Virunga Volcano CD Review
by Douglas Paterson
The following article (with corrections) appears in World Music: 100 Essential CDs by Simon Broughton. London: Penguin Books, 2000.To the Samba Mapangala Homepage
To the Samba Mapangala Homepage
In the late nineteen seventies and early eighties, Nairobi offered a range of opportunities that brought musicians from throughout Eastern and Central Africa and made it one of the most diverse and exciting musical environments in Africa. This was the setting in 1977 when Samba Mapangala first rolled into Nairobi with his group Les Kinois. The Congolese-born musician had spent the previous year performing at a club in Kampala Uganda and, in the year prior to that, travelled extensively performing throughout Eastern Zaire. The beginnings of the famous Virunga sound were already evident in the late 70s recordings of Les Kinois. Unfortunately, the combination of Kenyan visa problems and an ill-fated engagement in Kampala (in which soldiers wounded members of the band) led to the breakup of the group in 1980. Samba wanted to return to Kinshasa (Congo) to recruit new band members but needed travel money. To get some cash, he made a deal with Nairobi's Polygram studio to record four songs for an album. At the time, he didn't have a performing band but he rounded up some of his musician friends, recorded the songs, and called his non-existent group Orchestre Virunga - named after the range of volcanic mountains in Eastern Congo.
The four songs recorded in 1981 were released as an LP entitled Malako and this Virunga Volcano CD combines them with two additional songs recorded in 1983 by the performing Orchestre Virunga. Far from representing any particular Congolese or East African style, this CD is important precisely because it is like no other recording of the time. It incorporates common elements of Congolese and East African music in a way that makes it completely unique. The sound is lean but with complex, interlocking guitar lines; rapid-fire percussive, rhythmic bass; light, fast-paced percussion; with a sax duo providing solos and embellishment. What is different about Samba and the Virunga sound was the quality of the product. Samba's voice has tremendous range, power, and perfect intonation and he uses all of these attributes in each of the songs.
The opening song, Malako, sets the tone for the CD. Samba introduces it with a slow but powerful vocal solo. Then it quickly breaks into an uptempo dance beat with streaks of pulsing bass and a luscious rhythm and solo guitar intertwining. Over the remaining 8 minutes or so, we're taken on a slowly evolving journey through verses in Lingala language in which Samba explains his mother's last dying wish that he should take care of his younger brothers after she is gone. We pass through solo verses contrasted with three part harmonies, followed by delicate guitar solos, sweet sax duets with rhythmic bass streaming from low to high registers. Malako and all the songs on the CD build in intensity from beginning to end, continually changing, always bringing us something fresh and different from what preceded it. The song Ahmet Sabit opens with a smooth and flowing sax duet over a choppy, syncopated rhythm. Two minutes later, we're listening to a light fluffy guitar interlude that suddenly breaks into a brilliant, flowing, high-energy guitar solo that you'll be playing in your mind for days to come.
Further listening: For those curious about the different styles of East African music, Guitar Paradise of East Africa (Earthworks/Stern's) is a delightful collection of 1980s materials that covers them all with some great guitar music, plus the classic Congolese East African hit by Orchestra Super Mazembe, Shauri Yako.
Excerpted from World Music: 100 Essential CDs ©Simon Broughton. Entry 57 (pages 113-114): "Samba Mapanagala and Orchestre Virunga / Virunga Volcano" written by Douglas B. Paterson.
To contact Douglas Paterson, send email to DPaterson@EastAfricanMusic.com.
Last updated 7 September, 2011.