6.26.2005

King Sunny Adé & His African Beats, Bobby


According to a discography prepared by the admirable Mr. Endo, there were literally dozens and dozens of albums released by Nigeria’s leading exponent of juju music, King Sunny Adé, prior to Western audiences hearing his formidable admixture of talking drums, interleaved electric guitars and harmony vocals in 1982. His first album, Alanu Loluwa, appeared in 1967, recorded with the Green Spots Band. In the early ‘70s his musicians reconfigured as the African Beats and it was with a spit-polished version of the latter group that Adé made his bid for international acceptance in the early ‘80s via three releases — Juju Music, Synchro System and Aura — on the Island label (op cit. Pablo Lubadika Porthos, Idie).

Yet while Adé barnstormed North American rock sheds promoting albums tailored for crossover acceptance, he continued to record and release albums cut from markedly different cloth for his Nigerian constituency. Several of these will feature on this page in weeks to come.

Bobby, the subject of today’s post, kicks off our spin through a charmed era of Nigerian pop. The album appeared in 1983, one of a half-dozen albums issued by King Sunny Adé and his African Beats during that year; he and his band toured constantly through this period as well. ‘Prolific’ doesn’t half cover it.

Both sides of Bobby contain epic performances strung atop rudimentary drum machine patterns, possibly those of a Roland TR-66 taught polyrhythmic tricks. Side One is structured as a suite, per Adé’s long-established recording template. Side Two contains an extended eulogy in song to Bobby Benson, a bandleader, musical polymath and guiding light of Nigeria’s highlife scene, who had recently passed away. This recording is an altogether more relaxed-sounding affair, as was seemingly always the case with Adé’s Nigerian releases. There is none of the occasional stridency of his Island lp’s, and the lack of compression in the record’s mix enables something like a sensation of intimacy (or the nearest equivalent possible from a band with eighteen members).

Bobby also features that shiniest of diadems in King Sunny’s crown, the pedal steel guitarist Demola Adepoju. The latter’s only solo lp, rare like winning lottery tickets aren’t, will be the subject of a post in the very near future. Please stay tuned.

BOBBY

6.22.2005

Les Quatre Étoiles, Dance

IMG_0289 by you.

Listening to the voice of that most estimable African tenor Nyboma Mwan’dido, heard in my previous two postings, it isn’t hard to imagine him as a good natured, earnest type, natty in beret and vest. The band that he fronted, L’Orchestre de Kamalé (later Kamalé Dynamiques du Zaîre), played sweet and hot by turns, lolling in the sun one moment, then challenging the posted speed limit in the next. Most importantly, both Nyboma and his band were purveyors of roots music in its best sense, rough-hewn and sophisticated in one go.

Not so many years after Pepe, the subject of our last post, we find Nyboma a titular member of Les Quatre Étoiles, a supergroup (to Westerners of a certain vintage, an ugly word, but unavoidable here) comprised of rumba Congolaise veterans; its other members were guitarist Syran M’benza, Kamalé bassist Bopol Mansiamina, vocalist Wuta Mayi. Their second album, Dance, preserves for all time one of those ridge-of-the-roof moments, when technocratic impulses began to carry the day, altering the intrinsic character of music.

The Four Stars are pictured on the cover of Dance, celebrating in a Parisian nightclub. Tricked out in suits, each member has become a sapeur, being the term used by Congolese fans to denote a musician with marked clothes horse tendencies. Papa Wemba has served as the poster boy for sapeurs throughout his career, though surprisingly this does little to enhance my enjoyment of his voice. My sole concert experience of Wemba convinced me that he was a sour-natured pimp, macking on his lady singers while fronting a so-so band. Armani will only carry a fella so far...

Elegance in comportment extends to the Four Stars' songs (four of which are heard here; I deleted the eponymous jam ending the album). They dispense with the slower, Latin-flavored intro that had characterized soukous prior to the mid-‘80s. The seben, with its relentless beats and pell-mell tempo, is the sum and substance of Dance. Synthetic facsimiles all but supplant the horn players of yore, though the brass arrangements remain unmistakably Congolese; vivacious and sly, their phrases twist upwards like sumi-e calligraphy rendered in cigarette smoke. Unfortunately, I suspect this album is among the early all-digital recordings (Ry Cooder’s Bop Til You Drop, released from six years earlier in 1979, being the first DDD pop record), which may explain Dance's occasionally harsh veneer.

Add to an already binary scenario that bane of early MTV music, the Linn Drum with its unmistakably fizzy timbre, and the record might have been remembered as one more high-tech travesty from the ‘80s. That it has aged well speaks to the human components of Dance, said humans being of high quality indeed. The songs are consistently good, with all Four Stars in excellent voice. Then there is Syran M’benza’s guitar, a thing of beauty. A zaftig African music maven of my acquaintance once told me that she wanted to live in Syran’s guitar amp. Unless Syran used a Marshall cabinet (doubtful), it never would have worked, yet I could understand her ambition. The guitarist's liquid tone plays as an African counterpart to that of either George Benson or Benson’s Jamaican acolyte, Ernest Ranglin.

IMG_0290 by you.

Years down the track, having wearied of their existence as journeymen on the world music circuit, most of Les Quatre Étoiles regrouped with renewed energy as the all-acoustic Kékélé. Their two recent albums on the Stern’s label, Congo Life and Rumba Congo, both rank as transcendent marvels, their songs articulating horizontal urges in the best hedonist tradition.

DANCE (@160)

6.20.2005

Nyboma, Pepe


And so we find Nyboma, preferred voice of many a Congolese music aficionado, another furlong down the track in his long-running career. During the early ‘80s, his music evolved from Cuban pastiche to something altogether more local and unique. While the four tracks comprising Pepe still feel Latin, their formal attributes and energy point to the inventiveness and adaptability characteristic of African music and, for that matter, of African culture in general. Many years after my initial encounter with soukous, the dance music indigenous to Congo/Zaîre, I have no difficulty recalling the thrill of hearing something so different and immediately seductive. I still experience what art critic (and biker) Robert Hughes termed ‘the shock of the new’ whenever I hear great examples of this music. Luckily, the sensation seems evergreen, and has yet to fade in any measure. I hope it never does.

These songs will repay several fold the time you give them. They also interface nicely with mojitos (fresh mint, thank you), Patron añejo margueritas and kumquatinis (the last drink lacks an elegant label, but is the staff of life when the mercury climbs above 80º). Again, as with some of the earlier posts, this lp was a shop copy played repeatedly with a crap stylus. Hopefully my efforts to expunge sonic detritus will yield dividends within your media player.

I've always been curious about one aspect of soukous, that being the diminished presence accorded bass guitar in its overall mix. Other cultures have emphasized bass, often because outdoor venues, rather than radio or concert halls, were the only means of exposure for the music in question (cf. Jamaican reggae in the ‘60s and ‘70s). It has been my experience that women respond to bass by means that men can’t hope to know. Many of my favorite bass players are women: Carole Kaye, session stalwart of Hollywood recording studios; Talking Heads’ Tina Weymouth; and Jocelyn Lanois from Martha & the Muffins and Crash Vegas. Whenever Kid Creole & the Coconuts played in New York, I positioned myself near Carol Cleveland’s amplifier. Gail Ann Dorsey added immeasurably to David Bowie’s Earthling, especially “Little Wonder.” And on and on...

Men tend to like Afrobeat, the James Brown-derived funky stuff — with bass galore — from Nigeria, still best identified in the popular mind with Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. Possibly owing to coverage in the Beastie Boys' magazine Grand Royal (the latter's influence all the more amazing, given that comets appear with greater dependability), the past decade has seen an increasingly bull market for Afrobeat. On the other hand, many women of my acquaintance ‘get’ soukous straightaway on a deep, wordless and entirely intuitive level. I’d love to know why, and would be happier still to learn it had something to do with that extra layer of subcutaneous tissue. The jury's still out on this one.

PEPE (@160)

6.16.2005

Nyboma, Doublé Doublé

Nyboma, front by you.

Tenor voices in pop music are as much a part of summer as a cicada’s siren or the chimes orbiting a Good Humor ice cream truck. The fabulous ones, the guys who sing the way a kid skips rope, always transmit something of their own summer experience in their music. Weather is the embedded data in a great singer’s voice: the simmering humidity of Detroit (Smokey Robinson), fata morgana materializing in the tinder box canyons of Los Angeles (Neil Young), the torpid air of a Kingston street corner (Hugh Mundell).

I have not experienced summer in Zaire, and may not want to, but I’d like to think that Nyboma’s voice speaks well for some aspect of it. He, too, is a tenor with vim to burn, a singer who began his career in the ‘70s with Orchestre Bella Bella and Orchestra Lipua Lipua. It was as front man for Orchestre Les Kamalé that Nyboma began to make a name for himself. Today’s album, Doublé Doublé, was recorded with the latter group; its bass player, Bopol Mansiamina, features on subsequent recordings by both Nyboma and the Congolese supergroup Les Quatres Étoiles (Nyboma and Bopol representing two of the Four Stars).

Doublé Doublé plays as old school, despite a 1983 release; Nyboma and the members of Orchestre les Kamalé were still in the sway of the Cuban groups who played post-war hotel dates in the Belgian Congo, groups like Trio Matamoros and Sexteto Habañero. Nyboma's voice is framed by wonderful arrangements throughout, guitars grinding against one another, as refrains from the brass section explode and dissipate like wave upon wave of Roman candles.

This is the first of three posts concerning Nyboma. Next up, a brilliant solo lp, followed by a modern spin on soukous from his later group, Les Quatres Étoiles. Ça bouge? Oui.

DOUBLÉ DOUBLÉ (@160)

6.12.2005

Pablo Lubadika Porthos, Idie


Jamaicans are fond of saying that you don't know who you are 'til your back is against the wall. When the going got tough for American record companies in the late '50s with rock seeming to have run aground — Elvis in the army, Chuck Berry in jail, Buddy Holly and others RIP — the thought occured to someone, probably in Marketing, that Trinidad's calypso might replace it. (It didn't, but my parents insisted on playing Harry Belafonte's Xmas record for years thereafter.) Two decades later, Island Records faced a similar quandry. Aware of Bob Marley's impending demise, that would doubtless stall reggae's commercial momentum, the label cast about for new flavors to entice a jaded pop music audience. Island explored African music, as the eighties began, with two installments of Sound D'Afrique compilations offering an overview of Central and West African dance music. The second volume focused on soukous, a dance music from Congo/Zaire already embraced by African and Parisian tastemakers.

Featured on both volumes of Sound D'Afrique were solo efforts from Pablo Lubadika Porthos. Island later released two 12" singles by the guitarist and singer, one of several Congolese expatriates living in Paris and working as a session player for other African artists (specifically Pamelo Mounk'a) taking advantage of Europe's superior recording facilities.

Island would quickly shift its A&R focus to Nigeria's juju music, the subject of future posts. Outside of Africa, soukous would remain largely a Parisian enthusiasm, as chronicled by Jane Kramer in The New Yorker's pages.

But what of Pablo Lubadika Porthos? Idie, his solo lp produced by the suspiciously named Richard Dick, was released on the Africamania label in the same era as the Island albums. What can be divined about the form and mien of Pablo Porthos' character from this album? There is some ineffable aspect of Pablo Porthos, a complement to the brio of his singing and guitar playing, hinted at in the portraiture that adorns Idie's sleeve. Much can be intuited from the intensity of his gaze: a Congolese kid with massive ambition, a latter-day Horatio Alger with electric guitar in hand storming Paris. Perhaps his natty attire inspires a subtextual reading: the pin-striped velour suit jacket, a gold shirt with Nehru collar, the mad styling of his white patent leather high-heeled boots, the strategically placed multiple karat accessories. Add these visual cues to the flurry of ornaments within a given Pablo guitar solo and his tendency to erupt in broken English ("I love-ah you ver-ry much") when in passion's grip, and there can be but one conclusion: Pamelo Lubadika Porthos was in all likelihood a horn dog of the first order, a transcendental hedonist of admirable scope. As such, he should be added to that roll of inspiring figures whose predilections, professional and personal, are so entwined as should prove instructive to the rest of us: Andre Williams, Baron Corvo, Brian Eno, Stanley Booth, Compay Segundo, Richard Feynman, Russ Meyer, Gesner Henry, Luis Bunuel, Leonard Cohen, Robert Mitchum, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, William Eggleston. I rest my case.

IDIE (@160)

6.09.2005

Lea y Domingo, Jalousie

Lea y Domingo by you.

"L'Argent Apelle L'Argent," being an Op-Ed-piece-in-song that you could dance to, cemented the reputation of Congolese chanteur Pamelo Mounk'a as the '80s began. The title, translating as 'Money calls money' would prove prophetic for those involved with the record. Much like director Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns — insanely successful, to the point where probably Leone's hairdressers and set caterers got to direct their own films — so, too, did many of Pamelo's sidemen hondle their own releases in the slipstream of "L'Argent..." success. PM backing vocalist Lea Lignazi and drummer Domingo Salsero collaborated on Jalousie, with star Parisian producer Eddy Gustave in the control room, releasing the results on his Eddy'son label.

Lignazi had released at least one solo lp prior to this, Dede Priscilla, though regrettably I've never been able to secure a copy of same. Fortunately, a mid-'80s pilgrimage to the original Stern's African record store near London's Tottenham Court Road paid off in good timing alone. As I walked in, the band playing on the shop's turntable was instantly recognizable, though I couldn't place its singers. Then I saw the record's sleeve art, with the given names of Messrs. Lignazi and Salsero set in presstype atop what might have been recycled Xmas gift wrap.

There was one other customer in the shop, a very large African businessman barely contained in an Italian suit, stamping his foot to seismic effect in time to the record. Despite this guy being obviously over the moon with the sounds of Jalousie (and his out-weighing me by eighty pounds or so) I bought the record immediately, and strolled down Warren Street in a trance.

Nearly twenty-five years later, scrutinizing the component waveforms of this fine dance music in the course of digitizing Jalousie, I realized that Mr. Big's footstomps were probably etched into the B-side by the stylus of Stern's turntable. With virtual scalpel in hand, I persevered and have managed to render a favorite soukous record listenable once more.

The sleeve copy for Jalousie carries no date. To judge by the producer's over-use of signal processing, specifically the chorusing effect applied here to vocals and horns, this record is probably contemporary with Pamelo Mounk'a's "Red Album" (see below, circa 1984).

The pair of songs ("Pas Mal" and "Mozele-Paco") comprising Jalousie's A-side nearly eclipse the other two songs contained here; both are cut from a fabric of sheer exuberance. The title track does contain lovely alto sax arabesques, courtesy of producer Gustave.

JALOUSIE (@ 320)

6.08.2005

Pamelo Mounka, le premier disque


For the moment, this quartet of posts in tribute to Pamelo Mounk'a concludes with a brief look at some of his earliest solo work. "L'Argent Apelle L'Argent," drawn from his first sessions at Studio Adam in Paris, was a runaway success in 1981. Hoping to capitalize on this, the Safari Ambiance label rush-reissued an earlier album recorded in his native Zaire. This latter recording was probably made in the immediate wake of Pamelo leaving the employ of Tabu Ley Rochereau, PM having served a term as backing vocalist in Rochereau's band. This new/old disc was confusingly titled Pamelo Mounk'a, also the title of his then-current hit album. The reissue's cover bore a faux-sticker quote, Inedit, le premier disque de PAMELO MOUNK'A dans sa couleur locale, its copy uneasily residing on a urea-colored field against the retinal irritation of the sleeve's primary red and turquoise stripes (cf. Marcel Duchamp's 'Fluttering Hearts' seriagraph).

There can be no confusing the two collections, though. The sound of Safari Ambiance's reissue is loaded with distortion, intrinsic to the master tape itself, sufficiently so that I considered heading this post with a technical note. The band sounds faintly stiff by comparison with the supple ensemble playing of Congolese expatriates later supervised by Pamelo's French producer Eddy Gustave. (The songs recorded by Nigeria's King Sunny Ade during the late '70s also underwent a similar transformation under the auspices of a French producer in European studios, as will be examined in weeks to come.) The band's intonation is either impressionistic in the extreme or representative of a new strain of polytonality, depending on your disposition. Yet the stem cells of Pamelo's greatness are easily detected within these four tracks. The rabbit's foot of his songwriting, a woman's name ending in the letter 'a,' is much in evidence already, as is his signature honeyed vocal tone. The tunes build to the nagging insistence of the seben, that portion of a song where the band slams into overdrive, with the guitarists engaged in suggestive, wordless repartee and the horn players tossing call-and-response phrases around the studio. Also, the album is threaded with quantum kernels of verse (as when the singer, in a burst of anguish so great it could only be addressed in non sequitur English, exclaims "I am sorry dar-ling!") and melody that, with further refinement, would serve Pamelo Mounk'a well in the years ahead.

Though slightly abrasive to the ear, recordings of this stripe more and less represented the state-of-the-art during the '70s, a golden era for Congolese rumba-rock. Many of the best performances of that time, by legendary figures such as Franco & Orchestra OK Jazz or Rochereau, are not as well recorded as the four songs heard here. The key to the enduring worth of Pamelo Mounk'a might lie in the obvious joy evident from stem to stern within these grooves; all concerned sound as though playing these songs represents nothing less than the best possible time they'll have for a while to come. History would prove them right.

The genuinely classic tracks that made Pamelo's reputation will appear in future posts. For now, we party like it's 1979.

PAMELO MOUNK'A, LE PREMIER DISQUE DANS SA COULEUR LOCALE (@ 160)

6.06.2005

Pamelo Mounka, No.1 Africain


I began buying Congolese records circa 1980. The punk music that had drawn me to New York a few years earlier had succumbed to terminal ennervation, with Kingstonian 'cultural' reggae not far behind it. At the time, an African student dj named Lawrence NiNate (spelling approximate) was broadcasting on Columbia University's radio station in uptown Manhattan; his program, emerging from my bedside radio in Tribeca, had a galvanizing effect on this little honkie. He played all the greats: Franco & OK Jazz, Tabu Ley Rochereau, Kabassele, Dr. Nico et al. The songs were all so good, fully as sensuous - to invoke again a metaphor that has resurfaced more than once in my writing - as the flick of a sperm cell's tail. I didn't want them to stop, and they didn't. The novelty of these extended dance tunes was such that if I found an album from Zaire containing four songs, it would be deemed good enough and I would buy it without question. Of course, nothing was or is that simple. I bought a lot of mediocre music in the course of my pilgrimages to Brooklyn's African Record Centre. I did manage, however, to divine a simple, immutable truth while early in the thrall of listening to Pamelo Mounk'a: If a woman's name ended in "a," chances were Pamelo could spin a deathless tune in homage to her.

No.1 Africain, Pamelo's third solo album helmed by producer Eddy Gustave, is offered herewith as proof. "Tamara, Ndjeu Nkasi A Me" and "Nourama" comprise the B side of this disc, both tunes sporting the earmarks of great soukous music: the horn section jabbing and feigning like a prize fighter; multiple guitar interplay that obliterates the line between rhythm and lead roles, as with the Rolling Stones' best London singles from the mid-'60s; and that genuinely pregnant pause when, after a couple of verses sung to a languid 3+2 Afro-Cuban tattoo, the band shifts into high gear for the extended vamps known as the seben, which form the lion's share of a given song. I live for the seben, when drummer Domingo Salsero plays four-to-the-floor, driving the band towards the horizon without obstacles in sight, red-lining in fifth gear all the while. Master Mwana Congo gets off some rude asides on his guitar, the backing vocalist offers props off-mic to the gentlemen of the orchestra and something like genuine trance music materializes.

What's more, Pamelo's songwriting stricture holds water when soaked overnight. Every woman I've ever met (well, there's a lone exception, whom I'll gladly ignore for the nonce) whose given name ended in the letter "a" has become a luminous, valued presence in my life. Pamelo Mounk'a offers a gallery of these alluring creatures throughout his discography: Selimandja, Nora, Camitina and the penultimate, his 'tresor Hindou,' Samantha, whom we'll meet in a later post. What a guy! What a life! What a cream-colored suit! More's the pity, then, that Pamelo and the late Robert Palmer never met, as both were boulevardiers setting an admirably louche example for the rest of us.

One more of Monsieur Mounk'a's solo efforts will appear next, being the first chapter of his solo career prior to working avec Eddy. Beyond that, other soukous discs will be offered as iterations of my soundtrack for warm weather, Arette Gran Clase tequila, buttery women and hedonism in all desirous forms. Then, in a while, the twin peaks of Pamelo's canon, Pamelo Mounk'a and Samantha. Please stay tuned.

No. 1 Africain

6.04.2005

Pamelo Mounk'a, the "Red" album

IMG_0281 by you.

This post commemorates what I believe to be the final collaboration between Zaire's Pamelo Mounk'a and his French producer/arranger, Eddy Gustave. On this album both men hewed closely to the sound of their earlier work together, augmenting an already celestial template with new coloring, selectively applied (as with the flanging on Pamelo's voice, a piquant touch). This was the third (or quite possibly the fourth) eponymously titled album by Pamelo, causing such few fanatics of my acquaintance who dig M. Mounk'a the most to reference it as the "red" album; against a background the color of a hooker's nail varnish, the cover photo shows our ever-genial singer striding toward the camera. He wears a stylish four-pocket jacket and black slacks and looks, for all intents and purposes, like an off-duty linebacker. Who could tell that such a gentle voice emerged from a guy that, to judge by his ostensible appearance, you really wouldn't want to annoy? Pamelo always took care to present himself in bespoke manner for the packaging of his music. I enjoy the thought that, were The Chap to publish an edition in Lingala, Pamelo Mounk'a would be a likely cover subject.

And so it goes: Pamelo Mounk'a died on January 14th, 1996, a victim of diabetes. During the final months of his life, his extremities were swollen and painful but, fearful that a European doctor might simply amputate, Pamelo opted for tribal remedies. That such a fate should befall an individual who personified charm and levity and insouciance and, ultimately, immaculate sonic elegance is in itself sufficient to confirm my atheism.

IMG_0282 by you.

The next installment will feature another E. Gustave production of P. Mounk'a. After all, summer is upon us. These sounds, and others like them, should remain significant threads in the social fabric, drifting from every opened window, non?

PAMELO MOUNK'A, THE "RED" ALBUM (@160)

6.03.2005

Pamelo Mounk'a, Propulsion!

IMG_0285 by you.

Pamelo Mounk'a, a singer from the Congo, made a great many recordings essaying his take on rumba-rock. All of these were filagreed with grace and charm, sounding Cuban-by-way-of-Brazzaville (in the way that Robert Fripp sounds Hendrix-by-way-of-Dorset). Every reason that I love the late Pamelo can be found in his early '80s sessions produced in Paris by Eddy Gustave. The very best albums by Pamelo Mounk'a appeared on Gustave's Eddy'Son label, with each sleeve bearing the motto: "Une Bonne musique / Un bon son / C'est l'affaire d'EDDY'SON." Only two - Pamelo Mounk'a and Samantha - have been issued on a single Karac CD, now probably out of print.

Nearly a quarter-century later it still seems too good to be true, a band with these guys playing in it:
~ Master Mwana Congo (lead guitarist, also made albums for Eddy'Son, playing like a Latinate equivalent of Teeny Hodges from Al Green's band, both men capturing the sound of a guitar telling itself a dirty joke)
~ Pablo Lubadika Porthos ('mi-solo' guitar and bass, his own recordings nearly as great, some appearing on Island's Sound D'Afrique compilations)
~ Lea Lignazi (backing vocals, a perfect timbral compliment & good luck charm adorning all the best PM lp's; to that end he's the Flo & Eddie to Pamelo's Marc Bolan)
~ Domingo Salsero (ultra-fine drummer, his name alone indexing the maniacal fixation of post-war Congolese musicians with all things Cuban)

IMG_0286 by you.

Together, the band members mesh like the Swiss Movement of Happiness as Pamelo trills and croons. These are wonderful songs, raunchy and refined in the same breath, kept aloft by one of the best dance bands ever. And so I say, with deference to E.B. White: Everywhere, everywhere, Pamelo tonight!

PROPULSION! (@160)