12.12.2005

Orchestra Super Mazembe, Kaivaska

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Joe Boyd, the American expatriate record producer, was once asked why contemporary English folk music — many of the best examples of which were produced by Joe Boyd — didn't resonate with most American record buyers. In response, he cited the African origins of most American pop music, and described music based in African idioms as 'a passport to fun.' By that consideration, your average Fairport Convention album might as well exist on a different planet than the one hosting either Africa or today's subject, Kaivaska.

Orchestra Super Mazembe reissue the passport to fun with each spin of Kaivaska, their 1982 album released in the U.K. by Virgin Records. The nine songs comprising Kaivaska are of consistent quality, energizing and vibrant. Collectively, they commemorate an African dance band at the top of its form connecting with the recording studio. Which hardly ever happens.

A friend (of Danish decent, so she really meant it) once described Orchestra Super Mazembe as "the happiest band in the word." Its membership might argue otherwise, as they weathered much of the grief routinely visited upon working musicians in Africa. Orchestra Super Mazembe — the latter portion of its name an homage to earth-moving equipment — relocated to Eastern Africa, specifically Nairobi, to establish itself at a remove from the highly competitive scene in its native Zaîre. Earlier on, the band had its instruments repossessed by its first patron immediately prior to crossing the Zambian border; fortunately, the club owner in Zambia owned gear they could use. Subsequent morbidity and mortality influenced Super Mazembe's shifting membership. By the mid-'80s, the group was effectively out of the running.

Factoring in these career speedbumps, my friend's words hold true. There probably isn't music much happier sounding than that played by Orchestra Super Mazembe. As one might expect of Congolese natives, Super Mazembe dealt in Congolese rumba (or soukous), the Latinate sound that still remains the Congo Republic's great contribution to music, one that could be described as salsa with the hysteria filtered out. Super Mazembe augmented their rumba template with elements of the local music in their adopted home, Kenyan benga. They weren't the first or the last band to do so, but may have been the best at it. Ultimately, theirs was indisputably an African music, with contours somewhat more linear than its Afro-Cuban antecedents, yet every bit as sensual.

Those readers interested in the greater history of Orchestra Super Mazembe should investigate Giants Of East Africa, a career-spanning overview of the band's music from the mid-'70s through the subsequent decade, as issued on a compact disc a few years ago by the Earthworks label. Trevor Herman's liner notes for this collection are the defining historical account this splendid band deserves. Even as he recounts their success on the hotel and agricultural fair circuit — really — Herman observes that Super Mazembe's timing for success outside of East Africa could have been better. The band peaked in the era of Kaivaska's release, then disintegrated shortly thereafter, a few years in advance of the coming world music boomlet.

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Herman also makes note of one of the band's best performances, "Maloba D'Amour," being their cover of Buddy Holly's "Words of Love." The song is not included on Giants Of East Africa, which I find curious as it clearly was the centerpiece of Kaivaska, despite its being tucked away on the second side of the original vinyl disc. Anyone within my acquaintance who has heard Kaivaska remembers "Maloba D'Amour" with much fondness. The song is a holographic shard with hooks, one that enables both a view of the band's history and the extraordinary potential of its membership. More importantly, the song embodies — and then some — the fun alluded to by Joe Boyd. A solo guitar rephrases Holly's trademark hook with a borrowed Spanish accent. Drums and grouped voices slam in to a groove that, as was said of early singles by the Kinks, could be the sound of musicians running the four minute mile. Or jogging the four minute mile with spliff in hand, as I'd prefer to imagine Super Mazembe. The horn section blazes with authority, and the rolling groove seems altogether unstoppable. "Maloba…" ends with an out-chorus repeatedly hummed by the singers. I can think of only one other example of humming used to such great effect, by another group named after a bulldozer(!), Buffalo Springfield. (The latter's song, "Merry-Go-Round," was included on their third and final full-length, Last Time Around; Richie Furay sings lead, but Stephen Stills' timbre is unmistakable even when humming.)

Next on deck, the hottest identical twins ever to cut an album in Nigeria. Please stay tuned.

KAIVASKA