papa noelIt’s 82° F, the sun is hot with that crisp, polarized light you see only in California and the Mediterranean. It’s breezy, the birds chirp, the jasmine is out, causing entire neighborhoods to reject their desert status and cradle everyone with a gentle scent instead of coating them with brake dust. Even though the city is always breathing under the burgeoning cloud of a devastating earthquake, and the traffic is enough to make the most patient monk let loose with godless obscenities, you won’t forget these kinds of early spring days. It’s the kind of day where it seems one’s only goal should be cocktails with good friends, and taking the shortest possible path of least resistance to get to that point.

Hopefully, this music will assist. I’ve posted other easy-going Congolese rumbas in the past, however, some of my favorite discs from this period are actually from a bit later, from the late 1950s-early 1960s, featuring the Congolese cha-cha-cha. It’s driving, sharp rhythm hits home the fact that some of the most carefree and joyous Latin music of the 20th century came out of the two cities on the river in the Congos. Many of these tunes were sung in Spanish by the Congolese – sometimes broken or improvised Spanish, but Spanish nonetheless!

The Congolese version of the cha-cha-cha was born out of the continued influence of Cuban and Caribbean music on the popular musicians of the Congo. And by the late 1950s, that influence was pervasive across Sub-Saharan Africa. The popularity of the hundreds of Congolese rumbas issued on labels like Ngoma, Opika, and Loningisa was so strong that their distribution and influence spread across to Kenya, into West Africa, and to the nightclubs of France, with much success.

The Congolese cha-cha-cha apparently began in the studios of the short-lived but influential Esengo label. In late 1956-early 1957, the Greek-owned Esengo had purloined many of the area’s most popular stars from other labels, essentially creating stellar supergroups with a stock of talent that would become the mainstays of music in the Congo for decades: Joseph “Grand Kalle” Kabasele, Nico Kasanda (aka “Dr Nico” or simply “Nico”), Nedule “Papa Noël” Montswet on guitar, Tino Baroza, Jean Serge Essous, and Nino Malapet on saxophones, and Moniania ma Muluma, also known as “Roitelet” on bass. This group, with additions and subtractions, in various shapes and forms, became the famous Orchestre Rock-A-Mambo, contributing to or issuing about 250 records on Esengo over approximately 4 years.

The first cha-cha-cha in Congo came quickly – “Baila” written by Essous, and the 7th release on the Esengo label – and it was a major success. The Orchestre Rock-A-Mambo eventually disbanded, and in the meantime members had siphoned themselves across the river to Brazzaville to form the Orchestre Bantou Jazz, another crack outfit continuing the trend of electrified rumbas, merengues, and cha-cha-chas.

This track, “The Moon and the Sun” (certainly it should be “y el” as opposed to “yel” on the label – but I’ve kept the original spelling), was written and performed by guitarist Papa Noël accompanied by the Bantou group sometime in the early 1960s. Nothing is quite as enjoyable as their perfectly timed, overlapping electric guitars – Papa Noël wasn’t quite as adventurous as Nico as a guitarist, but he was refined and perfectly timed. Seeing this band in its prime must have been simply incredible.

This release of this tune was meant for the Kenyan market. ASL (Associated Sound Limited) was an independent label that distributed Congolese pop music in East Africa. Their South African pressings are particularly clean. ASL lasted well into the 70s, but at this point in their murky history, they were issuing (guitarist Nico would claim bootlegging) 78s of original material from the masters of other Congolese labels, such as CEFA and Surboum. Bootlegs or not, the sound quality, pressing quality, and musical quality of the material on this label is tremendous.

Papa Noël et l’Orchestre Bantou Jazz – La Luna Yel Sol

Label: ASL
Issue Number: ASL.603
Matrix Number: Fo 45/9739

It’s about that time to examine another unidentified disc from Africa. If the photo looks a little different, it’s because this disc is a “metal mother” – a one-sided 12″ disc with a positive image that was used to create what is known as a “stamper,” or the negative impression that created one side of a 78rpm disc that you would see in a gramophone store. It’s one step away from the master recording.

Like the previous entries, because of the matrix number stamped into the disc, I was able to determine the original label for whom this disc was pressed. And, this one is special – the J2172 number indicates clears as day that it’s an original recording for the independent Ngoma label, based in Kinshasa from the late 1940s to the early 60s, in the present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo (Belgian Congo when this disc was pressed).

While I’ve written about Ngoma and their musicians in previous entries, to me the history of recording in that part of the world remains a fascinating story. There was little to no recording made in what is now the two Congos, until after World War II – a full four decades after recording had begun in other parts of the continent (Egypt being the first recording market in Africa). For a lot of 78rpm and early music historians, that might seem strange – collectors and scholars are often looking for the “earliest example of” this, or “pre-war” that. But there was no “pre-war” anything in this region, save for perhaps some ethnographic recording. The fact remains that the recording industry, while very active on the continent, didn’t really get to much of Sub-Saharan Africa until after WWII. The hundreds of West African recordings made in the late 1920s for Zonophone remain the first serious foray into recording Sub-Saharan music. But, those were all done in London. From ca. 1930 on, things got more serious – the Germans and French began recording in earnest in West and East Africa, and South African recording began with the Gallo labels (Singer at first, then Gallotone). Yet, Gallo aside, the recording by the multinationals was quite spotty until after WWII, and by then, independent labels were cropping up in many major African cities.

Situated on the Congo River, and with navigable access to many parts of the Congo River Basin, Kinshasa was a natural spot for the humble beginnings of independent Congolese music  recording and production. Where the multinationals were absent, independent labels filled the void. Olympia from Belgium was the first, beginning ca. 1946. They hold the title for the first releases of Congolese, Latin-influenced popular music, and the first to issue records by Camille Feruzi and the great Wendo. The Ngoma label was next to appear – begun by two Greek brothers originally from Alexandria, Egypt, named Alexandros and Nicolas Jeronimidis. In a very short amount of time, a musical revolution took place. Ngoma’s releases of music by Feruzi, Leon Bukasa, and Henri Bowane (also Ngoma’s A&R man, so to speak), were huge sellers – and what was continuing to develop and formulate was the Latin-influenced rumba lingala. The story of rumba in Congo, it’s practitioners, it’s influences, and it’s effect on music throughout Africa has been studied by many others more learned than I. It simply flew off the shelves. In Kinshasa alone, by the late 50s, when the political situation during the rise to independence became difficult to say the least, the music scene was flourishing. There were so many 78 labels! Olympia, Ngoma, Loningisa, Opika (formerly Kina), Elengi, Lomeka and Kongo Bina (apparently affiliated with Olympia), Esengo, CEFA, African Jazz, Surboum…they were so popular that the European companies began to license the music on those independents!

But, what about the music that these labels recorded that was not rumba, not guitar music, and not pop? Hugh Tracey would make many recordings of local music in Congo in 1950, 1952, and beyond. But Ngoma, and to a lesser degree (it seems to me) Opika, appear to be the only Kinshasa-based labels that went beyond popular music to record music from other neighboring regions and cultures. The four main languages that Congolese popular music was performed in were Lingala, Kikongo, Swahili, and Luba dialects. Ngoma actually seemed to travel to record regional music in the Kele language, the Ngbandi language, and the Ngombe language among others. They also recorded local Cameroonian music in Bamiléké languages. They distributed their recordings in stores outside of Kinshasa, including Kisangani, Katanga province, Bukavu, and in Douala, Cameroon.

So, what is this track, exactly? Well, I don’t know. It’s a drum and vocal piece, and probably regional, that’s for sure. While I know there are Ngoma catalogs that exist, I doubt they list matrix numbers, so we probably couldn’t trace our J2172 number unless there’s someone out there who actually has the disc. Ngoma’s catalog numbers start at number 1. Judging by other Ngoma records that I have, I am guessing that it was released somewhere between 1020 and 1100 in their catalog….in the early 1950s, I’d say.

African Test Pressing, Number 3

Technical Notes
Matrix Number: J2172

Additionally: Dave Murray (of Haji Maji) has a fantastic new LP out on Parlortone, featuring his 78s of luk-thung music from Thailand. You can buy it here. Peter Doolan of Monrakplengthai wrote the liner notes, Michael Graves of Osiris Studios did the mastering and audio work, and I helped out a little bit, too. Be sure and check it out.

And in the scholarly department, the Centre for African Studies in Basel has digitized a considerable collection of Nigerian recordings originally issued on the Parlophone label in the early 1950s. There’s some wonderful music here and the original series is fairly obscure – you can listen and read transcripts here. Thanks to Zim for the heads-up.

We’ll be visiting Africa for a while – I hope it will be enjoyable!

This piece, in the Lingala language of the Congos, was recorded by Hugh Tracey (see the Kankalongo Alidor post for more background on Tracey). While I’m unsure exactly where in the region Tracey recorded this piece, or where Kamwema and his friends hailed from, we do know that Tracey recorded four songs and a couple of demos by the group ca.  January of 1952 (some sources say 1950, but I am not yet convinced). While both sides of this disc are in Lingala, Kamwema also apparently sang songs in Luba and Swahili.

Tracey knew and loved the acoustic guitar music played across Africa, and recorded a significant amount for Gallotone and Tracey’s sister label under Gallo’s wing, Trek. Fellow Congolese guitarist Jean Bosco Mwenda, for instance, recorded dozens of discs on Gallotone, as did the famous guitarist of Bulawayo, George Sibanda. The rate at which these discs turn up, however…well, that’s a familiar refrain.

Enjoy, and welcome to 2011. I am aiming high!

Jean Kamwema et ses amis – Cshala Paul

Technical Notes
Label: Gallotone
Issue Number: GB. 1731 T
Matrix Number: XYZ.7060 T

(The “T” stands for “Tracey,” of course!)

Felix Sunzu – Vejika

February 16, 2009

sunzu***Updated, February 26th***

A rare guitar piece from Congo, produced ca. 1950 or so. That’s today’s post, although I must admit it was something of a rescue effort. I’ve had this on my hard drive for many months, and have tried numerous transfers to get it right. I finally decided to let it loose – a hitherto unreleased and potentially unknown piece on an independent African label by a Congolese guitarist (and company), and that’s at least three reasons to get excited, in my opinion. Acoustic guitar music from Africa is worth all of the hype.

So, why was it a “rescue effort”? Well – conditions in Africa for independent labels weren’t exactly the easiest. No one is really to blame – sales in such an emerging market probably weren’t large enough to warrant money to be spent recording multiple takes, or re-pressing problem tracks. That said, I’ve found absolutely amazing records on a number of labels marred by tape speed issues, low-frequency hum, poor microphone placement, and bad pressings – sometimes all at once.  This record comes close. The recording quality is poor, the pressing is mediocre to poor, there seems to be some warbly tape issues (though the speed is constant), the record is warped, and the center hole is slightly off. Although I have other guitar records from Africa in my collection, it was precisely because of these issues that I thought it needed to be worked on and heard by an audience – plus, it’s a beautiful song.

After I first posted this track, late February 15th, I received an illuminating e-mail from Tony Klein in Sweden, who had a hunch that the song was not recorded and pressed at the correct speed. He had taken my mix and raised it two semitones. (Speed issues are common with 78s, and I’ve often adjusted the speed in the past.) After that, we heard from Vincent Kenis of Crammed Discs, who informed us about the speed issues on early Opika records (see the comments) and confirmed that the proper speed was indeed a minor third higher than the released record – THREE semitones. So, we have since adjusted the recording to its proper speed. With his permission, I’ve reproduced Tony’s comments below, as I think they are a great example of this site being a conduit for people interested in historical recordings, as well as an example of the many pitfalls and perils one encounters when transferring 78s.

What I reacted to on your disc was that, even before the voice came in, it felt like the music was running through thick syrup, that no one could play that way even if they wanted to, and then the vowel sounds sounded like slowed down tape. The thing with speed accuracy in music is that there are two particular acoustic absolutes:

1) Transients (i.e. the kick-in sounds, perhaps especially in plucked and struck instruments, and in plosive consonants and of course in extraneous plosive “noises”) and
2) Vowel and timbre formants – which are more or less independent of the pitch of the note sung or played. In the case of instruments, this will depend on the particular acoustic qualities of the musical instrument in question.

Any speed inaccuracy will create (more or less subtle) artefactual effects of the Donald Duck or Darth Vader type. Of course, in the ideal situation one would be familiar with the language, but I’ll take the risk in this case to assert my point.

Thanks to Tony and Vincent, we now have a more accurate version of this rare track. Meanwhile…

Opika was a tremendous label, which I’ve written about in the past. Starting in the late 1940s, the owners of Opika, the Greek brothers Benetar, began recording all manner of artists in east Léopoldville (Kinshasa). They were the first to sign Congolese legends Joseph Kabasele, Jhimmy, and Dr. Nico – and according to Gary Stewart’s Rumba on the River, Opika dominated music sales in the region until they ceased production ca. 1957 or so. They simply had a terrific roster of musicians. (Popular music is not all they recorded, however. In fact, Opika and their competitor label Ngoma recorded a substantial amount of raw, more “ethnographic” recordings as well – and virtually none of those recordings have made it to any present-day compilation, or perhaps have even been acknowledged.) I could find nothing on Felix Sunzu, unfortunately. The label states he was “Wahemba” which appears to be an out-of-date cultural name, and does not appear in the present day Ethnologue. Thanks to a reader (thanks Vincent!) we know that the Wahemba are located in North Katanga, close to Lake Tanganyika. Enjoy the music.

Felix Sunzu – Vejika

Technical Notes
Label: Opika
Issue Number: 423
Matrix Number: 1092

Back to the Congo and the incredible Ngoma label. In fact, this week we are returning to the same important Congolese artists who appeared in my June 7, 2007 post. However, this time they are accompanied by their band San Salvador, named by Manuel D’Oliveira after his birth place in Angola. This track, an outstanding example of Congolese pop from the early 1950s, features three guitars, a beautifully captured upright bass, some subtle percussion, and not a clarinet as the label states, but a phenomenal solo on the Solovox keyboard. This is a good one.

Ngoma, as mentioned in my previous post, was one of the first independent labels to start producing records out of Léopoldville (now Kinshasa), and was run by two Greek brothers: Nikos and Alexandros Jéronimidis. They recorded their first records in the late 1940s on acetates, which were then shipped to Belgium for duplication, and shipped back to Léopoldville for sale. However, Belgium proved too expensive for duplication because of import taxes, so the brothers eventually bought a tape machine for use in Congo, and a record pressing factory outside of Paris. By the late-50s, they had recorded some 2000 records, and had moved into the production of 45s. As far as I can tell, they were sold in Congo and Cameroon, with perhaps some distribution in West Africa and elsewhere (?). The original Ngoma master tapes were destroyed in a fire in 1963, and apparently the only complete collection of file copies of Ngoma releases was destroyed during internal strife in 1989.

Before you African music aficionados jump up, I will admit that I’m doing something a little different here. This track originally appeared on the now out-of-print CD, Ngoma, The Early Years, 1948-1960. Although a terrific CD in its own right (with great notes by Dr. Wolfgang Bender and others), many of the tracks on that CD, including this one, were culled from less-than-perfect sources (i.e.: often muffled tape copies of original vinyl EPs, as opposed to original 78rpm copies). This song is also IN print on a Buda Musique CD titled Musique Populaire Africaine. While my copy of this record is not stone perfect, I believe this mix is a marked improvement on both the existing CD versions (give ‘em a try, you’ll see) so if you are familiar with either of them, I think you will be happy.

Edouard, Oliveira, Freitas, and San Salvador – Cherie Bondowe

Technical Notes
Label: Ngoma
Issue Number: 1283
Matrix Number: J 2569

African acoustic guitar music is, for me, some of the more sublime music in the world. And certainly some of the greatest examples came from what was then the Belgian Congo, right around the mid-century mark.

Ngoma remains the most important Congolese record label, as well as one of the most important labels in all of Africa. It was started by two Greek brothers, Nico and Alexandros Jéronimidis, around 1948. Not only did they record well over a thousand discs, the first to capture all manner of Congolese musical styles (the rumba, cha-cha, and solo acoustic guitar picking of course), but they encouraged experimentation by their musicians. Ngoma records were pressed in France and distributed primarily in Central Africa – Congo and Cameroon especially – and as such are, well, impossible to find. Not only that, but all the Ngoma masters were long ago lost in a warehouse fire. As if that wasn’t enough, the company then donated all of its file copies to the Congolese government, only to have those destroyed during political strife.

Here’s a nice guitar duet by Georges Edouard and Manuel D’Oliveira, released sometime in the late 40s-early 50s.

Edouard & Oliveira – Ngai Abuyi

Absolutely worth searching out are two collections of Ngoma material, released on CD in the late 90s. The first contains all 78rpm material and is titled “Ngoma: The Early Years.” The second is mostly 45rpm Ngoma records, and is titled “Ngoma: Souvenir ya l’Independence.” I’m not sure if they’re even technically in print anymore, but they’re definitely worth digging up.

And the next two weeks are crazy for me – next post after the 18th.

I hope you enjoy this one.

Technical Notes
Label: Ngoma
Issue Number: 380
Matrix Number: J-764-2


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 272 other followers