Now for something completely different

Congolese-born Belgian rapper Baloji spreads his wings

African musicians often complain that they face negative reactions when they create modern styles of music. It's fine if they stick with dance music or traditional acoustic sets, but when they want to do something different, people outside Africa seem to dismiss their efforts.

European Broadcast Union’s January 2013 Top 10 Chart

1. DIABLOS DEL RITMO - Various Artists (Colombia)
2. GROUND OF ITS OWN - Sam Lee (UK)
3. ALMA DE CANTAORA - Amparo Sanchez (Spain)
4. Y’ANBESSAW TEZETA - Getatchew Mekuria & The Ex & Friends (Ethiopia)
5. PIZZICA INDIAVOLATA - Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino (Italy)
6. THE GRIOT’S CRAFT - Sekouba Bambino (Guinea)
7. DESESPERANZA - Meridian Brothers (Colombia)
8. ADUNA - Malick Pathe Sow & Sissoko (Belgium/Senegal)
9. MABRUK - Aziza Brahim & Gulili Mankoo (Western Sahara)
10. LA CANTIGA DEL FUEGO - Ana Alcaide (Spain)

Congolese multi-instrumentalist and composer Ray Lema was one of the first to resist such stereotypical ideas with his unique blend of Western and African music in the 1980s and 1990s, but he never managed to reach a big audience. Senegal's Baaba Maal was more successful and compatriot Youssou N'Dour made something of a breakthrough when he composed the music for the World Cup hosted by France.

Now a new generation is coming through, ready and unafraid to create new, multi-layered music, often with rap and hip hop added to a bedrock of African beats. Congolese-born rapper Baloji, based in Belgium, is the latest pioneer to emerge. His album Kinshasa Succursale has been one of the finds of 2012; I mentioned it as one of the best-selling albums across Europe in my review of last year's best releases. After listening to the album a number of times, I think it is a groundbreaking work which deserves closer attention.

Baloji grew up in the French-speaking part of Belgium and was a rapper before he reconnected with his mother, and released a fascinating album of all these experiences, Hotel Impala, in 2008.

Following this, he made several trips back to his ancestral home in the Congo to immerse himself in the musical culture, recording and performing. He returned to Belgium and started to build an album of songs based around collaborations with legends like Zaiko Langa Langa and Konono No.1, who create trance music created on homemade instruments. The result is Kinshasa Succursale, an album which is packed with delightful surprises.

The album kicks off with a lilting soukous-style remake of one of Africa's most iconic songs _ Joseph Kabaselle's Independence Cha Cha, first recorded in 1960. Clearly, Baloji isn't afraid of covering a song everyone knows, but he does it in such a deft way and the rap that he introduces at the end of this track points the way to the rest of the album.

And the album really takes off with the third track, Karibu Ya Bintou, a compelling sound clash between the mesmerising trance merchants Konono No.1 and Baloji's rapid-attack vocals.

But there is so much more. The two-part song Nazongi Ndako features, and this is a real surprise, retro-funk singer Amp Fiddler on the first part and veteran Congolese outfit Zaiko Langa Langa on the second. Brooklyn-based Ghanaian rapper Blitz the Ambassador turns up on one track. But for me, the best surprise of all is the short, beautiful doo-wop/rap number, Kyniwa Kyniwa. Doo-wop, readers may remember, is the vocal quartet or barber-shop style of singing from the US popular in the 1950s and early 1960s, and Baloji begins with vocal harmonies before introducing his own rapping. I'd never have thought of mixing doo-wop, Congolese music and rap but Baloji does and he carries it off with aplomb. There are so many great songs on this album; I could spend hours just figuring out what he has put into his multi-layered music, but really the best way to enjoy Baloji's wonderful album is to just go with the flow. The success of Baloji's second album indicates that people are more accepting of modern experimental African music and, in particular, his sound-collage approach to creating music. Highly recommended. Thanks to all those who joined the packed Isan Dancehall 13 party at Opposite last Friday. It was a special night for Zudrangma Radio DJs Maft Sai, Masa, Chris Wise and myself.

It was so much fun to spin some of the tunes I have featured in this column and on my radio show.

The latest one is out today at www.zudrangmarecords.com/radio.


This column can be contacted at: clewley.john@gmail.com

About the author

columnist
Writer: John Clewley
Position: Reporter