the hospitality the singer received when he was invited to Muma Ben’s house. If you were to map out all of the relationships outlined in the Kawere Boys singles in our collection, and if you had a deep understanding of Luo culture, you could get a good idea of the social networks the Kawere Boys relied upon for their livelihood.

This next single, recorded in 1975, features two more praise songs. In ‘Dr. Benson Omullo’, the singer Sam Otieno praises the good doctor from Kawiti. He praises Dr. Omullo for his community service, and describes an afternoon that he spent at Dr. Omullo’s home. All of the friends who he met at Dr. Omullo’s are mentioned by name; for example, at one point he mentions a friend of Dr. Omullo’s ‘who is the brother-in-law of this guy who married a girl from Tanzania’. The B-Side, ‘J. Ojuki Jakadem’ is ‘dedicated to Jossy, the brother of Oduo, with joy and happiness.’ The singer explains, ‘I went to Jossy’s house and his wife was very hospitable to me. We went to Nairobi, I got into a taxi, and Jossy paid for the taxi’.

In August of 1975 the Kawere Boys left Chandarana and started to record for Oluoch Kanendo.

I do not know if Kanindo produced this single on the Simba-Nyaima label, or when it was recorded in 1975. This track is a praise song for ‘Roda Atieno’.

These two final tracks are the A and B-sides of a 1978 single by Cheplin Kotula’s Kawere Jazz Band, released by Okoth Kodoni on his Awendo Rakido label.

Guitar player Paul Omari composed both of these songs, which have a faster almost Rumba feel.

This feature is based on interviews with Herman Dinda, Paul Omari, and Rasik Chandarana. Many thanks also to Matthews Juma, Douglas Paterson, Ian Eagleson, and Tim Clifford for their help with contacts and research (the picture of the Kawere Boys was graciously provided by Doug). Very special thanks to Mr. Patrick Deya for his help with the interviews, for his translations of song lyrics, and for sharing his insights into Luo culture with me.

Sufi Sounds, volume four

Posted October 8th, 2008 at 4:08 pm (UTC-4)

This fourth, and for now, final, installment of African Islamic music features recordings from the Cote D’Ivoire, Benin and Nigeria. (I think I will wait until next year to present the Islamic recordings we have in our collection from Mauritania, Sierra Leone, Niger, Northern Nigeria, Sudan, Uganda, Ethiopia, and Egypt. My original plan to highlight selections from all of our recordings by the end of the month of Ramadan was too ambitious!) One of the most enlightening aspects of going through all of the recordings that I’ve featured over the last month has been realizing the ways in which these different Islamic musics interact with other traditional and modern musical genres, both national and regional. Similar dynamics have shaped the Islamic singing of the Cote D’Ivoire.

The Cote D’Ivoire is perhaps the most ethnically, culturally and religiously diverse country in Francophone West Africa. Drawn by the swath of cocoa plantations that cut across central Cote D’Ivoire (the Cote D’Ivoire is the world’s largest producer and exporter of cocoa), large numbers of labor migrants from Burkina Faso, Mali, Ghana, and Liberia have settled in the country over the last five decades. The port of Abidjan, up until the late 1990s, was one of the busiest in West Africa, and drew laborers and sailors from all along Africa’s Western coast. Long the economic center of Francophone Africa, Abidjan was also, before the civil war, home to large Moroccan, Lebanese, and French communities. Throughout the golden years of the Ivoirian economic boom (the 1970s and 1980s) the state of the art recording studios and many nightclubs of Abidjan attracted musicians from Togo, Benin, Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger, Guinea, Cameroon, Gabon and both Congos.

The last five decades have seen a dramatic spread of Islam in the Cote D’Ivoire. Up until Ivoirian independence in 1960, Islam was a minority faith, limited largely to the smaller cities and farming villages of the country’s Northern Savanna regions. Today, Islam is the religion of almost forty percent of Ivoirians, with the largest number living in the South, especially in greater Abidjan. Probably because of their longtime minority status, and the country’s religious diversity, Ivoirian Muslims tend to downplay the differences between denominations (Sunni, Shi’a) and Sufi brotherhoods, and emphasize the unity of all Muslims. At the same time, the decades of cohabitation with Christian communities (both Catholic and Protestant) has influenced Ivoirian Muslims in unique and interesting ways.

Kassim Touré was the first Ivoirian singer to start his own Islamic Choir. He was born, in the 1950s, in the Southeastern city of Aboisso, into a family from the Northwestern town of Odienne. After finishing his primary schooling he continued his university and religious education in Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Ghana, simultaneously studying Islamic history and the Koran. Of particular importance to him were his years of study in Mali; he studied with the renowned Islamic scholar Sada Touré in Ségou, and with the singers Racine Sall and Cheikhna Diawara in Bamako. Mr. Touré told me that he was a member of a Sufi brotherhood, but that it did not matter which one. ‘What is important’, he told me, ‘is that I am a Muslim’. In 1979 he returned to the Aboisso region and started to teach, eventually opening ‘L’Ecole Confessionel de Kossikro’, a Franco-Arabic school that teaches both the national public school curriculum, and Koranic studies.

Several years later he organized and trained a group of his students to accompany his performances of the Islamic songs that he had composed. (It is highly probably that the idea of organizing school children into a religious choir is one, of the many, that Ivoirian Muslims borrowed from their Christian neighbors. Many of the organizing bodies and institutions of Ivoirian Muslims were inspired by the structures of the Catholic Church). After what he described to me as some very difficult and discouraging years, his choir finally started to get some attention in 1984/1985 when they started to make regular appearances on ‘Allahu Akbar’, an Islamic television program hosted by Souleymane Doumbia.

His growing popularity led him to a recording studio, when a pharmacist from the Southeastern Bassam region, named Mrs. Ballo Fatou funded sessions at the famed JBZ studio. Today, Kassim Touré has released six cassettes, and his preparing two more. His songs, in both Djula and French, are mainstays of Islamic radio programming throughout the Cote D’Ivoire, Burkina Faso (especially in Bobo Dioulasso), and in Mali. He continues to receive invitations to perform at religious ceremonies throughout the Cote D’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea. When I recently spoke to Mr. Touré he was in Gurdaspur, Punjab State, northern India, continuing his research into Islamic history and music.

One of the many singers that Kassim Touré inspired was Ali Ballo. He was born in Abidjan, in 1971, into a family from Tingrela (in the far North close to the Malian border). Ali Ballo grew up in Abidjan and started singing during his early years of Koranic school. He started his own choir in 1988, organizing his fellow students at a Koranic school in the Abidjan suburb of Attiecoubé. Today, Ali Ballo is the director of the school and leads a choir of several hundred girls.

Mr. Ballo told me that he started the choir after seeing how many people were drawn to Christian churches by their choirs and liturgical music. He said, ‘I realized that sermons were not enough to draw the faithful, we needed to pull them in with music’. Ali Ballo and his choir have released two cassettes, and he is currently working on a third. He continues to perform throughout the Cote D’Ivoire.

The young singer Bah Diallo currently lives in Abidjan. She was born Aicha Koumah in Segou, Mali in 1977, and took the name ‘Bah Diallo’ to honor the mother of the Tijani Sufi master ‘Cheickna Haidara Ham’allah’. This is her first cassette.

I particularly love these next two tracks. They are excerpts from a longer Yoruba-language religious program that was broadcast on Gulf Fm in Cotonou, Benin during Ramadan 2005. I heard the program one night in my hotel room and was knocked out by the warmth of these voices and the melodies. The next day I went to the radio station and they burned me a copy of the program. Unfortunately, the program manager wasn’t able to identify the singers, and I haven’t had any luck since.

This final track features the Nigerian singer Sheidat Fatimoh. She belongs to the Tijaniyya brotherhood, and I think is from Kwara State. This music is very similar to Fuji, which has deep roots in Yoruba Muslim music.

In this next track Sheidat Fatimoh praises the Senegalese marabout Cheikh Ibrahim Niasse from Kaolack, Senegal. (Cheikh Ibrahim Niasse passed away in 1975.) The Niasse ‘house’ of the Tijanniya has followers throughout all of West Africa.

This post is based on interviews with Kassim Touré, Ali Ballo, and Doumbia Issiaka. I also drew on the research of Marie Miran on Islam in the Cote D’Ivoire.

Sufi Sounds, volume three

Posted September 30th, 2008 at 10:23 pm (UTC-4)

Our next installment of Sufi sounds from Africa takes us East to Mali, home to some of West Africa’s most iconic Muslim sites; the Great Mosque of Djenne-the world’s largest mud brick building-is an architectural masterpiece, the mystical city of Tombouctou has been a renowned center of Islamic learning since the 15th century. And although today Muslims make up around 90% of Mali’s population, the worldviews of many Malians still accommodate the pre-Islamic beliefs that are deeply rooted in the country’s different regional cultures.

Since the 9th century there have been several different Islamic waves that have washed across the Malian Sahara, pushing south into the Sahel. Berber and Tuareg merchants from Northern Africa, whose commercial success often depended on the strength of their religious networks, first brought Islam to Mali in the 9th century. This first wave of conversions was followed by a second that came in the wake of the twenty-five year reign (1312-1337) of Mansa Musa, one of the most powerful and devout king’s of the Mali Empire. His wealth and fame reached beyond the shores of the Sahara and drew Muslim scholars, artisans, architects and traders to his capital of Niani. The third, and perhaps most dramatic wave (it wasn’t until the twentieth century that Islam became the religion of the majority of Malians) came from the Senegal River valley. El Hadj Umar Tall was born, around 1797, in the heart of the Futa-Tooro, the region that straddles the Senegal-Mauritania border, and that remains home to the Fulani people, who formed the backbone of his religious and military empire. A devout adherent of the Tijjaniya brotherhood, El Hadj Umar kicked off, in 1848, a jihad that lasted until his death in 1864. And it was after his defeat of the Kingdom of Ségou, on March 10, 1861, that many Bambara –the culturally dominant ethnic group in Mali- converted to Islam.

Today, Ségou remains a center of Bambara culture and a very devout city. This first cassette features Sekou Cissé, who goes by the nickname ‘Sekoublé’. He is a member of the Tidjane brotherhood, and although he still lives in Ségou, rarely performs anymore in public. These recordings were probably made some time in the 1980s. He sings spiritual advice inspired by the teachings of the Koran.

Soufi Drissa Dembélé also comes from the region of Ségou; he was born 60 miles north in the town of Niono. He is a member of the Qadiriyya brotherhood and a follwer of Sufi Yaya Dembélé, a preacher and teacher from Markala (20 miles downriver from Ségou). He started composing and singing professionally in 1999, and has released two cassettes.

Soufi Drissa Dembélé described his music to me as ‘Zhikr’, and sings in both Bambara and in the Miniyanka dialect of Senoufo (his mother-tongue). He currently lives in Kouthiala, and performs primarily throughout southern Mali (he as also been invited to perform for Qadir festivities in Burkina Faso and Guinea). These next two tracks are off his first cassette, which was released in 2006.

Although Sufi brotherhoods have been an important part of Malian Islam for centuries, Sufi Drissa Dembélé is part of a new generation of Malian Sufis, with their own style of worship, who first started to draw attention in the early 1990s. Drawing inspiration from the Baye Fall of Senegal, and in some cases from West African Rastafarianism, this new generation of urban Sufis-previous generations of Malian Sufis were more concentrated in rural areas- have created a syncretic style of worship that reflects Malian pop culture.

Nouhoum Dembélé started his career, back in 1986, singing popular secular music. He was also born in Ségou, and grew up there in a religious family. It was after his mother passed away that he decided to devote himself entirely to religious music. Like his mother, he is a disciple of Cherif Ousmane Madani Haidara, Mali’s most famous and charismatic preacher; Haidara is a mega-star, whose religious ‘revivals’ fill soccer stadiums. In 2005 he self-produced this first cassette release. He performs throughout Mali, and has been invited to perform at events in Burkina Faso and the Cote D’Ivoire. He is currently working on his second cassette.

These next two tracks by Souleymane Diarra feature some beautiful singing, by both Souleymane Diarra and the female choir. I haven’t yet been able to get in touch with Souleymane Diarra, but I think he is a Tidjane, and I am pretty sure this is his first cassette.

Interestingly, the cassettes by both Dembélés and this one by Souleymane Diarra all feature similar instrumentation; ensembles built on the rhythmic foundation of a calabash, and fleshed out by ‘ethereal’ keyboard playing. (Don’t let the keyboards discourage you! All of these tracks feature some great vocals.)

El Hadj Hamado Kanazoe is one of my favorite African Sufi singers. He is not from Mali, but from Burkina Faso. He was born in Mané, not far from the town of Kaya, in north-central Burkina Faso, and since 1970 has been living in Ouagadougou. El Hadj Kanazoe started singing when he was 12 years old and has released 15 studio recordings.

He is the most famous performer of Wazu music, a style that alternates chanting of the Koran in Arabic, with moral commentary in Mooré, the language of the Mossi people. El Hadj Hamado Kanazoe is a disciple of the Tidjani leader Cheikh Aboubakar Doukouré.

This post draws on interviews conducted with Nouhoum Dembélé, Soufi Drissa Dembélé, and El Hadj Hamado Kanazoe, with special thanks to Agathe Diamma and Samuel Kiendrebeogo for their interpreting help. Next up Cote D’Ivoire, Benin and Nigeria.

Sufi Sounds, volume two

Posted September 23rd, 2008 at 10:05 pm (UTC-4)

Any discussion of Sufism in Sub-Saharan Africa has to include, if not start in, Senegal. Perhaps nowhere on the continent are Sufi Brotherhoods as pervasive as they are in Senegal, where the different orders are a part of national politics, many sectors of the economy, popular fashions, traditional and contemporary art, sports, and popular music. Today it is impossible to walk through the streets of Dakar, St. Louis, Kaolack or any other Senegalese city without being drawn in by the sounds and symbols of Senegal’s Sufis; from greetings, shop signs, and murals, to the singing of religious students in the streets, and cassettes playing in taxicabs, Sufi orders shape the physical space, imaginations, and relationships of the majority of Senegalese. And over the last ten years, with the dramatic growth in the religious cassette industry, Sufi songs have implanted themselves in the mainstream of Senegalese musical life. In fact, many Sufi artists now regularly outsell their secular counterparts, and for all of the international recognition that Mbalax and Senegalese hip-hop have received, the sound of urban Senegal (especially during Ramadan) is deeply religious.

There are three main Sufi brotherhoods in Senegal, The Qadriyya, The Tijaniyya, and the Muridiyya. The most immediately visible, and the only uniquely Senegalese brotherhood, is the Muridiyya, which was founded in 1883 by Cheikh Ahmadu Bàmba Mbàcke. The two pillars of Cheikh Ahmadu Bàmba’s teachings are submission (to both God and one’s spiritual guide, or Marabout) and hard work. After an ascetic life of study, meditation and teaching Cheikh Ahmadu Bàmba was buried in 1927 in Touba, a city 200 km north of Dakar that is today the headquarters of the Mourides (and home to the one of the largest mosques in Africa). In his lifetime Cheikh Ahmàdu Bamba wrote many Khassaides, or religious praise songs, and the Mouride tradition of devotional singing dates back to the first generation of Mourides.

The most famous modern Mouride singer, and one of the first to make praise singing his profession was Abdou Lah Niang Ndar. He was born in the northern city of St. Louis and went by the nickname of ‘Guewelu Khadim’, which can be translated as ‘Bàmba’s griot’. (Niang was born into a family of weavers, who have a similar status as griots do in Wolof society.) Abdou Lah Niang was the most popular Mouride singer of the 1980s and early 1990s, performing at religious ceremonies throughout Senegal and for the Mouride Diaspora in Italy, France and Spain. He is one of the most intense vocalists I have ever heard (his ‘attack’ is similar to that of the late-great Wolof griot Ndiaga Mbaye). Sadly, but not surprisingly, Abdou Lah’s many years of singing destroyed his vocal chords, and during the last years of his life his voice was reduced to a raspy whisper. Abdou Lah Niang passed away two years ago.

Here are a few examples of his ‘Djaangi Rabb’ style of singing. These two cuts are excerpts of ‘Moukhadimoul Amdah’ one of his most famous recordings, and feature Abdou Lah with his six-man group.

Today, the most successful Mouride singer is Khadim Gueye. He was born, and still lives, in Touba. He is in his early thirties and has been singing religious songs for about ten years.

Ever since the release, in 2003, of his tribute to ‘Mame Sokhna Diarra’ (Cheikh Ahmadu Bàmba’s mother) Khadim and his group have been in great demand, performing regularly at religious ceremonies and festivities throughout Senegal, and for Mouride communities in France, Spain, Italy, and the USA (he is a regular performer at the ‘Cheikh Ahmadu Bàmba day’ celebrations that are held every summer in Harlem’s Little Senegal neighborhood).

This next cassette features Sokhna Dieynaba Lam, one of the few female Mouride singers (I know of only three who have released cassettes), and the sister of the celebrated griotte and mbalax star Kiné Lam. She was born blind and has released several cassettes with Demba Diop Thiaroye. (The inset picture on the cassette cover is a representation of the only known picture of Cheikh Ahmadu Bàmba).

  • [audio:] Sokhna Dieynaba Lam

One of the first disciples, and definitely the most famous, of Cheikh Ahmadu Bàmba was Cheikh Ibra Fall. Cheikh Ibra Fall distinguished himself from all of Cheikh Ahmadu Bàmba’s earliest followers through his commitment to manual labor; he dedicated his life to spreading the Mouride faith, and to mobilizing the labor of the faithful for the support of the brotherhood. Cheikh Ibra Fall went on to found the ‘Baye Fall’, a sub-group of the Mouride, who follow his commitment to spiritual freedom through hard labor. Various groups of ‘Baye Fall’, who can often be identified by their patchwork garments, and dreadlocked hair, can today be seen in the streets of major Senegalese cities fundraising (sometimes interpreted as begging) for the brotherhood. The ‘Baye Fall’ have their own unique repertoire of songs accompanied by percussion; these Baye Fall rhythms have roots in the music of the Serere ethnic group (many of the earliest converts to ‘Baye Fallism’ were Serere farmers).

This next track is off this cassette featuring ‘Ngagne Seck’ and his group of Baye Fall percussionists from Rufisque, a coastal city close to Dakar.

The Tijaniyya Sufi order was founded in 1784, in Algeria, by Cheikh Sidi Ahmed Tijani, and is today the most widespread Sufi brotherhood in West Africa, with adepts in Mauritania, Mali, Cote D’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad, Sudan, and Senegal (there are several different branches, or houses, in Senegal). The three artists featured below are members of the ‘house’ founded by ‘El-Hajj Malick Sy’, which has its headquarters in Tivaouane, a small city off the national road between Dakar and St. Louis.

Mbaye Ndonde was the most appreciated and influential Tidjane singer of his generation. He was born, in 1930, into a family of griots from Keur Dieumb Ndiaye, a small village not far from Thiès. He started singing publicly in 1949 and continued to perform up until July of 2000; he died on October 16, 2000. Throughout his life he was one of the most fervent supporters of El Hajj Ababacar Sy-who was one of El Hajj Malick Sy’s sons-and composed hundreds of songs in his honor. At the age of 19, at the request of El Hajj Ababacar Sy, Mbaye Ndonde moved to Tivaouane, where he lived for the rest of his life. Although hundreds of cassettes exist of his singing, Mbaye Ndonde did not go into a recording studio until 1996, and he released less than a dozen studio recordings. Today his son Doudou Kende Mbaye, who leads his own group and has released about a dozen cassettes, keeps his musical legacy alive.

Kabir Sene was born and raised in Thiès. After finishing Koranic school, and several years of Arabic study, he started to sing publicly, in 1988, with his group Sope Dabakh. The group has released six cassettes and continues to perform throughout Senegal.

This next track is taken off his third cassette. (The small inset picture on the cover is of Abdoul Aziz Sy, the Khalife, or leader, of the Tivaouane ‘house’ who passed away in 1997.)

Next up is an excerpt from a cassette by Cheikh Ahmed Tidiane Ngom, which features a funeral elegy for El Hajj Abdoul Aziz Sy. I haven’t been able to learn anything about this artist.

  • [audio:] Cheikh Ahmed Tidiane Ngom

The Qadriyya order, which was founded in the 12th century by Abdul Qadir Jilani, a native of the Iranian province of Gilan, is one of the oldest Sufi Brotherhoods in the world. The Qadriyya order was also one of the first to arrive in West Africa (Cheikh Ahmadu Bàmba’s father was a Qadir marabout). This next cassette features Cheikh Bou Diop, a singer from the Qadir center of Ndiassane, a small town north of Thiès, which was established in 1884 by Cheikh Bou Kunta.

The religious songs of the Qadirs are accompanied by a group of kettledrums of different sizes called Tabalas. This group includes six singers and six percussionists.

  • [audio:] Cheikh Bou Diop

This post draws on interviews with Cheikh Babou, Abdul Aziz Kébé, Ahmed Saloum Dieng, Kabir Sène, and Doudou Kende Mbaye. I thank them all for their generosity and help. Next up… Sufi sounds from Mali and Burkina Faso.

Sufi Sounds

Posted September 16th, 2008 at 7:05 pm (UTC-4)

Over the last forty years there has been a growing interest among European and American scholars and seekers in Sufism, the mystical dimension of Islam. In particular, many musicians and music-lovers have drawn inspiration from the musical rituals that serve as roadmaps for the many Sufi paths to enlightment. Today, for example, recordings by artists like the late Pakistani Qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the Al-Kindi ensemble from Syria, or the Turkish Mevlevi Order (the world-famous Whirling Dervishes) find homes in many eclectic record collections, and are name-checked by artists from Eddie Veder of Pearl Jam, Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin, to free-jazz drummer Hamid Drake. The many musical manifestations of Islam found throughout Africa, however, remain off the beaten paths of most ‘World-music’ bushwhackers.

In the remaining days of Ramadan I thought I’d feature some of the more interesting recordings of African Islamic sounds in our collection. These recordings vary from praise songs for the prophet, Dhikr (ritualized ceremonies including recitiation, singing, and often instrumental music), to songs for venerated ‘saints’. Some of the artists I’ll feature are professionals who sell thousands of cassettes and others are amateurs who only participate in religious ceremonies in their neighborhoods. I am not qualified to enter the debate on whether or not these ‘Islamic sounds’ should be classified as ‘music’ or rather ‘religious devotional exercises’.

I can say, however, that all of these recordings are essential parts of the aesthetic ‘sound worlds’ of their cultures. And just as a familiarity with Gospel music can deepen your appreciation for everything from Deep Soul to modern R&B, or knowledge of Catholic ritual can provide a more nuanced listening of Bach’s masterpieces, these recordings, are part of the creative universes of many of Africa’s most loved popular musicians. And as in other parts of the world, there is a lot of feedback between secular and religious expressive forms throughout Africa (in both Christian and Muslim communities), and many popular artists have been influenced by and influenced Islamic ‘artists’.

Our first stop is Morocco, where around 98% of the population is Muslim (the once considerable Jewish population has dwindled, in the last several decades, to about 7,000 persons), and where there is an often-confusing diversity of Sufi paths and musical traditions. The Aissawa brotherhood was founded in Meknès, Morocco by Mohammed Ben Aïssâ in the 15th century. The spiritual and organizational center of the Aissawa remains in Meknès and the city continues to draw devotees from throughout Morocco. Over the last several decades recordings of Aissawa cassettes, and now VCDs, have spread interest in their musical rituals throughout the country. Today, different Aissawa groups are often invited to perform in private homes for baptisms, marriages, or graduation ceremonies, participate in music festivals (for e.g. the Fès Sacred music festival), and appear on national television (especially during Ramadan).

El Moqaddem Ben Hamou and his group have released at least a half-dozen cassettes of Aissawa songs. He is one of a growing number of professional Aissawa bandleaders, who have branched out from their purely ritual responsibilities into commercial activities. This cut is part of a longer suite that features songs and rhythms that, in a ritual context, ease listeners into a spiritual trance.

The Naqshbandiyya, formed in 1380 by Bah-ud-Din Naqshband Bukhari, is one of the oldest and most widespread Sufi brotherhoods. From its roots in Persia, the Naqshbandi path has spread throughout the world. Today there are Naqshbandi communities in Pakistan, Poland, Afghanistan, Australia, Chechnya, and California.

Here is a track by one of the several Moroccan Naqshbandi groups that have released cassettes. This volume features praise songs for the prophet. Their arrangements, singing styles and compositions draw on Andalusian classical music.

  • [audio:] Al Farqa Naqshibandiya

This next cassette features song to accompany ‘El Hadhra Rahbani’. A ‘Hadhra’ is another term for ‘Dhikr’, and refers to the series of recitations, supplications, religious exhortations, sermons, and collective chants that make up the rituals of many Sufi brotherhoods.

The group is called ‘Al Farqa Suffiya’ (literally, the Sufi group), and there is no indication on the cassette of which particular brotherhood the group members belong to. The title of the cassette is ‘Songs of fulfillment and betterment’. These two tracks feature the interplay between soloist and chorus that characterize Sufi Dhikr throughout the Muslim world.

  • [audio:] Al Farqa As-Suffiya
  • [audio:] Al Farqa As-Suffiya

And now the ‘Group Assafaa’ (Assafaa can be translated as ‘transparence’ or ‘cloudless’) in a cassette of songs for the prophet. This is their second cassette.

  • [audio:] Majmou’at Assafaa

While the previous three cassettes are part of a musical universe that intersects with Andalusian classical music, this next recording is rooted in Moroccan popular music. The duo of Khalid and Abdelatif has released at least three cassettes.

Rhythmically and melodically their music has much more in common with the songs of Nass el Ghiwane, Lemchaheb, and Jil Jilala, and I would guess this recording dates from sometime in the 1980s.

  • [audio:] Khalid & Abdelatif

If you know anything more about any of these particular groups please share your wealth!! I called every single phone number on these cassettes and (so far-i’m still working at it) they were all dead ends, either the production companies couldn’t tell me anything about the groups, or the numbers were disconnected. Our next stop will be in Senegal where Sufi brotherhoods are very active in most parts of life, and where there is a vibrant Sufi cassette culture (we have over 100 titles in our collection).

Kora Kings of the N’Gabu

Posted August 19th, 2008 at 9:29 pm (UTC-4)

Over the last 30 years, especially since the publication of Alex Haley’s Roots in 1976, the West African Griot has become one of Africa’s most ubiquitous, and clichéd, symbols; in Europe and the United States the term has become shorthand for almost all forms of African and Diaspora cultural expression. (An example that I find particularly lazy and erroneous is the description of African hip-hop artists as ‘modern day Griots’. If anything, the appeal of rap music to many African youths is that it is the polar opposite of ‘Griotism’; young rappers ‘speak truth to power’, while modern urban Griots sing the praises of the rich and powerful.) The instrument most often associated with the Griot is the kora, the 21-string harp-lute of the Mandinka people. And although today the most internationally visible korafolas are from Mali (Toumani Diabate), and Guinea (the Marseille-based Ba Cissoko), virtually all of the great korafolas can trace their roots to the Gambia, Southern Senegal and Northeastern Guinea-Bissau (Toumani’s father Sidiki Diabate was born in the Gambia, and Ba Cissoko’s family came from Guinea Bissau). This region was home to the N’Gabu Empire and gave birth to the kora.

The N’Gabu Empire was a confederation of Mandinka states, formed in the mid-1500s by Mandinka immigrants who migrated west from the Mali Empire. The kora was first conceived, according to the oral traditions of the Mandinka griots, by Jali Madi Wuleng. One story goes that Jali Madi Wuleng heard of a jinn that lived in a mysterious lake who granted all wishes. Jali Madi Wuleng went to the lake and asked the jinn to invent for him an instrument that no griot had ever owned. The jinn agreed to create a new instrument in exchange for Jali Madi’s sister. Informed of the bargain, Jali Madi’s sister agreed and sacrificed herself for the dreams and glory of her brother. If it is impossible to know exactly when the kora was invented, what is certain, however, is that by the demise of the N’Gabu Empire in the late 1860s, the kora was the primary instrument of the Mandinka griots, and that a century later the greatest korafolas were still in the N’Gabu region.

Between 1964 and 1968 the Voice of America recorded two of the era’s greatest korafolas. The VOA’s African Program Center in Monrovia, Liberia had just recently opened its doors in 1964 when Leo Sarkisian met Papa Susso from the Gambia. As Papa Susso remembers it, ‘I was walking down the street in Monrovia, probably on my way back from school, carrying my Kora, when Leo came up and started talking to me. I didn’t know Leo, but it was clear that he was passionate about music and interested in the kora. I invited him over to my house and over the following months we became good friends.’

Papa Susso was born in 1947 in the village of Sutuma Sere, not far from the town of Basse, in Eastern Gambia. (As Papa Susso told me, he was ‘born into the kora’.) In the early 1960s a friend of his father offered to sponsor Papa Susso’s education, and the young korafola was sent to Liberia to enroll in university. In the late summer of 1964, Papa’s fourth cousin Tamba Suso (their fathers were cousins) came to visit him in Liberia. Tamba was also born (in 1936) in Sotuma Sere, and the two cousins grew up performing together. Tamba spend two months with Papa Susso in Monrovia, and in the last months of 1964 they made three trips to the VOA studios.

Papa Susso had just turned seventeen when these tracks were recorded; Tamba Suso was in his late twenties. Papa Susso confirmed for me that his VOA recordings were his first. On these first three tracks Papa Susso plays the kora and Tamba sings (the Demba on the reel-label should read Tamba). The combination of Papa’s biting kora- he plays with an attack that you rarely hear on kora recordings today-with Tamba’s warm and raucous voice is sublime. First up is Ceddo, a classic of the Mandinka repertoire, which tells the story of the demise of Dianke Wali (the last ruler of the N’Gabu Empire), and the siege of Kansala, the capital of the N’Gabu Empire.

Next up is ‘Mali Sajo’, another classic of the kora repertoire, which tells the story of a friendship between a young girl and a hippopotamus that ends tragically, when the hippo is killed by a hunter. Papa Susso told Leo that this piece is often performed to honor deceased loved ones.

‘Waly Ndiaye’ is another homage to a warrior. Tamba Suso sings that ‘Waly Ndiaye’ was so fierce that he fought not only his enemies but his own troops as well.

These next two tracks, from a different recording session, feature both Papa Susso and Tamba Suso on kora. The first track ‘Masana Cisse’, tells the story of a Masana Cisse, a wealthy man who wanted to marry a beautiful young girl who was already engaged to another villager. Cisse, through his wealth and power, was able to force the young girl to marry him. But before he could consummate the marriage, Masana Cisse died, the victim of a spell cast by his rival.

This final track by Papa Susso and Tamba Suso is called ‘Kuruto’, and is a praise song for all brave men returning from battle.

Today Papa Susso splits his time between the United States and the Gambia, devoting much of his energy to teaching American and Gambian students. Tamba Suso has retired and currently lives in a suburb of Banjul, the capital of the Gambia.

In late August of 1966, another of West Africa’s great korafolas-perhaps the greatest of his era, and definitely the most popular- came to the VOA studios in Monrovia. Soundioulou Cissoko was born in Ziguinchor, the capital of the Casamance region of Senegal, in 1923. His father was Baa Kimintang Cissoko who, when the French colonial authorities send him to the Colonial Exposition in Paris in 1931, became the first korafola to perform in Europe. In an interview he gave the VOA in 1966, Soundioulou says ‘although I have been listening to the kora since the day I was born, I didn’t start to play myself until 1944’.

In 1954, after ten years of study with his paternal uncle, Soundioulou moved to Dakar, where he quickly became the city’s most popular korafola. Ten years later, in 1964, he became one of the founding members of ‘l’Ensemble Lyrique Traditionnel’, the first Senegalese national traditional music ensemble. By 1966 Soundioulou was known throughout the region as ‘Le Roi de la Kora’ (the king of the kora), a title that he was given by the late Guinean president Ahmed Seku Toure (many sources give the date as 1967, but in our 1966 interview Soundioulou is already using the honorific ‘le Roi de la Kora’).

By the late 1970s Soundioulou had retired from the Senegalese national ensemble and for the next ten years performed almost exclusively with his second wife Mahawa Kouyate. Together they recorded at least four lps, and released one CD. All of these recordings are out of print. As far as I know, no solo recordings of Soundioulou Cissoko have ever been released (he recorded a set of eight solo reels for Senegalese national radio).

These VOA recordings of Soundioulou are some of the best he ever made. This next track is Soundioulou’s version of ‘Tiedo Dianké Waly’ (the same piece as ‘Ceddo’), and is a good example of his virtuosic playing.

Here is Soundioulou playing ‘Mali Sajo’. It is interesting to compare his interpretation to the recording of ‘Mali Sajo’ by Papa Susso and Tamba Suso. Soundioulou and Papa Susso have very different playing styles.

This last Soundioulou recording is also one of his most famous. For many years this piece was used as the opening theme for Radio Senegal. Soundiolou sings, in Wolof (the other two tracks are in Malinké), ‘Boy dem yoobale ma’, or ‘take me with you’.

Throughout the late 1960s and 1970s, Soundioulou Cissoko and Mahawa Kouyate were known as the ‘Royal Family of Mandinka music’. Two years after Soundioulou first visited the VOA studios in Liberia, he returned to Monrovia with Mahawa. On October 23, 1968 they recorded five songs at the Voice of America’s Brewerville studios. Soundioulou’s voice is not as strong as it was two years earlier, but Mahawa sounds great, and Soundioulou’s kora playing is solid as ever. My favorite of the tracks they recorded that day is ‘Kelefa’ (a tribute to the warrior Kelefa Sane).

Soundioulou Cissoko passed away in 1994. He was 71 years old. His sons Djeor Cissoko and Nana Cissoko-who were both born to Soundioulou’s first wife Maimouna Kouyate-and his nephew Ali Boulo Santo are keeping the Cissoko kora tradition alive. All three of them were born in Dakar and are trying to expand the modern kora repertoire. Mahawa Kuyate lives in Dakar and is still performing, with both the ‘Ensemble Lyrique Traditionel’ of Senegal, and as a solo artist.

Special thanks to Alhaji Papa Susso and Roderic Knight for their generous help with the research that went into this post. If you are interested in the history of kora you should also check out the publications of Eric Charry and Ousmane Sow Huchard; both of their books are essential resources.

Zambian Radio Reels

Posted July 29th, 2008 at 10:15 pm (UTC-4)

One of the most pressing challenges for Africa’s newly independent nations of the 1960s was to create a sense of ‘national’ identity, to bind their citizens to a national polity whose authority took precedence over regional or ethnic affiliations and political systems. These young nations, had to find ways to unite, politically and socially, ethnically diverse populations who- in ways their pre-colonial ancestors did not have to- were now forced to shared resources and territory (whose boundaries too often did not correspond to any pre-colonial historical relationships or social realities, but rather reflected colonial power dynamics).

Radio was a pillar of the ‘nation-building’ efforts of many young African nations, and music programming was one of the vehicles they used to bring these cultural/political campaigns into the homes and hearts of millions of listeners. Throughout the continent national radio stations were often responsible for the first quality recordings of traditional/regional music styles, as well as of the new generation of young ‘modern’ musicians. For example, Radio Mali made the first recordings of Ali Farka Toure, Radio Tanzania were the first to record the Mlimani Park Orchestra, while Radio Senegal, Radio Haute Volta, Radio Djibouti, and Radio Ethiopia made concerted efforts to document all of their country’s regional styles. This was also true in Zambia, where the director of the Zambia Broadcasting Service, Mr. Alick Nkhata, was himself a talented singer-songwriter.

When the colony of Northern Rhodesia became the independent Republic of Zambia on October 24, 1964, the Northern Rhodesia Broadcasting Service-which was re-named the Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation-had already been recording and broadcasting ‘African’ musicians since the 1950s. Under Alick Nkhata’s supervision (he became the director in 1966) the ZNBC continued to feature the country’s most talented musicians. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Zambian Broadcasting Services (the name changed again in 1966) sent us a series of reels for our VOA Music Time in Africa archive.

The earliest reel we received was of a program called ‘Zambia and Her Musicians’, which was recorded on November 9, 1967. This fifteen-minute program features three songs by the Lusaka Radio Band (which the host of the program introduces as the Zambian Radio Band), who were formed in 1957, by Dick Sapsted, a British radio engineer, to back Alick Nkhata. Singing in the Nsenga, Bemba, Tumbuka, Nyanja, Kaonde, Swaka and Lunda languages, the group were the musical embodiment of the Zambian national motto; ‘One Zambia, One Nation’. (For more music by, and information about, the Lusaka Radio Band, who in 1968 became the ‘Big Gold Six’ check out SWP records great compilation ‘Zambush Vol. 2’.) As recording artists for the national radio the Lusaka Radio Band helped educate Zambians about government policy. These next two tracks were both recorded in the ZBS radio studio.

This first song, in the Chinyanja language, is called ‘Ti Chose Smith Bampando’. The host of ‘Zambia and Her Musicians’ explains that this song refers to the ‘struggle against the illegal Smith regime’ in neighboring Rhodesia, and encourages the world to ‘remove Smith from the ruling chair and have a Zimbabwe government’. This song was re-recorded in 1970 as ‘Antu onse tingwilizane’ (again check out ‘Zambush Vol. 2’), and features a wonderful melodic guitar solo by Bestin Mwanza.

This second song, in the Bemba language, by the Lusaka Radio Band praises the four-year plan that the Zambian government launched in 1966 ‘under the motto One Zambia, One Nation, to improve the government’s management of agricultural, educational, economic and cultural development’. This track is a great example of how the Lusaka Radio Band digested influences as disparate as the Beatles and Afro-Cuban music. Politics never sounded so good!!

Next up, a reel that was sent to the Voice of America on December 16, 1968 and features three songs by Alick Nkhata and his long-time musical companion, and fellow broadcaster, James Shitumba.

Alick Nkhata first started working in radio in 1950, when the Northern Rhodesia Broadcasting Corporation hired him as a radio announcer. Around the same time that Alick started his radio career, he also started to record the songs that made him Zambia’s first music star (for more information about his life consult the notes to the Retroafric CD ‘Shalapo’, a compilation of Alick’s 1950s singles). In 1963, Alick Nkhata came to Washington D.C. to work with the Voice of America, and was one of the first hosts of the program ‘African Panorama’, on the VOA’s English to Africa service.

Here are Alick and James Shitumba in a version of ‘Uluse Lwalile Nkwale’, a song that they first recorded back in 1956 (this earlier version is included on the Retroafric release). This song, based on a well-known Zambian proverb, tells the story of the partridge and the python. A great fire was destroying the world, and as the fire drew near the python felt increasingly helpless. Desperate to escape the flames, the python cut a deal with his neighbor the partridge. The python promised that if the partridge flew him away to safety, he would never eat another partridge. So, the python coiled his body around the partridge and the two flew out away from the flames. As soon as they were safely away from the flames, however, the python started to get hunger pains, forgot about his promise, and ate the partridge. The moral of the story, Alick explains, is, ‘do not be careless with your kindness, or you will find yourself in trouble one day’.

This next song, sung in Bemba, is a child’s plea to his parents. The young man says to his parents if ‘you send me to school I will be an asset to the family, and when I finish I will make enough money to pay for my brothers and sisters to finish their schooling’.

Our final reel features eight tracks of ‘Zambian Town music’. All of the information we have on this reel is what you see printed on the label below. I am not sure when this reel was sent to us, but based on the little I have learned about these tracks, I would guess we received it sometime in the mid-1970s.

First up, are two wonderful cuts by the ‘Kasama Bantu Actors’, a group from the town of Kasama in the Northern Province of Zambia. The group was formed in 1970-1971, and broke up sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s. These recordings were made in 1971 in the ZBS studios in the town of Kitwe, in Northern Zambia. This first song ‘Mwa Ombe ni Kaunda’ praises Kenneth Kaunda, the first president of Zambia, for liberating his countrymen from the British colonial regime.

In ‘Chombawalenga’, sung in the Bemba language, the ‘Kasama Bantu Actors’ tell the story of a young man who gets confused by his love for two women who are both called ‘Chomba’.

There are several great guitar players on this reel. The most impressive cut is ‘Umfuiti’ by ‘Ananiya Mwale’. He sings, in Chinyanja, about the perils of traditional medicine.

Our final track off this reel is a dub of a commercial release that may have been recorded in the studios of the ZBS. Lazarus Tembo was one of Zambia’s most popular ‘folk’ singers. He was born in the Eastern province of Zambia, went blind at the age of eight, and eventually, under President Kaunda, became Zambia’s Junior Minister of Culture. In ‘Mtandezeni’ he asks all Zambians to help each other.

Very special thanks to Mr. Chisha Folotiya, the Honorable Mwansa Kapeya, and Michael Baird for their help with research, identifying songs, and translating lyrics.



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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