Reviews July 9, 2015

Here’s a rare and special find out of southern Africa. Brian Chilala is a veteran of Zambian pop, including showings in the 1980s Zam-rock era, forays into the local skiffle genre known as kalindula, and time with one of the country’s top roots-pop acts, Amayenge. Since 1997, Chilala has led his own band, Ngoma Zasu, meaning “our drums.” These 10 tracks have a delightfully retro sound, featuring ripping fast 12/8 grooves with restless percussion, stinging electric guitar licks, and rich vocal harmonies. It’s a far cry from the slick r&b and hip-hop variants that have dominated the airwaves in Zambia and most of Africa in recent years. Nice to know groups like this still exist!

Chilala is an engaging singer who can veer toward the crooning of Congolese pop or the boisterous growl of more rural African dance styles like Zimbabwean sungura. The effect is more folksy than urbane, but winning for its spirit and charm. Often he’s answered by a full chorus of voices, echoing this region’s soaring, at times churchy, choral traditions. Chilala’s lyrics are known for their barbed critiques of bad behavior, both personal and official. “Nimwe Tulolela” (You Are the Awaited One) hits hard with the choral sound, telegraphing gospel music over a vaguely Congolese groove. But the song is a prayer to Jesus to return and castigate the country’s corrupt politicians and pastors. Chilala raps in the manner of a preacher midway through, his voice conveying playful sarcasm that needs no translation.

“Cheuka” (Look Back) is a hook-laden reggae/rumba fusion, featuring the woozy organ sound popularized by South African reggae legend Lucky Dube, and still more choral vocals. The song urges Zambians not to forget their roots. And that message comes across song after song here as we move through a series of lashing 12/8 dance genres: kalindula, chimutali, imfunkutu from the Northern Province, and, fastest of all, two tracks drawing on the the nyau dance of secret societies in the Eastern Province. The first nyau track, “Duka” (Cut Off) features particularly sweet guitar work. The second, “Jombo” (Boot), skews the rhythm in a pleasingly off-kilter way, almost stumbling ahead in its giddy enthusiasm. The lyrics tell of a girl who admires too much the fine boots of her friend’s husband. Message: Material things corrupt. More morality! But when it goes down with this much fun-loving rhythm and pumping, melodious vocals, one wants to heed the advice.

This release comes from the SWP label, which made its mark by releasing over 20 volumes from Hugh Tracey’s priceless archive of African field recordings. Since then, SWP has paid special attention to Zambia, where label founder Michael Baird spent a portion of his youth. Kudus to Baird and his team for bringing us such lovely music that might easily have been ignored.

SWP Records, 2015

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