Felix Sunzu – Vejika

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

15 thoughts on “Felix Sunzu – Vejika

  1. Well, thanks to you and Tony both for the hard work you put in. This is a fantastic record. Low fidelity and all, there’s something immensely satisfying about the sonic character of the recording. It’s very intimate.

  2. The reason why some Opika records run at the wrong speed is that the cutting machine they had in Léopoldville was imported from USA and was supposed to run at 60 Hz AC. They had to send the masters to Belgium where they were transferred to another cutting machine. While doing that, someone had the idea to hire jazz musician Fud Candrickx to improvize on the saxophone. Later on, he traveled to Congo where he recorded many tracks – among others the famous song ‘Para Fifi’ by Joseph Kabasele, on which recording engineer and producer Gilbert Warnant can also be heard on the Solovox, a monophonic organ also featured on the Beatles’ ‘Baby You’re A Rich Man’.

  3. Thanks, Vincent, for filling in more detail. I know something like that was mentioned in Rumba on the River, but you filled in a lot of detail – thanks for checking in!

  4. I just realized I have a copy from the original acetate of that song. It runs about a semi-tone faster than your restored copy.

    The fluttering sound was also a characteristic of the Opika releases at that time. I believe that this it what people of that period referred to when mentioning Jhimmy’s “‘guitare qui tremble”.

  5. (long) PS
    I welcome heartily any information – catalogues, photos, and of course MP3s – about music recorded in Congo before 1960, especially on the Opika label, and for a good reason: Gilbert Warnant, talent scout and sound engineer for the label, was my uncle. I can’t resist telling you how I became aware of his existence.

    In November 1988 singer Ntesa Dalienst, formerly with OK Jazz, with whom I just toured in Kenya, calls me around midnight and asks me if I’m interested to play keyboards on OK Jazz’s last album. In the studio Ntesa introduces me to Franco – he’s already very sick, so slim I first don’t recognize him – and tells me I’d better be good because I’m the first white musician ever to play with OK Jazz. Franco smiles and says well, not exactly: it’s true that OK Jazz never hired any white musician but there was a Belgian guy called Gilbert Warnant playing the Solovox on the first single he recorded under his own name, ‘Bolingo na ngai na Béatrice’, in 1954. We proceed with the recordings, old-style: one pass for me to find something to do on the song and memorize it, one pass for recording. On one song called “Mon ennemi cherche à m’avoir”, while I’m doing my take Franco connects his guitar to the desk and records a thrilling guitar solo, his eyes locked to mine. The session ends at about 4 AM.

    Warnant was the name of one of my great grandmothers and a Robert Warnant cousin of my mother is still alive. I call him and ask him if he ever heard of a musician in the family called Gilbert. Well, yes, there was uncle Gigi who used to work as a speaker on Radio Congo Belge in the Fifties and played some piano. And how come I never heard of him ? “well”, replies Robert in an uneasy tone, “he had a bad reputation, he used to like too much to dance the chachacha with the natives, he was congolized, like we said back then”.

    Recording engineer and good friend Alan Ward told me later about Franco’s last attempts at recording: he came to the studio, sat with his guitar but was so exhausted he couldn’t play and soon had to call a taxi back home. He died a few months later, in October 1989. Thus the guitar solo he recorded on ‘Mon Ennemi” was his last recording, and he ended with me the stellar career he started 35 years earlier with that Gilbert Warnant whose existence he revealed to me.

    I learned later that Warnant not only played on Franco’s first Loningisa single but from 1950 to 1957 was a talent scout, producer and engineer for the rival record company Opika, and as such signed musicians such as Jhimmy de la Hawaiienne, Lucie Elenga, Mwamba Déchaud, Docteur Nico Kasanda and Joseph Kabasele. Opika wanting to spread its market, Gilbert was also sent in West Africa to play with what was to become African Jazz – as recalled by Déchaud – and also to record some local artists, among which Bobby Benson from Nigeria. The English speaking titles by Kabasele were also his idea.

    In 1996 while in Kinshasa I heard that after Opika had ceased its activities in 1957 Gilbert was enrolled as a producer and speaker by Radio Congo Belge for their “native” broadcasts, but kept close contact with African Jazz and occasionally helped them in their music writing. I learned learned that he walked around with a strange animal on his shoulder (was it an iguana?), that he was the only white man who was never agressed during the Jan.1959 riots who precipitated the independence in 1960, and that some attribute his untimely death in 1967 to the fact that he used to eat in the same plate as his dog Romulus. I met Pauline Lisanga who worked with him. We both went to the cimetery to look for his grave, which wasn’t easy because there was no name on it… Later, his colleague Antoine Kibonge told me that Gilbert was boycotted by my family not only because he was congolized but also because he was gay, and that in retaliation to that intolerance and racism he had specifically asked that his grave shouldn’t mention his family name… in 1972, five years after his death, his grave was covered with flowers by then minister of Information Dominique Sakombi. This is especially intriguing knowing that Sakombi was the one who orchestrated Mobutu’s “authenticité” campaign, which violently rejected all extraneous cultural influence, going as far as negating the Cuban inspiration, let alone Belgian, of Congolese music. Gilbert Warnant was an unsung but secretely revered hero of the rumba.

  6. A wonderful and amazing story, Vincent – thanks very much for your generosity here. We love Opika!

    For anyone who hasn’t figured it out, we have Vincent to thank for the amazing Congotronics releases, and the essential Roots of Rumba collection – on Crammed!

  7. In listening to the song Vejika – it definately has more of an Eastern Congo feel – more similar to the Katanganese feel of the great dry guitar artists – such as Ombiza Charles etc. The language and title also sound/seem like Swahili – although I could be wrong? So may we then presume that this disc was made for the East African/Eastern Congo Market?
    This is also something I have always suspected about those songs (referenced above) that African Jazz recorded in English. So it would seem more than apparent then that although the Opika label although based in Leopoldville (Western Congo), held quite mighty ambitions, including aspirations towards markets in Eastern Congo and outside Congo…
    I am also sure that these beautiful Katanganese songs had a huge impact in places such as Kenya, where as we know dry guitar thrived for many years. I hope my comments are helpful. Great discussion, thanks for your work, say hi to vincent – if you are in touch.

  8. Hi Vincent –

    Thanks a lot for your comments.

    Yes indeed, it is recorded in the Swahili language – absolutely correct. I can tell you that Opika certainly had aspirations beyond Congo, as they had a large portion of their catalog devoted to Cameroonian artists, in local Cameroon languages. I also have many Ngoma 78rpm recordings that are much more ethnographic in quality, in Congolese languages such as Lokele and Mongbandi, showing how they indeed went beyond recording popular music (though surely that must have been what sold the most (?).

    Thanks again for checking in!

  9. I’ve been coming here since the first few months I think, and after all this time, I ‘d just like to say an enormous thank you, that what you do and how it’s done, are gems of things. Keep on keeping on.

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