7.31.2006

Pamelo Mounk'a, Pamelo Mounk'a

IMG_0301 by you.

It is possible to get lucky in this life. There are no guarantees, of course, but every now and then one is afforded a first great experience, to which one's imagination will return time and again. If you're sufficiently awake at the time, you'll notice these moments. Noticing, that's the lucky bit.

Let's imagine that you grew up in a bell jar, or under a rock, or in Houston. You walk into a cinema for the first time in your life and by weird chance your first experience of film is Carol Reed's 1947 feature, The Third Man. Or imagine a friend describing the thicket of non sequitur that is dub reggae, and then being smart enough to put Augustus Pablo's King Tubby Meets The Rockers Uptown on the turntable. (We're assuming that your friend is a really good friend, and as such has already made a successful sales pitch for herb.) Or imagine yourself bored and sleepy in a campus library, unfamiliar with the quicksilver magic possible within a short story, as you happen upon Haruki Murakami's "Super-Frog Saves Tokyo." In these moments, as Poly Styrene sang thousands of years ago, the world turns day-glo.

Or, so long as we're conjuring, imagine that you are young and green and so chronically distracted as to have your friends suspecting Asperger's Syndrome at work and you are stuck in a cab buried in the morass of lower Manhattan traffic during, for the needs of this hypothesis, 1982. Your driver, a Nigerian, has his radio tuned to WKCR, Columbia University's radio station beaming across 110th Street. He listens to WKCR because it is there that an African dj, Lawrence Nii Nartey, holds court on Thursday evenings (and, thankfully, still does in the present day). Lawrence plays all stripes of African pop music, but on this evening he dotes upon the Latinate hybrid that in time you, the pasty little downtowner sitting stunned in the back of the cab, will come to know as soukous. Lawrence's show makes driving a non-medallion cab bearable for a fellow West African expat, especially on hot days. This particular day is, of course, very hot.

It is then that you, the pale neurasthenic slumped in the back seat, suddenly sit up and take notice. The cab's interior and, for that matter, the adjacent lanes of 7th Avenue seem at once filled with electric guitars, so very many of them, slyly grinding against one another. When you first took notice of the song, it struck you as old-timey, pinned to a mid-tempo rhythm of curiously Hispanic tint (rumba? mambo?). Then, after a pause that could have delivered twins, the band switched up to something like mid-'70s disco. The thump of four-on-the floor kick drum now seems unstoppable. The hi-hat cymbal races ahead of the beat, then pulls back. This dynamic will repeat again and again and then some more. Yes, this feels like disco, but it's so much sexier, and you don't need 714's to appreciate it!

You can't understand the singer, but you are pulled in immediately, as he seems charming and possessed of good humor. His voice is double-tracked, so the recording feels modern; there's something you hadn't expected, modernity, from an African record. The singer parses each line of his lyrics as though savoring tobiko, egg by egg, his diction on par with Blossom Dearie. His is the song of a happy man, yet in the same breath he sounds tethered to a melancholy past. You begin to think that maybe this is the equivalent in song to Proust sampling a fresh madeleine.

In the space of not so many moments, you feel you've made a very real connection with someone you haven't met. When you get home, you waste money that you don't have sitting at curbside in this cab until Lawrence Nii Nartey back-announces his set. (Years later, NPR will label this a driveway moment, but as it is still 1982, you're parked on the cobblestones of Chambers Street. The twin towers of the World Trade Center loom nearby. At the end of your block is a sand dune that soon will sprout the apartment buildings of Battery Park City.) The cab's meter ticks onward. The cabbie laughs like a drain. The little honkie in his back seat learned something this evening, something the cabbie has known for some time now. On the radio, finally, Lawrence Nii Nartey tells you that you have fallen hard for a guy from Brazzaville named Pamelo Mounk'a. His song has been a huge hit both in Francophone Africa and in France itself. It is titled "L'Argent Appelle L'Argent."

As this journal began, so now shall it continue, inspired once more by the deathless voice of Pamelo Mounk'a. A quarter-century's reflection hasn't altered my opinion a whit: Pamelo remains as good as they come in Congolese music, probably better. His singing never felt less than entirely natural and alive. Though Pamelo Mounk'a could nuance a given phrase — or, indeed, a syllable within that phrase — with surgical precision, on the whole his delivery was modest and sincere, as simple as saying hello. As much could be said for each of his band members, their every move redolent with grace, sensuality and cunning. The lead guitar — though the distinction between lead and rhythm guitar in Congolese pop may not mean much beyond treble content — was the signature work of Ignace Inkounkou, a guy who merited his own fan club when billed as Master Mwana Congo. He played impudent and sly like Teeny Hodges, the guitarist from Memphis producer Willie Mitchell's house band, though it is doubtful that Hodges spent much time doting on the memory of Trio Matamoros while backing Al Green. On mi-solo guitar, Pablo Lubadika Porthos showed promise that would reap dividends mere months later with his own solo album. Domingo Salsero ranks alongside Janne Haavisto (Laika & the Cosmonauts) and the soul of motorik rhythm, Germany's Jaki Leibzeit, in the pantheon of tireless minimalist drummers. Domingo had the smarts to strain the hysteria from uptown Manhattan salsa, while always keeping in mind the rudiments of post-war Cuban music.

IMG_0280 by you.

Pamelo Mounk'a was the first of the singer's winning streak of albums overseen by Eddy Gustave. The producer had left his native Guadeloupe, in the French West Indies, moving to Paris in 1960. A jazz enthusiast, he took up saxophone; Gustave's solos are heard throughout the mature work of Pamelo Mounk'a. It is curious, though, this modernist Caribbean edge imparted by Gustave's studio technique and arrangements. Clearly, these elements gave Pamelo Mounk'a a leg up on his fellow Congolese singers, yet the same elements foreshadowed the absorption and dismantling of soukous later in the '80s by the Antillean form known as zouk, a musical genre originating in the same part of the Caribbean as Eddy Gustave.

Just when most had judged it down for the count (I'll offer gratitude to the encouragement of hopeful correspondents), No Condition Is Permanent lives up to the pataphysical promise implicit in its title. My little journal has been revived by this torpid, vaporous summer, returning to provide virtual refreshment, reminding you that very, very warm weather requires a new pair of tatami-mat sandals and a kitchen cupboard stocked with appropriate snacks and fluids. To the latter, I will recommend Pimm's No. 1 in the proscribed admixture; as with the books of Wodehouse, the Pimm's Cup must be experienced above 72º and will only send you fast asleep in cooler temperatures. Closer to the crux of the seasonal biscuit is Arette Blanco Suave, being both necessary and nothing less than the apogee of Vitamin T when humidity of monsoon quality prevails.

As hedonist chums are prone to turning up unexpectedly in the sticky season, the sounds of equatorial musicians remain a must for entertaining when the mercury climbs. While you can, rethink your morality (or at very least discard the troubling bits), open the windows, annoy the neighbors, plug in The Volcano, and [cue: voice of Vivian Stanshall] think on't and begin again…

PAMELO MOUNK'A