Voltarol - related music

Saturday, 12 July 2008

Mama Africa part 2

When the brief British fad for 'Afro-Rock' was started in the early seventies I eagerly awaited the first record release from a group called Osibisa, who were being raved about in the pages of Melody Maker and such like music papers. I must admit that I was somewhat underwhelmed by Osibisa at the time, although with hindsight (which is always 20/20) I can see that they were quite important in that they did open the door to a wider audience for non American black music. Here is an example of them at their best, playing Gong Gong Song from around 1971. I much preferred Assagai, the band formed by Pukwana, Feza and Moholo from The Blue Notes with fellow South Africans Bizo Muggikana and Fred Coker. Here they play Hey Jude accompanied rather incongruously by a video of some elderly folk walking in Richmond Park) and make this Beatles classic very much their own. The other two clips are well worth checking out as well - Beka and Cocoa. All three tracks are from their eponymous 1971 album on the Vertigo label.

In the meantime another South African performer had emerged in the mid sixties. This was Miriam Makeba, whose Click Song gained her an international following (and introduced the world to the Xhosa language). The performance here is from a Dutch TV broadcast from 1979. Once again the African / Brazilian connection shows up as Ms Makeba employed the great Sivuca (see Accordion Crimes) as her musical director for a while. He was the arranger of her next big hit, Pata Pata and in this clip taken from a sixties TV broadcast in São Paulo, Sivuca is seen playing acoustic guitar. She was also married to trumpeter Hugh Masekela for a while and I believe, was instrumental (if you'll pardon the unintended pun) in raising his international profile. He had a world wide hit with Grazin' in the Grass in 1968.

By the time that Paul Simon released his Graceland album in 1986, African music had become an established part what of was now known as 'World Music', with artists such as The Bhundu Boys, Fela Kuti, Ali Farka Touré, Manu Dibango and Salif Keita becoming well established all over the world. Simon's - at the time, controversial - album helped refocus attention on the South African music scene, giving a boost to Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela (although they did not appear on the album but did play some concerts with him) and launching the international career of Ladyship Black Mambazo. Here's Paul Simon and Miriam Makeba performing Under African Skies and Simon with Ladyship Black Mambazo performing Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes in Zimbabwe in 1987.

In the early eighties I was lucky enough to meet and play with a Nigerian musician who went by the name of Silver Ada and was in fact Squadron Leader Sylvester Ada of the Nigerian Air Force. He was on secondment to The Band of the Royal Air Force Central College, where he was learning how to lead a military band. He himself was one of the most popular Highlife musicians in Nigeria and had been selected for the job of leader of the Nigerian Air Force Band because the bigwigs wanted cheap musicians for their parties - at least, that's what he told me. He was a reasonable saxophonist, a good conga player and a passable guitarist, but his feel was absolutely tremendous and I learned an awful lot about playing African grooves from him, which later stood me in good stead when I started playing Brazilian music in earnest.

When not in his uniform (which, to my great amusement had 'NAF' inscribed on every brass button) he would parade around town in a slightly dated cream suit, accompanied by a different laughing girl every time I saw him. It was this uninhibited and joyful womanising that finally drew the RAF's attention to him and I later learned that he had been sent home in disgrace. I've never heard from or of him since and can find no trace of him via the Internet, but if you're out there Silver and you happen to be reading this - please get in touch. The six months or so that we played together have served me well and I thank you for that.

In recent years it has slowly dawned on me that, in fact, African music has had an immense influence on the rest of the world. The slave trade was an appalling thing but it nevertheless ultimately gave us blues, which gave us jazz. Rock and Roll couldn't have happened without it, anymore than rock, soul, R and B etc. Wherever African music interfaced with European music it span off a new form. The influence of predominantly Northern European classical music and Protestant church music helped shape the emergent black music of America, which in turn influenced the popular music composers of the day. The same thing was happening in South America in Brazil, which had an even larger slave population than North America. Here the African interface was mainly with music of the Iberian Peninsular (which in turn had been influenced by the Moors when it was part of their empire - hence Flamenco and Fado with their characteristic quarter tones) and with Catholic church music.

Brazilian music has many parallels with North American music - Choro (see Anarchy in the UKe) and Ragtime for example. It was the black influence on polite Portuguese Parlor music that gave us Choro just as Ragtime was emerging in a similar way in the U.S.A. Ragtime was a principal ingredient in the mix that became 'jazz', which in turn was heard by Choro musicians, notably the great Pixinguiha, who incorporated elements of New Orleans jazz back into Choro (he had met up with black North American jazz musicians in Paris whilst touring Europe) and even called his group 'Pixinguinha and his Jazz band' for a while. Later, in the fifties when Bossa Nova first emerged, it too was influenced by cool school and West coast jazz, and in turn fed back into the North American jazz and popular music scene - but I'll try and untangle this one in a later posting!

My most recent African music 'find' has been the extraordinarily gifted Cameroonian musician, Richard Bona, who in many ways pulls quite a few of these threads together. His roots are firmly in his own culture and yet he is one of the most ferociously talented electric bass players in the world - up there with Jaco Pastorius - for musicality as well as for technique. His ability to enhance other people's music with his contributions is second to none. He has worked with everyone from Pat Metheny to Lenine and from Bobby McFerrin to Janis Ian. He sings like an angel, plays great guitar, percussion and balafon as well as writing some beautiful songs. If you haven't already heard him then I earnestly recommend that you check out some of his work. Just to whet your appetite, here is a clip of a bass solo from a live gig sometime before 2006 and here's his website - Bonatology. Oh, and here's a repeat of the clip of him performing with French accordianist Marc Berthoumieux that appears in the Accordion crimes posting. Incidentally, he's appearing with his band at The Barbican on Sunday 16th November. Here's a link if you want to book tickets (needless to say, I've got mine!). http://www.barbican.org.uk/music/event-detail.asp?ID=7784

Just to round these two postings off, I took the title from this song by the
Brazilian singer / songwriter, Chico Cesar. It certainly puts the Africa - Brazil connection in focus. So - here's Mama Africa.