This is a sampling of reviews I did when I was a columnist writing on music, art and culture for the Toronto based Urban Culture monthly magazine, the "Word" edited by Phil Vassell:
"I AM A FILM MAKER, NOT A GEOGRAPHY TEACHER"
Flora M'Mbugu-Schelling Speaks With METROWORD
BY Onyango Oloo
It is some minutes to nine and I am waiting in the lobby of a downtown Toronto hotel for Flora M'Mbugu-Schelling, the Washington based Tanzanian filmmaker. She is in town for the official launch of New African Media, a Canada wide film
festival showcasing the works of several directors from Africa.
With me is Valerie Wint, the publicist for Full Frame Film and Video, the organizers of the tour. Valerie is coordinating the press conference and the interviews for Flora as well as Jean -Marie Teno(Cameroon) and Godfrey Mawuru(Zimbabwe).
I look sideways and there she is already, stepping out of the elevator. Flora is a diminutive woman, her head crowned by long and powerful locks.
Her handshake is firm and warm, as is her welcoming smile.
We make our way to a nearby cafe . Valerie introduces us before dashing off.
I tell her I am from Kenya and that seems to be the cue for both of us to drop English. We continue the rest of our conversation in Kiswahili, one of the most widely spoken African languages .
She tells me how challenging life is in the United States where she is trying to settle with her family.
“I am a professional filmmaker as well as a full time mother of three children."
Flora was born in the Kilmanjaro region of Northern Tanzania. Before she came into the world of films, M'Mbugu was journalist with the Kiswahili language newspapers, "Uhuru"(Freedom) and "Mzalendo"( The Patriot) both owned and operated by the ruling CCM("Revolutionary")Party.
"I became very frustrated with words. Somehow I could not get them to convey fully what I saw and experienced. That's why I turned to films. The images speak for themselves. Nobody can accuse you of manipulating words to create a distort
ed impression of reality."
From the early to mid eighties Flora studied TV and film in Stuttgart in what was then West Germany. Tanzania had close ties with both Germanys. This is partly because of history and international politics. Germany was the first European colonial power).Largely due to the efforts of Dr. Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, the former Tanzania head of state who cultivated close cultural, economic and technical ties between the Eat African nation and the two German states, many Tanzanians were trained in Germany.
Although she was trained by German TV to do documentaries, Flora decided, on her return to Tanzania, to concentrate on making independent films where she exercised complete artistic control.
"At first I did some contract work for various non governmental organizations to support myself financially before I was able to do something entirely on my own," she says as she relates the roadblocks in the way of independent artists like herself, who decides to make movies in Africa.
"Securing financial backing is not very easy. In many African countries you also have to contend with repressive social and political environments." Flora points out that she herself has not been targeted by the state authorities in Tanzania.
"Some people think that my films are too militant. Many people try to pigeon hole and put all kinds of labels on me. I am simply a film maker. That's allI do-make films. Sometimes I get uncomfortable when a director injects a lot of rhetoric and editorializing into their work. I prefer to speak as little as possible. Let the films speak for themselves and stand on their own."
Not that Flora is unconcerned about social issues. She speaks with passion about the children of Africa.
"These children don't even have the basic human rights that many people talk for granted."
Her first feature, "Kumekucha"(rough translation: "a new day has dawned") was completed and released in 1987. The film profiles ten Tanzanian women from different social classes talking about their plight and aspirations.
I was moved by the candour and sense of solidarity which the women conveyed in
"Kumekucha". Whether it was a peasant woman from the rural regions or an educated professional woman living in the capital city Dar es Salaam, the women were confident and convinced about struggling to improve their social and material circumstances."
"Kumekucha" was very well received in different parts of Tanzania as well as abroad.
“These Hands"(1993) is the one being shown during the New African Media tour.
"One day I went to Bahari Beach in Dar es Salaam. There is this huge quarry where a lot of poor women toil crushing stones in order to make ends meet. Many of them are refugees who fled the civil war in neighbouring Mozambique. I tell you, when I first looked at them slaving away I thought of those schizophrenic paintings by Salvador Dali. I told myself there and then that I must bear witness to this. I must make this movie. I did "These Hands" first and foremost for myself. It was so painful, yet at the same time, strangely beautiful to observe those women at the quarry. At Bahari Beach I saw death but I also life. Everything was there, sadness, joy..."
After getting the women's permission, Flora got down to work. She tried to be as unobtrusive as possible, ensuring that the rhythms of the stone crushers was not disturbed.
Throughout the 45 minute documentary there are no voice-overs, no close ups on narrators setting the scene for the viewer. This can be quite disconcerting at first, particularly for those who do not anything about Tanzania, the country
and her people.
Flora refuses to give geography or history lessons.
“You mean there are people in Canada in this day and age and with all the access to technology who do not know where Tanzania is? How come I know about Saskatchewan and Manitoba and about the political developments in Ottawa? If somebody doesn't know where Tanzania is or how life is over there, it is their responsibility to find out."
I can relate somewhat to Flora's frustration with the West's ignorance about Africa. I have met people who have asked me seriously whether Kenya is in Nairobi or Nairobi in Kenya. In East Africa children are taught about North American and West European geography and history when they are in elementary school. Sometimes to the detriment to their own local history and geography.
It is only after you have seen the final shot of “These Hands"that you begin appreciating more fully Flora's cinematic skills.
Her attention to detail can be seen when she focuses on the hands and tools of the women as they crush the stones. And since she is not an omniscient director telling what to think, you are free to interact with the documentary at variou
s emotional and intellectual planes as you try and connect that reality to your lived experience.
In my case I felt that I wanted to meet these women, having seen them. But then again, I have met these women several times, whether it is the sugar plantations of Western Kenya or the space factories of Scarborough, Ontario.
Flora M'Mbugu Schelling has just completed a film about children,"Shida and Matatizo". "Shida" and "Matatizo" are two almost synonymous words meaning "suffering". In many African countries children are often named after the social circumstances which prevailed at the time of their birth. Thus you find boys and girls with names like "Uhuru"( Freedom),"Tumaini" (Hope) and of course "Shida" and "Matatizo" the names of the two children in Flora's new movie.
Flora will be back in Toronto on March 17 to the 19th 1994 when The New African Media Tour hits Toronto.
The other two directors have powerful movies which should not be missed by anyone interested in contemporary African issues.
Jean-Marie Teno's "Africa, I Will Fleece You"(1993;88 min.; French with English subtitles) is a captivating commentary on neocolonialism in Cameroon, West Africa. It examines the struggles for a critical, independent and free press in Cameroon and also unveils the rich traditions of literature and writing in Cameroon before the European invasion of Africa.
“Neria"(director:Godwin Mawuru; 103 minutes) was Africa's best selling film of 1992. It chronicles the social contradictions in a Zimbabwean middle class family after a man dies of AIDS and his widow is left behind to contend with oppressive sexist traditions which threaten to rob her of her hard won financial and personal independence. Jesesi Mungoshi gives a powerful performance in the title role of Neria.
The New African Media Tour started in Halifax on February 26 1994 and will end in Toronto on March 19, 1994 after stops in Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary, Ottawa and Kingston.
A Conversation With Baaba Maal(1998)
By Onyango Oloo
Baaba Maal has become a familiar voice in the North American music scene. He recently wowed a delirious Massey Hall crowd with a powerful stage show belting out a string of hits tinged with progressive lyrics, humanism and love for mother earth and her offspring. You should have seen me jump when I heard that I was going to talk live to the Senegalese maestro. It did not matter to me that I would be in Toronto and Baba Maal would be in New York (where he is promoting his latest CD, “Nomad Soul”)during our twenty minute chat. It was a telephone call worth waiting for.
Onyango Oloo: When did you start playing music?
Baaba Maal: I think I was born a musician. From the time I was a little child, I saw my father and mother playing music. My father used to sing religious songs in the mosque and during African ceremonies. My mother used to compose music and write lyrics. I remember that when I was very young- perhaps five years old- I used to follow my mother around the countryside where she was a very popular singer. Later I went to Dakar, the capital city. Around the time I finished high school I had gone to a local radio station and recorded a song. People started asking about that record. That was my first big break. Soon, I was performing all over Senegal, Mauritania and Guinea-Conakry. I developed further when I went to France....
Onyango Oloo: Who do you sing for?
Baaba.Maal: I sing for all people. I sing for anyone and everyone who loves listening to music, traveling with music. I sing for all humanity. My songs are about life, they are about how I see the world, how people live and share their time together.
Onyango Oloo: Nowadays there is a lot of talk about “world beat” and “world” music. Do you consider yourself a “world beat” star?
Baaba Maal: I don’t like these terms. African music must be respected. African people have contributed to the development of many of the contemporary forms of music in the world today. If you look at the history of music particularly jazz, blues, rhythm and blues, rap, reggae you see that it was developed by Black people from distinctly African roots. As you know, African musicians are very important in African society. They help to mold public opinion. African musicians are social commentators. In many cases, people take musicians more seriously than they do politicians. African music is found at the very core of society.
Onyango Oloo: I read a review in a Toronto paper that described you in very “exotic” imagery.
Baaba Maal: If I was in Africa and I came across a musician in blue jeans and basketball shoes, that would not make them any less African. I would strive to understand what their music was about. African music is all about the life of the person. It is not exotic. For some people, they consider our music exotic because we work very hard to put on a good stage show. The choreography, the African clothes, the way we organize our performance taking into account lighting and other technical matters these are all things we take into consideration because we are artists, performers, not just singers. But I should stress my music is more than just what appears to be “exotic” to some people.
Onyango Oloo:What role do African musicians like you play in Africa and the world?
Baaba Maal: Music can do a lot in bringing people together. Music helps to surmount the many political differences. Music helps people to forget their divisions and remind people that they are really not that different from one another. I hope that people like myself and other African musicians can help the outside world to look at Africa differently and forge closer bonds with African people. When people love African music maybe that will encourage them to find out more about African realities in much the same way that when you fall in love with someone you get interested in all aspects of their life.
Onyango Oloo: You believe very strongly in the equality of women and men.
Baaba Maal: I learned this while growing in the rural areas of Senegal and witnessing the strength of African women. As I told you, my mother was a very accomplished singer.. She was very precious to me. However because of tradition and other social barriers she was not able to pursue her singing as far as she could have otherwise done. When I saw the downtrodden condition of African women I resolved to myself that this must change. I lend my voice to those struggles for the freedom of women....
Onyango Oloo: How can African music be protected from exploitation?
Baaba Maal: The fight must begin at home, in Africa. African governments must do more to protect African artistes by strengthening the laws against piracy and put more safeguards around copyright. African governments must realize the important role of African musicians not just as entertainers and educators but as a very important source of creating national wealth- we bring in a lot of money into African economies. Africa must first of all have these structures and institutions to protect her musicians. From there it would be a lot easier to deal with exploitation at an international level.
ANGELIQUE KIDJO: A STAR WHO LIVES ON PLANET EARTH (1998)
By Onyango Oloo
She is cited at least 350 times on the internet. She has at least one “unofficial” website in addition to her own homepage. Not too many African musicians have exploited the full marketing and communications potential of the web as much as she has.
She is Angelique Kidjo, the compact diva from history drenched West African nation of Benin.
You may know her from dance-floor anthems like “Batonga”or award winning music videos such as “Agolo”.
But here she is already, radiant with a welcoming smile, opening the door to the thirty second floor suite of a downtown Toronto hotel.
Angelique is somebody you take to immediately. She treats you as if you were one of her siblings.
The first thing that hits me is the absence of hype and star mentality.
Like many of my African sisters, Angelique Kidjo is completely down to earth. Within moments she has bonded with my seven year-old son who I have dragged along for the interview.
Kidjo is in town to lend her support to Fashion Cares, a charity event to raise money for HIV/AIDS support work.
She is also plugging her new recording, “Oremi” an up tempo potpourri of dance numbers and endearing ballads- the strongest statement so far of her success in crossing boundaries and defying stereotypes.
“I sing for everybody. I am not just an African musician. I am an African who sings in different styles for people around the world. Music has a universal language.”
She tells me of her influences: Miriam Makeba, Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald , seventies funk and r&b, soukous... to underscore her earlier statement.
Angelique Kidjo comes from a musical family who provided the earliest inspiration. She launched her professional career in France where she had gone to study law. She soon switched to training in classical music. Later on she was exposed to jazz.
“I love jazz because of how it expand the possibilities of the voice, especially when you learn how you can use pitch to bring out different nuances in your singing.” After an earlier stint with Pili Pili, a Paris based jazz group, she was ready to venture out on her own.
But not before she had experienced first hand the pitfalls of trusting people in the music industry without also protecting herself.
She relates the story of how she was double crossed and exploited by a very well known Cameroonian balladeer(no, it is NOT Manu Dibango) who scored a big hit with a tune that Angelique helped to write and compose. To her shock, the guy had registered the song in his own name, leaving out Kidjo.
“By the time I found out it was too late. He had collected royalties for some time. Another African musician in Paris showed me a very thick file filled with the names of artists who were suing the balladeer. I learned from then on to be in control of my music. Nowadays we all have our songs registered with SACEM for our protection.”
Angelique talks with passion about the status of women in the music industry.
“It is still very, very macho. But I don’t let anyone push me around.”
She also is very immersed in exploring the connections between the diverse peoples who make up the African world on the continent and in the diaspora. In fact, is part of a trilogy that will explore the links between Africa and North America, Brazil, the Caribbean and Europe.
Angelique has sweated blood on her way to the top of music megastardom. What advice does she have for African musicians in Canada?
“Take yourself seriously. Above all, practice, practice, practice. Too many African artists think that you can make it on talent alone. No. You need to perfect yourself.”
When will she be in Toronto?
She will be performing at the Massey Hall sometime in October.
In the meantime, look out for her new CD,“Oremi” which hits the stores in June.
LIZZY MAHASHE:Toronto's Conscious Song Bird
By Onyango Oloo
At the age of nine Lizzy Mahashe was singing along to Mahlathini hits on South African
radio and practicing in her Cape Town living room. Soon, encouraged by her mother, Lizzy
joined her church choir and began performing in school.
When she was thirteen, the apartheid goon squads arrested Lizzy because of her
opposition to the racist policies that had sparked off the Soweto Uprising.
She was held in detention and tortured for three months before somehow managed to
escape the country traveling via Swaziland and Mozambique. Lizzy subsequently joined the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania, one of the two main liberation movements involved in the struggle to free South Africa.
After over a decade of active involvement on the frontlines against apartheid, Lizzy
moved to North America where she continues to work for a peaceful, united and progressive South African society.
She is also a veteran of the Canadian African music scene. She has performed with
groups like Marijata, Siyakha and was one of the founders of Africa Night.
You can not understand where Lizzy Mahashe is coming from musically without contextualizing her songs within her experiences as a South African liberation fighter.
Once you get that, it is obvious why she chose "Africa Belongs to Me" as the title of her sizzling hot new CD release.
Take a listen to her independently produced recording and you will quickly realize how
Lizzy Mahashe defies stereotypes about what is African music.
Recently, while I was interviewing over the phone from her Scarborough home, I observed that there appeared to be heavy R&B overtones and inflextions in "Africa Belongs to Me" and other tracks.
She quickly corrected me.
"I call my music 'Concoction'- it is a combination of South African, East African, North
African and North American styles."
Indeed, there are tracks like "Walimwengu" where the flawless Kiswahili lyrics fuses
beautifuly with an infectious South African pop beat as Lizzy decries pettiness and jealousy.
Lizzy Mahashe is a versatile artist. In the opening track ("Thulani") her voice is a caress; by the time you get to "Namhla" you are laid back in awe as she belt out another ballad thatevokes the R&B comparison.
The fact that you can find serious political songs like the rap tinged "Trust Them" and
the optimistic "Africa Belongs To Me" side by side tracks like "Sondela"- a humorous song that involves a woman recapturing an errant lover after immobilizing him with a tranquilizer dart in the butt is a testimony that Lizzy Mahashe is a grounded, holistic individual who can her eyes on the prize without losing the twinkle in those same eyes.
The fact that she can pine for a lost love while continuing to work night and day on her music, raise her two daughters and do everything else is to me a source of immense inspiration that life's problems are mere challenges looking for a solution.
Lizzy Mahashe has more than paid her dues musically and politically. She has been
recognized by her peers through several awards and nominations.
It is time she received more commercial acceptance. If you have read thus far, perhaps
you can help her by putting your money where your ears and feet are.
Pickup the phone and call (416) 759-6711 ext. 4744 to find out more how you can
purchase a copy of "Africa Belongs To Me".
Dance With Me: Music From The Motion Picture
I must confess that I skipped the movie. No particular reason. The music on this soundtrack is from the likes of Gloria Estefan, Jon Secada, Sergio Mendes, Vanessa Williams and Monica Naranjo. It is completely dance able and completely untraceable once it fades away. Feel good stuff that fills up space at a party. And a nice memento for somebody you saw the movie with.
Those who tend to dismiss soca/calypso as harmless “jump up/wine down” music are obviously unaware of the strong tradition of social commentary that is associated with this Caribbean music form. If you need proof check out David Rudder’s latest offering- “Beloved”. The maestro from Trinidad has delivered a very solid and enjoyable recording. Songs like “Destination Desperation” bewail the neocolonial status of the many so called “Third World” countries. “The Immigrants” chronicles the tale o Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant who was arrested and horribly tortured by the New York Police Department at a precinct in Brooklyn. “The Banana Death Song” covers how new U.S. trade laws threaten the future of the Caribbean banana industry and the livelihood of West Indian families who depend on the tropical crop. The good news about “Beloved” is that you can imbibe all this wisdom and still “jump up” to the infectious beats.
Cairo to Casablanca
The Arab world straddles a big chunk of Africa. It is also the home of an exciting array of popular musical styles. I have just finished listening to selections from the Putumayo compilation bringing us music from Egypt(Cairo) to Morocco ( Casablanca). In addition to household names like Khaled you have up and coming stars like Rachid Taha, Raina Rai, Maurice El Medioni and Kadda Cherif Hadria.. I particularly liked “Ya Rayah” from Rachid Taha and Khaled’s “Ki Kounti”.
Couer de Lion
The queen of bikutsi has presented us with yet another gift of original and creative music inspired by her experiences growing up in Cameroon, working in Europe and touring the world. Unlike “Tribu” her previous release, the new CD kind of grows on you. You have to give it a chance to seep into your consciousness and grab hold of your unsuspecting gut. Then you are hooked. Much the same way Sally captures you at her live shows. Check out the title track plus “solidarity”, “reggae in japan” and “solidarity’ to get my point.
World: Onyango Oloo
Amadou et Mariam
“Sou Ni Tile”
Mariam and Amadou are two Paris based musicians who met at the Institute for Young Blind People in Bamako, Mali. They fell in love and have been blessed with three children. Over the years, they have built up a sterling reputation in Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, the native Mali and other parts of Africa for their beautiful and soulful tunes. “Sou ne Tile” is a fifteen track bundle of joy that showcases the pair as gifted singers and lyricists. Here you will find love ballads, religious hymns, songs about the struggles of poor people, philosophical musings about the world and narratives of Amadou and Mariam’s musical odyssey. I got hooked with “ Je Pense A Toi”, the very first song and kept listening to the very end.
Hamid Baroudi was in town recently. He set the club on fire with his furious guitar playing, his playful and thoughtful bantering between numbers and his keen sense of social justice. The Algerian born, German based singer is well known as a veteran member of Dissidenten, a mainstay of the European rock scene. In “Five” Hamid explores various music genres from rock through hip hop to rai and kora tinged tunes. The catchy liner notes are reproduced in four languages: Arabic, German, English and French. Like many of his Algerian compatriots, Hamid is consumed by a desire for peace and justice. Listen to plaintive songs like “Alone” and “Tell Me” to grasp at his anguish. I am not suggesting that “Five” is a collection of funeral dirges. Other songs like Colombus and Lila remind you of the joy and love that is so often intertwined with sadness and desolation in the world today.
“Roberto Clemente: Un Tributo Musical”
You have seen Jose Mesa, Andruw Jones and Sandy Alomar Jr in the Major League Baseball television highlights. Did you know that they could sing as well? How about Tony Perez and Juan Gonzalez? These and other well known Latin baseball stars are featured on this musical tribute to Roberto Walker Clemente, the Puerto Rican all time baseball great and philanthropist who expired tragically in a horrible plan crash on New Year’s Day 1973. To be sure, the baseball stars are just a sideshow in this recording. The major attractions are the Puerto Rican musical heavyweights like Andy Montanez, Junior Irrizary, Luis ‘Perico’ Ortiz, Edwin Clemente, Jose Leni Prieto, Larry Harlow, Imael Miranda and Tito Allen.. Get this CD for the music, for the memory of a sporting legend and to support some of the Puerto Rican charities that Roberto Clemente would have been contributing to had he been alive today.
With “Welenga” Wes Madiko has boldly stepped forward to claim his rightful place at the centre stage of popular music in the world today. Fresh from collecting accolades for his critically acclaimed “Midiwa Bol ( I Love Football)” that was adopted as the official anthem of his native Cameroonian World Cup team, Wes has presented us with a multifaceted recording that is strong on production, stacked with dance able numbers in various styles- reggae, r&b, hip hop, various Latin beats- while staying firmly rooted in an African head space. In fact Wes makes a point of reminding us all that many of these styles emanate from Africa in the first place. “Welenga” is a collaboration between Wes and people like Michel Sanchez of Deep Forest, Tony Amaraggi, Paolo Darmanti, Elena Salazar and Marie Ceccarelli.
Kora Music From Gambia
Latitudes/Music of the World
By the time you read this, Yan Kuba may have come and gone from Toronto. If so, even more reason why you should make a point of inviting his music to come and live with you, permanently. Accompanied on several tracks by the endearing voice of Bintu Sisu, Yan Kuba does justice to the high expectations we have all set for music made in West Africa, particularly music that is kora based. There is a Canadian connection to this Gambian product. Toronto’s own Daniel Janke, a kora master in his own right, wrote the insightful liner notes.
LOS UMBRELLOS: VOICES FROM THE FUTURE OF EUROPOP (1998)
By Onyango Oloo
It's a few minutes after six.
It's a chilly evening punctuated by a mild drizzle.
After ten years in this country, I still cannot figure out weather in Toronto. Now thanks to global warming and courtesy of the notorious el nino, I have given up...
I am hovering uneasily by the concierge's desk at the Westin Harbour Castle. Amid the
hustle and bustle of Canadian Music Week, I am just about to give up on ever meeting my
industry contact when I hear him ask for me by name at the desk.
The two young women blink at him blankly before they realize that I am right there.
Relieved at the coincidence, we make our brief self introductions before we approach a
table where two twenty something men-black and white-are sipping drinks with a vague air of anticipation.
We are soon on our way to a suite on the thirty-second floor.
I am waved into a room full of apples and oranges, juices and cups.
"Anyone for cold coffee or warm juice?" someone cracks wryly.
After a few minutes, I am introduced to Al Agami, the founder and leader of Los
Umbrellos, one of the most unlikely climbers on Billboards and other best selling music charts around the world.
I must confess that the promotional material from the record company had sort of put me
I had cringed when I read lines like, "...the three exotic members.." And the whole hype
about the Stetson wearing trio.
"Enough already!" I had muttered back in my pad as I prepared for the
I am therefore relieved, refreshed and even impressed when I get to meet the three
unassuming, and obviously intelligent artistes who are huddled in a couch in front of me.
What we have for the next three quarters of an hour is more of a friendly conversation
rather than a formal "interview."
I have always detested those artificial interrogation sessions where smart-alec journalists pester and torture serious and overworked musicians with inane traps disguised as questions.
I genuinely want to get to the Los Umbrellos. In a way, it is a blessing that I meet them before I have listened to Flamenco Funk and their chart busting No Tengo Dinero.
This way I get to meet the people and the composers behind the package.
I find out a lot of interesting things.
For one, the two women in the group- Mai-Britt Grondahl Vingsoe and Grith Hojfeldt-
are seasoned actors who have hosted and produced their own television shows in their native Denmark.
Mai is multi lingual fluent in English, German, Swedish, Norwegian and of course,
Danish, with a bit of Spanish and French thrown in for good measure.
Her good friend Grith, was like Mai, born and raised in Copenhagen and apart from an
early prodigious start as a child star, has collected accolades as a singer, dancer and model.
Al Agami speaks with a North American accent even though he too calls Denmark home.
He is only 25 years old but is already a ten-year veteran of the music industry.
In fact, the birth of the group is associated with the fact that he was a talented producer who needed to form a group as a vehicle for his musical energies.
As he describes how he put the group together, the two other band members chip with
details of how they were chosen after and audition, of opening for the Backstreet Boys in numerous cities across the United States.
Al Agami , I discover has had a very internationalist upbringing. He informs me that he
was born in Kampala, Uganda, literally next door to my own Kenyan origins. In a matter of fact voice he explains to me that he comes from a country that no longer exists yet strives to be an independent nation once more, before the next millennium kicks off.
Quizzically knitting my brow, I lean forward to hear more. I thought as an East African with a keen love of history, I was up to speed on the contemporary events in Uganda. Today, I learn something new from this earnest, quiet young man who is enjoying his moment in the sun as the latest sensation spawned by the Top 40 system.
Al Agami is from the nation of Lado. His father is the uncrowned head of this tiny
country that was gobbled up by the combined colonial machinations of the European powers and the narrow state interests of a clutch of African states: Uganda, Sudan and the former Zaire. His father, backed by the worldwide Sudanic Refugee Organization has taken his peoples' plight to the United Nations. While clearly committed to the national aspirations of the Lado people, the younger Agami has his mind and focus trained on his musical career.
"We plan to move to the United States. It is better for us here, from a professional point of view." Grith and Mai-Britt echo these sentiments, interspersing their comments with hilarious anecdotes of their life on the road.
Los Umbrellos is an unusual group. Contrary to what you may think, they are not a Latin
band. When I ask them where they would file their music in one of Toronto's music stores, they say in unison, without hesitation: "Under Dance."
Later, listening to their Flamenco Funk CD, I have to agree. From the dance hall based
"Sweep" to the Abba reminiscent Latin pop tune, "No Tengo Dinero" and other tracks, there is clear evidence that Los Umbrellos have come up with a potent concoction that leads you to the dance floor.
"Flamenco Funk" is obviously aimed at the commercial pop charts. For this reason, the
otherwise infectious high energy recording may wear thin with each additional listen reminding you of Puffy Daddy and some of the pap he produces for mass consumption.
Having visited with the members of the Los Umbrellos, I am quite convinced that there is
a lot promise and potential hidden behind that Top 40 sound.
Tarig Abubakar Opened Canadian Hearts To Love African Music (1998)
By Onyango Oloo
In very many ways, this is the most difficult article I have ever had to write for WORD
Unlike the pieces I have done on the African music scene or even the profiles of artistes I churn out from time to time, this time I have been called upon to go a friend's grave side and add my reflections to thousands more on a remarkable musician's life that was recently abruptly abbreviated by a freak accident shrouded in a thousand question marks.
It was a Thursday afternoon in late January when I accessed my home voice mail from
work to hear Kobena Aquaah Harrison's grief filled message about the sudden, abrupt and violent death of Tarig Abubakar.
I pressed One One to hear the message again.
The words were unmistakable.
News had just reached Toronto that the charismatic and effervescent leader of the
Afro Nubians had died in Khartoum, Sudan on his way to catch a flight back to Toronto.
I frantically called everyone I knew to verify this horrifying story.
I called Kobena back.
I found his machine joking with me, daring me to leave a message.
I called Mary Duku.
The distraught Ugandan born music promoter confirmed between sobs what I was unable
to comprehend on my voicemail.
She gave me the number of Nadine, Tarig's lover and soulmate, the one person who
knew the late singer probably more than anyone else in Canada.
I was surprised that Nadine was home and answering the phone.
I marveled at her strength at this moment of adversity.
I would have been too devastated to talk to anyone.
There she was, a strong voice on the other end of the phone.
As she narrated the sequence of events relayed to her up to that point, I could only grasp at the surface of the deep pain and impossible anguish she must be going through.
We had a very awkward exchange.
I muttered some semi-coherent, half formed words of condolences.
Nadine's phone had been ringing off the hook. After a few minutes, I could not go on.
Later that evening, I was visiting a friend in the Avenue Road/Davenport neighborhood.
She had not heard about the terrible calamity.
As I was opening my mouth to relay the news, someone called her. Someone who had
received a phone call from Sudan.
I remember when my mother died of cancer in 1980, I was the first family member to see
her in the morgue. Seeing, with own two eyes, her lifeless body flung on the floor of a Mombasa funeral home was still not enough to convey to me the finality of her death.
On this day in January 1998, I felt the same way about Tarig and all I was hearing with
my own ears about him.
Kobena's voicemail, the conversation with Mary and Nadine and the phone call coming
into my friend's house was not enough to convince me that Tarig Abubakar had really died.
As if nature and the weather was in on some macabre conspiracy, the frigid weather
underlined by deep gloom even as I realized that I was being floored by a vicious attack flu that paled into insignificance in light of the news of Tarig's passing.
It was an oppressive night.
As I lay huddled under a duvet inhaling the supposedly therapeutic herbal remedy that
my long departed grandmother had administered to me years ago, I could see the smiling ebony face from behind my closed eyes.
I heard his booming hearty laugh reverberate throughout my silent living room.
Tossing and turning on my queen size futon, I grew increasingly restless and despondent.
Dragging myself to my computer I made a half-hearted attempt to record the flood of
thoughts flowing through my searing brain but the vivid images, the palpable sounds and the tangible feelings dried up before my shaking, sweaty fingers hit the cold ivory keyboard.
Giving up in frustration I paced up and down my apartment.
I looked at the clock on my VGA monitor.
It was already two thirty in the morning.
I went to the stack of CDs on the shelf of my music system.
I fished out "Hobey Laik" and stuck it into the player.
Just before I flicked the play button the remote I thought of the impending wrath of a
neighbour woken up by a blare of Pan African music in the middle of the night.
Some inner counsel propelled me to my headphones.
I could now immerse myself in the sounds of the Afronubians last recording.
The beautiful and infectious title track was a torture to listen to.
In October 1997, I had been among a slew of friends and music industry types that had
flocked to Karibu nightclub for the Hobey Laik video release party.
I remember how we had watched the video over and over again, fascinated by the larger
than life image of Tarig pouring out his love for an African beauty while resplendent in royal African robes in a lush field that I later learnt was in Barrie, Ontario but was quite effective in evoking the serenity of the savannah on the mother continent.
Tarig was so happy that night!
I could see a wide spectrum of people-Opiyo Oloya, Michael Stohr, Mary Duku and
dozens more line up to pump his hand and congratulate him and other members of the
Afronubians for this latest milestone.
The vivaciousness and exuberance of that balmy October evening contrasted quite
sharply with this miserable excuse for a winter morning in 1998.
As I listened to more tracks, heard Tarig entreat his Sudanese compatriots to unite for
peace and national harmony; as I drank in his lyrics talking about the equality of all races and eavesdropped on his pining for a long lost puppy love; as I danced mentally to those familiar Pan African beats, I just sort of broke down eventually into what must have sounded as a ghoulish howl to anyone who had the misfortune to overhear my wails and sobs.
But who cared what anyone thought?
Among the Luo people of western Kenya where I was born and reared, wailing is a
widely accepted cultural practice.
Grown men and women cry openly when a loved one dies.
Quite unlike the uptight frigid Anglo-Caucasian phenomenon I have observed in Canada where it is considered "weak" and "improper" for people (especially men) to display their emotions.
This Canada, this cold and frozen land, where a man who cries and weeps is considered an effeminate weakling is a Canada that I will hopefully, never ever integrate into for as long as I live.
I don't know how long it took as my whole being was convulsed with pain at the
realization that Tarig had died and that I would never ever see his gleaming smooth ebony moon face again.
What does Tarig Abubakar's death mean to music lovers in Toronto?
It is a chilling reminder of how we take people for granted when they are still walking
and working among us.
It has been bizarre, these last two months, observing the outpouring of grief and the
plethora of obituaries and tributes flowing back and forth across this large expanse land of the maple leaf in the wake of the passing of Tarig.
On the one hand, it is a testimony to the profound awakening in the love of African
music that Tarig played a pivotal role in bringing about.
On the other hand, this well publicized litany of laser printed condolences is yet one
more catalogue of the cant and hypocrisy that accompanies the death of any kind of a celebrity in the world today.
People who barely knew Tarig are falling over each other, bending over backwards,
trying to outdo the last showstopping eulogist with yet another personal anecdote of a special mythical moment they shared with the late Sudanese Canadian star.
Folks who spoke derisively of the Afronubians' stage show are now new experts on the
unique blend of "world music" that Tarig and his group produced.
Music lovers who reached out for other CDs ignoring Afro Nubian albums piled up in the
record stores are now quoting lyrics from songs they have never heard.
Sometimes I feel like throwing up.
Does Tarig Abubakar need to be canonized?
Rather than remembering Tarig as a new found musical saint, let us remember him for
the wonderful human being that he was.
He was a hard working, determined artist who arrived almost penniless in Canada ten
years ago, surrounded himself with talented musicians and managed to achieve, through his talent, rive and love for African culture a measure of respect that others are still dreaming about.
Consider the achievements of Tarig Abubakar and the Afronubians: 3 commercial
successful recordings (Great Africans; Tour To Africa; Hobey Laik); the first African group in Canada to land a major distribution deal with a leading label (Stern's); at least four nominations/and or awards by Music Africa; important national tours to support and popularize their music across Canada (between 1993 and 1997); a licensing agreement to make "Tour To Africa" the theme song of the African Reality television series; a licensing agreement with Air Canada to include the songs "Hobey Laik" and "El Maadi" in the world music program of all Air Canada flights in July and August 1997; a May 1997 appearance on the Arts and Minds show on BRAVO; an April 1997 segment on Much Music's much watched Clip Trip; a feature on a Vision TV special ("In My Soul"-rebroadcast on February 26, 1998 as a tribute to the late Tarig);the aforementioned video launch party and a pathbreaking foray into the tough to crack US tour circuit (gigs in Indianapolis and Detroit between September and November 1997)....
As I write these lines we are all gearing up for the special musical commemoration at the Bamboo (on a Saturday, moreover- a night closed to local African groups by that local oasis of "world music").
The achievements of Tarig Abubakar and the Afronubians could not have been possible
without the ongoing support of Toronto and Canada's music lovers. Tarig was very popular in the Africn community as can be attested by raucous and enthusiastic reception the Afronubians received during Afrofest and during various festivities in various national festivities.
What sets the Afronubians apart from other equally talented and entertaining African
music acts was the fact that they had cracked through to the mainstream of Canadian popular culture. Having started off as favourite mainstay of Canadian campus radio charts from Waterloo to Ottawa, they reached their zenith when they were embraced by the mainstream Canadian print and the electronic media. It was significant that special tributes appeared not only in such familiar places as CIUT, CKLN , CHRY,NOW and Eye Weekly but also on the CBC, the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail.
At the time of his death Tarig Abubakar was on the threshold of even bigger things. It is futile to engage in idle speculation as to what Tarig and the Afro Nubians would have achieved if hewas still alive today.
But we should not forget that the Afronubians are still with us. Tarig, was no doubt the
driving force of this superb band which still retains enough talent to resurrect and continue the dream they started with Tarig Abubakar at the helm.
Probably the single most important legacy that Tarig leaves behind is the victory in
opening up Canadian minds to embrace African music in all its wonderful variety and depth of style and experience.
Afrian musicians working in Canada are richer today, thanks to the fact that a Sudanese
saxophonist dared to venture beyond the shores of the Nile and soar above the Nubian and
Egyptian pyramids to bring his gift of music to the Canadian people.
As my religious friends would say in Kiswahili, "Mungu Akuweke Pahali Pema Peponi"
which roughly translates as:
"Rest In Peace".
A Moving Tribute to the Late Tarig Abubabakar at the Bamboo Club
By Onyango Oloo
I am writing these lines in the wee hours of an early Sunday morning in late winter having just arrived from a sweltering summery evening at the Bamboo.
With hundreds of others, I was treated to one of the most powerful offerings of African music that I have seen in Toronto in the last ten years. I am talking of the glowing and lovely tribute put on for Tarig by his peers, fans
and associates in the music industry.
Put simply, literally everyone who came on stage excelled: it seemed as if the warm, vivacious spirit of Tarig was pushing them to dizzy levels. From Adam Solomon and Tikisa to the finale by the remaining the Afro Nubians we were blown away by the artistry, passion and deep melancholy that engulfed that well known oasis of "world music" on Queen and Spadina.
Jamis Jammo and his crew were excellent; Balimbo's brief appearance on stage was rewarded with vigorous dancing capped by a sizzling display of North African dance steps by a couple of beautiful sisters from the Horn; Achilla Orru's finger piano playing and the lilting honey voice of the bearded Sudanese brother were interspersed with Ado's exciting stage show and the amazing dancers from the Soukous Boys Band.
When an accomplished white Canadian sat down to play a medley of tunes on his electrified kora, it somehow appeared quite natural.
I hope I did not miss anyone because all the musicians put on an amazing show.
At the end, I went through a range of emotions to see the appearance of the Afro Nubians.
I was glad to see them come on with a show-must-go-on attitude and put on a brave performance that was punctuated by the fact that there was nobody playing one of the saxophones or grabbing the centre microphone at the front.
The infectious and ubiquitous Ghanaian-born percussionist Koffi Ackah revealed another side of his multifaceted personality when he succeeded in harnessing the feelings of the band and the crowd in a fond reminder of the tunes that Tarig helped to make commonplace to lovers of African music in Toronto.
There was that eerie moment when we were simultaneously startled, thrilled and chilled to hear Tarig's throaty vocals layered when the Afro Nubians unleashed "Hobey Laik" at the beginning of their set.
After the second or third time that we heard Tarig voice, a guy who had been dancing next to me for the most of the evening leaned over and asked me amid the din of dance music:
" Don't you think this is too much? Do you think that Tarig would have liked his music to be used in this way?"
I had no immediate answer to that soul-searching question.
“Ne Le Thiass”
Cheikh Lo is the latest star to emerge from the deep well of musical talent to be found in Senegal. He is coming to town in July as part of the Africa Fete treat featuring Salif Keita, Muryam Mursal and Papa Wemba.
If you have never heard of the dread locked of the Dakar born Burkina be raconteur, I suggest you go out to grab a copy of “Ne la Thiass” hailed by many critics as one of the best world music recordings released in the last year.
Produced out of Youssour Ndour’s Xippi studios, Cheikh Lo’s opus is a paean to the singer’s deep spiritual beliefs, a celebration of his deep love for Africa and a testimony of his many musical influences from Cuban son to Congolese soukous and Senegalese mbalax. Cheikh tells the story of African immigrants in “Doxandeme”; decries environmental degradation in “Set”(Cleanliness); sings praises to Ibra Fall, the spiritual leader of the Baye Fall sect that Cheikh Lo belongs to and pays homage to his family.
Throughout the “Ne la Thiass” CD, you will hear contributions from Youssour Ndour and other members of the famed Super Etoile band like Omar Sow, Mbaye Dieye Fall and Assane Thiam.
“Ne la Thiass” is the perfect aerobic workout that will prepare you for the much anticipated Africa Fete staged at the Harbourfront on July 3.
“Garra Dos Sentidos”
The Iberian peninsula stands in sharp contrast to the rest of Europe culturally, economically and socially. In economic terms, Portugal is considered a neocolonial society that is closer to the so called Third World. Paradoxically the 500 years of dominating Cape Verde, Guinea Bissau, Angola, Mozambique among others has resulted in a cross pollination of culture and language that makes it virtually impossible sometimes what is the African and what is the European in Portuguese music. Ironically, it is the emergence of people like Cesaria Evora, Maria Alice and Tito Paris and other Cape Verdian artistes that has helped to draw the world’s attention to other music forms produced in the Portuguese language.
Take for example, the fado. This is a seductive form of music akin the blues, the tango and rebetiko that is rooted firmly in Portuguese mythology and tradition.
The best ambassador of the fado in the world today is a beautiful woman named Misia. She has taken the fado and given it her own unique stamp, discarding the overworked cliches and infusing her songs with an air of mystery, romance and wistfulness. Believe me, you do not have to be from Lisbon to be forever ensnared by this gifted enchantress. Wait, don’t take my word for it- give a listen to “Garras dos Sentidos”, “Danca De Magos” or “Fado Do Retorno II” and then, let’s have a discussion.
Readers of this column may be forgiven if they sometimes get the impression that all I ever listen to these days is Latin American music, especially its myriad Cuban forms.
There is so much good Latin American music coming on the market and becoming more accessible to a global audience that it would be a grave injustice to ignore this explosive phenomenon.
There are those who credit Ry Cooder, David Byrne or Peter Gabriel for discovering “world music” stars such as the Buena Vista Social club and others. Coming from Kenya, one of the countries that was allegedly “discovered” by a European man, I am quite uncomfortable about buying into such racist anthropological notions.
Latin American and Cuban music was not “discovered” by any big star from the West. It was always there, nurtured in the struggles and the communities where the artists grew up.
If there is anybody who deserves credit from the bounty harvest that is Latin American music today it is first and foremost the artists themselves, Fidel Castro and all the people who have contributed to the revolutionary upheavals in Cuba, Nicaragua, El Salvador and other parts of the Caribbean and the Americas.
This historical and political context is important in appreciating the talents of someone like Jimmy Bosch who comes out of that rich cultural tradition.
A twenty year veteran of Afro-Cuban music, Jimmy Bosch is a trombone virtuoso who has been influenced by Barry Rogers, Louis Armstrong and others while retaining his own vivid salsa style. When you think of Jimmy Bosch you feel and hear intensity and optimism. There is also a certain raunchiness that is difficult to put in words. On this CD, my favourites are “Descaragana”, “Cha Cha Gabriel” and “Erben on the Phone”.
Finally, please make sure you check out these Radio Tarifa guys. They come out of Spain and they sound like a cross between Arabs, Africans and Latinos, which is exactly what many Spaniards are, as much as they hate to admit this. Here are ten tracks which you can use in your next Black History lesson about the contribution of Africa to European civilization. By the way, this is not a textbook. You can actually dance to it.
Hamza El Din
Escalay (The Water Wheel)
Oud Music From Nubia
The plaintive opening chords of the oud catch your attention immediately. You listen as
if in a trance as the player weaves his theme in a long instrumental interlude before he breaks out in song.
I am talking about Hamza El Din's fabled composition, the title track in the cd under
review. This particular song extends to over twenty minutes and talks about the importance of water for the rural African people of Egypt living along the river Nile. In this history drenched region, temperatures can rise as high as 140 degrees. No life is possible without water. The narrow fields along the banks of the Nile by large water wheels made of wood and turned by oxen. The song is about the experience of the boy who keeps the water wheel going. Once upon a time, Hamza El Din was such a boy.
He later from his birthplace in Nubia and went to Cairo to study engineering. That is
when he picked up the oud, one of main instruments in Arabic classical music. The oud was not used in the music composed by Hamza's Nubian folk. Over the years the future maestro was able to forge new musical forms by combining the rich texture and multilayered moods of Nubian music into the structures of Arabic classical music.
What you get is a true African creation- in the sense that the mother continent is not only the cradle for a big chunk of global culture but also a crucible, socially and otherwise to some of the best in cultural synthesis to be found anywhere on the planet.
Almost thirty years after this record was first issued, it has stood the test of time as an outstanding masterpiece from one of Africa's most gifted artists. That is my definition of a classic.
"Berber Singing Goes World"
Moving wetwards from Egypt while still staying on the northern tip of Africa you will find yourself in Algeria. As you may be aware, there is a terrible civil war going on in that country- a war that has particularly targeted women, especially young, educated and independent women striving to realize the great potential that was unleashed by the valiant struggle against French colonialism in the 1950s and 1960s. Literally thousands of women have been butchered by reactionary forces that would, if they had their way, force Algerian women back into the stifling cloistered medieval like existence that national independence liberated them from.
Considering the above, it is quite gratifying to hear the bubbly joyful sounds of two
sisters, Fatiha and Malika Messaoudi who work under the professional name of Iness Mezel.Fatiha and Malika are Algerian whose ethnic roots lie among the Berbers, the indigenous people of Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Morocco.
This cd was recorded in Liege, Belgium. The duo sing in Kabyl, their native language with frequent forays into Arabic and French. Their sound is an engaging dance able "world" feeling.
But don't be fooled.
Iness Mezel does not sing for American and European tourists lost in wistful sex safari
Going by the English translations in the liner notes, the songs are songs of remembrance,songs about hypocrisy and jealousy; but mostly, feminist songs.
Consider the following lines:
On the roads
women die leaving behind their children
it is written on the eyelids of those who perished
nothing is spared them!
Or this stanza from "Laaven Yissna":
What fools they made of us!
The happiness which should have been ours
we left behind to the loyal contenders
freedom and independence
we will not walk in the footsteps of those
who have gouged out the abyss of suffering
in which we founder, a little
deeper, each day...
Certainly the most powerful statement is expressed in "Awah":
Lower your eyes
he has come to ask for your hand!
he has sent his mother to boast of the qualities of her
A fearless and faultless knight!
She admires my hands, my ankles
inspects me from head to toe
they have come to ask for me
Out of the question
Mercy! Let me choose my own destiny
I am not a woman to give birth to children of an uncertain future
to what do women aspire?
To live in the light of liberty, love and friendship!
Need I say more?
Al Santiao presents Tambo featuring Johnny Almendra& Louie Bauzo
"Coco My My" grabs you by the neck and flings you ceremoniously on to the floor and
orders you to dance with a beaming face.
That is the compelling power of the legendary Tambo band. There is "party party"
written all over this recording.
The fresh Latin air that wafts through the room when you hear Johnny Almendra and
Louie Bauzo is underscored by the startling realization that this is not a new release at all. It is a new reissue of an underground hit that was first put together in 1974.
This record was one the earliest released on the Montuno label which has been operating
"out of the depths of the New York City subway system for nearly a quarter of a century"
according to Philly based writer Aaron Levinson who penned the informative liner notes.
Tambo was founded and led by the timbalero Johnny Almendra and bongosero Louis
Bauzo who emerged out of the vibrant Latino club scene in New York in the seventies.
They had both played for the Johnny Colon boogaloo outfit before striking out on their own.
It was after they had made their mark through live performances that they were
approached by noted producer, the late Al Santiago to record for the Montuno label.
Tambo succeeded in producing original salsa tunes before commercialization corrupted
that powerful sound, sometimes reducing it to a pale predictable parody of its original lively self.
To all lovers of Latin music, this is a definite must for your collection.
Herencia Africana, Salsa de Colombia
Worldbeat/ Coeur de Lion
Anoher time. Another country. More salsa.
This is NOT yet another salsa record being crammed down your throat.
"Herencia Africana" is a unique fusion of Latin Jazz, Son, Colombian folk music and
contemporary salsa beats into a very palatable feast spiced with African culture and rejuvenated by relevant references to the day to day concerns of Black people around the world.
The chef who put together this gourmet fare is none other than singer/songwriter/sonero
This short review will not tell you many times I played this lovable recording over and
over again. It is truly one of those CDS that you can listen to at almost anytime in the day or night. Because I cherish it so much, I plan to give it as a gift to a very special friend in the next few days, hoping that it will convey the tender feelings that I have for her.
Onyango Oloo hosts "Dunia" a weekly global issues show on CKLN 88.1 every Saturday starting at 10:30 a.m.
Music of The World Cup
It was only to be expected. Someone had to come up with a CD featuring songs about the World Cup ‘98. This recording brings together artists from around the world singing the praises of Brazil, Jamaica, South Africa, England, France, Cameroon, Mexico, Italy, Japan, Scotland and Denmark. Not surprising, everyone wants their favorite team to win. The songs that stand out are “Do You Mind If I Play”, the official anthem of the World Cup by Youssour Ndour and Axelle Red; “Rise Up” by Jamaica United and “Oh Eh Oh Eh” by the Gipsy Kings.
I love Papa Wemba’s music. You only have to see him live to witness his magnetism and artistic flair. I can not wait to see him perform live at the Harbor Front alongside Salif Keita and Maryam Mursal. But I must confess that I was somewhat underwhelmed by “Molokai” his latest offering. There are those who will love to hear Papa Wemba strip down to his bare essentials. He is after all, a very gifted vocalist who does not need to hide behind electronic gimmickry. This recording is certainly a testimony to that. On the other hand, there are those like me who see Papa Wemba as a master show man. To me, his magic comes alive when he is united with the layered energetic sounds of his famous Viva la Musica band. That magic is missing in “Molokai”. The big orchestra sound is for me an essential part of the Papa Wemba that I love. There are several songs you want to listen to again, especially “Esclave” that talks about slavery past and present. Who knows, if I listen to the CD one more time, perhaps I will jot down a different review.
Cuartete Patria and Manu Dibango
Couer de Lion
For a few minutes I was completely fooled. I thought I was listening to a remastered copy of the songs I grew up listening to on the Voice of Kenya radio in the sixties and seventies. It was only when I looked at the CD cover that I realized this was a collaboration between a West African saxophonist and a slew of gifted performers from the Caribbean isle of Cuba. The reason I was confused was because these in fact were some of the same songs that I listened to decades ago in Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu. Cuban music( with its heavy African roots) heavily influenced contemporary African music produced in the last forty years. It is therefore fitting in 1998 you have Cuban and African stars revisiting old standards like “El Manicero”“Son de la loma” and “El Paralitico”. It is also gratifying to see Manu Dibango lead a fusion of rumba and the makossa- the Cameroonian dance beats that he helped popularize in the mid-seventies.
More along the lines of the above, Afro-Latino brings together musicians from Senegal, Cape Verde, Congo, Angola and Cuba in a wonderful project that is yet another exploration of the connections, cultural and historical between Africa and the Americas. Afro-Latino is best enjoyed when approached holistically. Check out Sam Mangwana’s “Galo Negro” and Ricardo Lemvo’s “Mambo Yo Yo”.
Desert of Eden
Another singer who will help to defy the stereotypes about what is considered “African music” is the Mauritanian chanteuse Malouma Mint Maideh. This CD is absolutely fabulous. “Ya Habibi” an endearing love song introduces you to the complex society where Malouma grew up- Mauritania is a West African nation that combines a rich Arab cultural heritage in an even deeper African traditional context. Listening to Malouma you will hear traces of the Middle East. The truth is that Malouma, like Maryam Mursal, Miriam Makeba, Oumou Sangare and Cesaria Evora composes unique and universal tunes that transcend the artificial boundaries imposed on Africa by the European colonizers.
Haiti. The name evokes Toussaint L’Overture, Baby Doc and Father Aristide. And of late, Jean Clef and the Refugee Camp. Boukman Eksperyans embodies all of the above: the glory of the Haitian Revolution; the struggle against neocolonial fascist terror; the hope of a new democratic beginning. The latest recording from this legendary group provides further confirmation of their well earned reputation. Having listened to the captivating songs in the original creole, I turned to the English translations of the lyrics to find out what the group was talking about. The overriding theme is articulated by lead vocalist Manze:” One of my dearest vows is that the message carried by Boukman reaches the imperialists’ mind in order to cultivate in them the respect of each culture. To the helpless.. I cry out Revolution!” In this CD you will find songs about the IMF (Baron); songs against the Western industrial monopolies( Imamou Lele) and songs in praise of the various deities of the West African based Voodoo religion (Saint Fort Yawe, Peye Loa Yo). Boukman Eksperyans explore a wide range of musical styles from traditional Haitian rhythms like vre-gri, mandingue, rara and nago to hip hop. Revolution is in addition, a collaboration with those other ambassadors of Haiti- the bulk of the songs were recorded at the Refugee Camp studios in New Jersey. This is definitely one of the musical highlights of 1998.
Yan Kuba Saho
Kora Music From Gambia
Latitudes/Music of the World
There is a magical tranquility about kora music. I always get the impression that kora players are beings from another more grounded space that transcends this mundane MUZAK elevator milieu that I so often find myself trapped in. Perhaps in this there is a hope that Africa may be one of the key holders towards a global cultural renaissance. Yan Kuba Saho was in Toronto a few months ago and did not disappoint. If you missed his show, then you should try and get a hold of “Kora Music From Gambia’ and find out why it has made me sound like a new age scribe preparing for a seance. Accompanied on several tracks by the endearing voice of Bintu Sisu, Yan Kuba does justice to the high expectations we have all set for music made in West Africa, particularly music that is kora based. Listen to the whole recording in one sitting. And then do it again soon There is a Canadian connection to this Gambian product. Toronto’s own Daniel Janke, a kora master in his own right, helped to produce Yan Kuba Saho and also wrote the insightful liner notes.
Congolese born singer and bandleader Adolfo Makuntima has been making music in this megacity for the last decade. His latest unleashed is a soukous based vivacious package that leaves you wondering what is it in the River Congo that makes people from the Democratic Republic so consistent in moving dancing feet and swaying hips the world over. If you see Ado before I do, please tell him to go into a joint venture with the biggest gym in TO as a musical aerobics instructor! But the songs in Extreme Joy are also hymns exploring a number of spiritual themes. At one point in his life, Adolfo was just about to be ordained as a Catholic priest. These days while he remains deeply spiritual he looks beyond Christianity to blend with traditional African beliefs and Islam in coming with a ecumenical guiding philosophy. Ado sings of lost loves and the beauty of Black women. He offers homilies to siblings and remembers his departed mother. Ado has certainly earned the right to the mantle of accomplished artist. Buy “Extreme Joy” for its high D.Q (dance quotient), rich cultural content and also for the extreme satisfaction of supporting an independent Canadian musician who is destined for greater things.
With Fela Kuti gone and Sonny Okusun mired in what amounts to musical semi-retirement, we are left with Majek Fashek to lift high the banner of political music from Nigeria- Africa’s largest nation in terms of population. Majek has been a reggae star for almost twenty years now. Given the obvious influence of Bob Marley on his musical development, it seems particularly fitting for Majek to be part of the international stars signed to Robert Nesta’s Tuff Gong label. Like many of his continental brothers, Majek Fashek is at pains to point out the African foundations of many diasporic styles. In ‘Kpangolo’ he sees the direct connection between rock, r&b, reggae and beats grown today on African soil. He talks about African unity and dreams of a Rastafarian promised land. Majek’s version of Hotel California sounds better, in my opinion, than the Eagles original. Majek’s Rainmaker is full of sunshine.
Add Virginia Rodriguez to that select list that includes Miriam Makeba, Lata Mangeshkar, Aretha Franklin and Mercedes Sosa. The Brazilian chanteuse has captured music lovers all over the world with her debut “ Sol Negro”. Virginia is endowed with enormous talent, which she exercise with admirable skill. The accapella tune, “Veronica” underscores the realization that she does not to hide behind layers of instruments to provide us with her musical magic. Sol Negro is one of those CDs that you simply have to keep listening to over and over again. It’s that good. It would make a very wonderful Xmas gift.
Coumba Gawlo is a young Senegalese singing star who has been making music professionally for over five years now. “Yo Male” is her first introduction to the wider North American market. Coumba is a funky and feisty artist. Her high energy guarantees that you will be dancing to her tunes the next time you go out to an African dance club. Coumba is also an interesting reinterpreter- witness how she renders Makeba’s “Pata Pata” and the twist she gives to Otis Redding’s “Fa Fa Fa”. Coumba’s music is rooted in contemporary social realities and imbued with a keen sense of compassion and love for her Senegalese cultural and historical roots. “Yo Male” is a triumph for originality and tradition. You don’t know what I mean? Well, listen to the CD and then give me a shout back in about a month....
Sweet Honey In The Rock
You will be forgiven if you think that Sweet Honey In the Rock invented and patented modern progressive accapella music. Dr Bernice Johnson Reagon and her six person crew have become a veritable institution in the musical, women’s and activist movements since Sweet Honey In The Rock was founded in 1973. The CD under review celebrate a quarter of century that the legendary all female African-American has been making conscious music. You will find old favourites and new compositions. Check out Sweet Honey’s version of Redemption Song.
Africans in America: Songs featured in the PBS series
October saw the premiere of the above named series on American public television. Judging by the constellation of stars who contributed to the project it is definitely a milestone ala “Roots”. The brains behind the project is none other than Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon of SWITR( you know, as in “Sweet....”). Songs are rendered in a multiplicity of styles by people like Ryan Brown, Colin st. Martin, Djimo Kouyate and Toshi who joins her mother Bernice in several tracks. Put this one in your Black History at home and at school.
With the 40th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution just around the corner, it is fitting to sit back and contemplate the embarrassment of riches that is Cuban artistry on the world music scene today. Cubanismo is but one of the many bands from that history drenched Caribbean isle. It is also one of the very best. On Reencarnation, their third offering in as many years, Cubanismo gives us a very strong showing with their energetic dance tinged numbers. The same crew is joined this time around by long-time balladeer Rolo Martinez. Cubanismo is already on my Top Five list for 1998.
Los Super Seven
Los Super Seven
Notwithstanding my just concluded euphoric outpourings, not all Latin music is coming from Cuba. Los Super Seven is a Mexican outfit that will add volumes to your appreciation of music made in the Americas in the Spanish language. They have fused old traditional rhythms with more contemporary stuff to come up with a sizzling spicy feast.
And from another Caribbean island we get another Latin gem. Plena Libre bring us music from their native Puerto Rico. The origin of la plena is embedded in the complex interchange of African and Spanish peoples who meshed to form the modern nation of Puerto Rico. This form of music is performed in its original form by three hand drums resembling tambourines called panderos accompanied by a guiro which is a gourd rubbed with a sick or comb like device to produce sound. Instead of giving you a long lecture on la plena, why don’t you simply walk to the local record store and pick up the Plena Libre CD? It will tell you more than I can hope to share in this short time and space.
Celtic Tides: A Musical Odyssey
Another documentary. Another compilation. But you should not stop there. Celtic Tides contains music by luminaries like the Chieftains, the Rankin Family, Mary Black, Ashley MacIsaac and many more. For lovers of things Celtic and enjoyable, you can not go wrong with this wonderful Putumayo anthology.
Congolese Maestro On The Verge
By Onyango Oloo
You can feel the passion and see the excitement in his eyes as he talks about his current project. Ado Makuntima is telling me about “Extreme Joy”, his new CD. The one that he has spent close to $25,000 dollars on.
You can also feel the anguish and frustration he is going through in dealing with Factor, a well known agency that funds local independent artists. Ado tells me that this organization is holding him up by refusing to advance him the money to complete the recording.
“I have signed contracts with Factor. I have done everything that is required. They are supposed to cover a percentage of the total costs. If I had that money today, my CD would be now in the record stores.”
This is not Ado’s first brush with institutional barriers standing in the way of aspiring African musicians.
“In 1991, I wrote a five page letter to the Ministry of Culture with a copy to the Ontario Arts Council. I was writing to denounce the injustice and coarseness of a particular officer who is in the French department of the OAC. I understand that my letter cost that officer his job. Soon after that, I was subjected to a vendetta campaign. My name was sullied among certain people and I was penalized by the system when I approached them for funding. Whatever happens, I am determined to release my CD. I believe in a superior force that surpasses human intentions and expectations and goes beyond their diabolic strategies.”
A few years ago he released a music video for the song “Proces” that was widely distributed and appreciated in the USA and all over Africa.
“The video got a lot of air time everywhere except Canada where the music stations refused to play it.”
He tells me that out of the three albums he has produced, “Extreme Joy” is the one that gives him most satisfaction.
“It is an album without precedent. There are songs in many different African languages as well as English and French. I have experimented with different styles as well. I also made a point of having English translations of all the songs so that people in Canada can know what I am singing about.”
What does he sing about?
“I am like an open book. Hatred of hypocrisy is one of the reasons why I left the Catholic priesthood. My songs are like open books through which people can have an idea of who I am and what I think.”
Ado Makuntima is like an onion.
The driving force behind the Le Groupe Musical Les Unis, Ado is a serious man with layers and layers that form a complex personality. Unlike the onion, when you have peeled away all the layers that surround and help make up Ado, you will find a very strong core built around a profound belief and commitment to African culture.
Ado Makuntima has been making music since he was a teenager in the Catholic school choirs in the Congolese capital of Kinshasa. Born in Angola of a Congolese father and an Angolan mother, Ado moved to Kinshasa when he was a small boy. He speaks Lingala, Kikongo, English, French, Italian and can get by in Portuguese and Spanish. He holds a bachelor of theology degree from an Italian university and is pursuing studies in sociology at York University.
A pioneer in the Canadian Soukous music scene, Ado informs me he has worked with almost all of the Congolese musicians active in Toronto today.
Listening to Ado talk, it becomes crystal clear that Africa is at the centre of his philosophy, his music, the very way he carries himself. He is also deeply spiritual.
“I believe in the religion that exists inside my own heart. I believe in the God of my ancestors. I believe in N’zambi ya Mpungu, the all powerful Supreme Being who enacts numerous miracles in my life. God gave me the talent. All my songs have a divine inspiration and gives the listener something to think about even as it moves them to the dance floor.”
I have seen Ado perform at various events in Toronto. Whether it is at the Harbourfront or on the Afrofest stage, Ado and his group can be guaranteed to wake up a dozing audience with their fast paced dance numbers, their captivating choreography and above all the sheer athletic joy expressed by the band. They always come back for an encore.
Natty Queen Divas
Tuff Gong International
Bob Marley’s record label is rapidly becoming the new home of stellar reggae artistes from around the world.
Natty Queen Divas is a compilation of songs by gifted women singers who are household names in Jamaica and wherever reggae/dance hall music is played.
Produced by Rita Marley, Natty Queen Divas features the talents of Sister Carol, Marcia Griffiths, Dhaima Matthews, Cherry Natural, Judy Mowatt and others.
One of the most attractive things about this CD is the conscious spirit that permeates throughout all the tracks and lyrics.
At a time when North American radio waves and the music television stations are deluged with slackness, crass commercialism and individualistic chest thumping, it is indeed refreshing to hear songs about African unity, the power of Black women and the need for dignity and self-respect.
Cherry Natural stands out with her song “Guerrilla Queen”- an ode to African women who have uplifted the race by being part of a long tradition of resistance and struggle.
Natty Queen Divas is a must for all music lovers and a highly recommended educational tool for all Black people.
Kwaito Hits: 16 Original Hits from the New Sound of South Africa
EMI MUSIC SA
Young people all over the world are enthralled by dance- hall and hip hop. Urban club hoppers in Johannesburg, Cape Town and other parts of South Africa are no exception. Kwaito Hits is a compilation of dance numbers done by South Africans targeting the “hip” urban set. Sometimes the songs are virtually indistinguishable from the beats produced in Kingston, Brixton or Brooklyn. This is both a good and a bad thing. At its best, the cross-pollination of Black music genres makes for a dynamic cultural exchange among African people scattered all over the globe. This is when you nod as you appreciate the creativity of weaving a dance-hall or an R&B feel around South African realities as is the case with Abashante’s contribution on the second track. On the other hand, when things go haywire, as in the embarrassing we-wanna-sound -like-Naughty By Nature disaster titled “Summetym” by the artist unfortunately known as Bongo Maffin, then you know that it can degenerate to pure, commercial bubble gum drivel. “Kwaito Hits” is a novelty CD that has a few gems stashed away in an otherwise jumble of trite garbage.
LADYSMITH BLACK MAMBAZO
The Best of-Vol.2
For over twenty years, Ladysmith Black Mambazo has been the leading exponent of Black South African harmony singing known as mbube. Yes, they were famous before Paul Simon “discovered” them. Thanks to the exposure of the Graceland Tour, there are today the most well known African music group in North America and Western Europe. As often happens with megastars, there are endless marketing possibilities to toy with as the group in question takes a rest or works on new material. A familiar gimmick is the worn out technique of issuing a”greatest hits” album to keep the fans happy. But what happens when you have been there and done that? What happens when you have issued the “ Best of Ladysmith Black Mambazo”. Well you go back in the marketplace and do it again with the “Best of Vol.2". Well if I sound cynical and critical it is because that is how I feel. Phew. Having got that off my chest, let me also point out that these Best Of CDs are good things, especially if like me, you have never owned a single Ladysmith song before. Then you can get a powerful introduction to one of the best accapella groups in the world and still manage to have the privilege of recommending the same to readers of your monthly column in WORD magazine!
It was almost as if I was there on the 4th of April 1998 when this double cd was recording live in the Portuguese city of Oporto. Madredeus is an Iberian chanteuse who could make Celine Dion sound like a second rate cabaret artiste putting drunkards to sleep. And you know how talented the Quebec song bird is. This recording is packed with eighteen unforgettable songs. Never mind that there are in a South European language that I can not speak, read, write or understand. Such is the power of Madredeus who is able to use her unique voice to power her way to your heart and subconsciousness with ballads that judging from how they sound are by turns wistful, hopeful. OK. Let me come out as a Hopeless Romantic who is easily slain by love songs well rendered. For the lovelorn and those with relationships on the rocks let me tell you something: this CD may just end up saving your life...
Anoushkar Shankar is a teenage sitar master who started touring the world at 13. She has just come out with a first rate piece of work showcasing the classical music of India with her own contemporary improvisations. Oh, by the way. She happens to be the daughter of Ravi Shankar, probably the most famous “ world” musician in the world today. Her dad composed and helped to arrange the tunes and Anoushkar then brought it out as the tribute of a proud daughter on the occasion of Ravi’s 75th birthday. Even if you are not classically trained or from South Asia you should be able to grasp at Anoushkar’s prowess with the very first listen to this CD.
In the spirit of solidarity with International Women’s Day, this month’s (March 1999) column is dedicated entirely to covering women artistes.
Mami Wata and Mari Jo
Mumbi Jonson is a multi-talented Toronto based African Canadian artist. Singer, pianist, painter, former model, writer, Mumbi is also the co-ordinator of the Association of Art and Books for Children. Her latest project, “Mami Wata and Mari Jo” is a modern mythological tale about a child’s journey underwater with an African mermaid. Children are taken to another world as they travel through space and time to immerse themselves in Yoruba mermaid mythology. The story is available in a CD recording featuring the voice of veteran Canadian actor Alison Sealy Smith. This story is accompanied by a beautiful original 6'x9' story quilt assembled over three days by eleven young female artists. The quilt is currently on display at the Children’s Own Museum. Judging from brilliant and intricate story telling, I can say without hesitation that Mumbi Jonson is a woman who is definitely destined for greater things. To find out how you can get your hands on the CD please call (416) 703-8225.
Freedom and Dance
Verse to Vinyl
Lillian Allen was the very first musician I was introduced to when I arrived in this country as a political exile over ten years ago. It took only one listen to her work for me to rush out, that very afternoon to the Third World Books and Crafts and grab her Juno award LPs, Revolutionary Tea Party and Conditions Critical. I bought a pair for myself and shipped off the other to an African American comrade in the Bronx. I have been hooked to a conscious dub poetry ever since. “Freedom and Dance” is vintage Lillian Allen: progressive lyrics; bitter-sweet ruminations about relationships; observations( delivered with humour and respect) about Rastas and the justice system and collaborations with other talented artists like Djanet Sears, Shafiq, Terry Lewis, Mojah and Lillian’s own daughter Anta who I first met as the title of a song in one of the albums I mentioned earlier. Freedom and Dance belongs in a library of Progressive Canadian Poetry as much as it does on the play list of any self-respecting DJ.
There is a whole world out there beyond the late Selena. I am talking about female musicians from Mexico. Tinder Records has assembled and interesting array of performers from the land that gave us Lhasa. Thirteen to be exact. Susana Zabaleta. Margie Bermejo. Liliana Felipe.Eugenia Leon. Astrid Hadad. Jeanette Macari. Carmen Lenero. Jaramar. Cita y sus munecas rotas. Betsy Pecanins. Naieli Nesme. Lila Downs. Nidia. “Mexican Divas” is a powerful introduction to the range of music produced in Mexico from Bolero and Danzon to Rock and Blues. And even a whiff of Hip Hop.....
Almost two decades ago, Cesaria Evora was captivated by one of her young compatriots silky delivery of the morna and other tunes from Cape Verde. Today Fantcha (she goes by that name only, at least professionally) is a star burning bright in her own right. From her working class roots in West Africa to her current sojourn in New York City, Fantcha has maintained a strong connection to her roots and organic links with the Cape Verdian community. “Criolinha” is a testament to Fantcha’s patriotism above everything else. In ‘ Mi e dode na bo Cabo Verde( literally,” I am crazy about Cape Verde”) Fantcha sings about how Cape Verdians feel when they leave their homeland and describes their love for the morna, coladeiria and the traditional music of the islands. “Fidjos de adao e eva “ is an anthem about the future of Cape Verde that focuses on the plight of poor children who need to get another chance because they represent the future. The seriousness of Fantcha’s message is augmented by the sheer beauty of her music and the seductive aura that we have come to associate with Cape Verdians ranging from Tito Paris, Ildo Lobo to the doyenne herself, the one and only “Barefoot Diva”. Enough said.
Links to other columns written for the Word Magazine: