Bringing' it all back home

Zamrock originator Rikki Ililonga should be on your playlist

Dark Sunrise. John Clewley

Recent compilations on popular music genres in Africa have revealed an astonishing range of local styles across the continent. Popular music from West Africa, South Africa and Central Africa featured in the first compilations, along with North Africa. Then producers focused on individual countries and guitar-based styles, so we enjoyed terrific compilations from Kenya and Madagascar, and even Benin.

And slowly but surely producers are going further and further to explore little-known musical cultures in countries that only a few vinyl collectors know. Zambia, the landlocked country in southern Central Africa, suffered the same fate as Upper Volta, a land-locked West African country with a terrific musical culture that was only revealed to international audiences when a compilation of its popular music was released.

SWP Records, from Holland, released two compilations of Zambian hits from the 1960s, 70s and 80s in 2004, and apart from an Original Records release of northern Zambian guitar music from the 1980s, which I have in my collection, that's it when it comes to Zambian music. Vinyl is very hard to find in Zambia as the original pressings in the country were done in very small numbers.

Many African countries developed potent popular music during independence (from the 1950s to 1970s) when hopes were high and music production boomed. Zambia gained independence in 1964 and the first indigenous rock album to be released was Introduction by Zambia's most famous pop band, WITCH, and while that was the first released in Zambia, Rikki Ililonga's band Musi-O-Tunya released Wings Of Africa in Kenya in 1973, but it was not released in Zambia until 1975.

Zambian music pioneer Ililonga is little known outside of his native country, where he remains a big star. Ililonga is a key player as he was right there at the birth of "Zamrock" in the early 1970s in Zambia, crafting an astonishing range of songs, sung in English (the constitutional language of Zambia) and local languages like Silozi, Chinyanja and Ichibemba, which Ililonga speaks fluently. His song Zambia is in English and several Zambian languages.

The details of his fascinating career and especially his early days at the birth of Zamrock are detailed in the extensive liner notes written by compiler/producer Eothen "Egon" Alapatt for a 2010, 2-CD release on the Los Angeles-based Now-Again records, Dark Sunrise By Rikki Ililonga & Musi-O-Tunya - The Birth Of Zamrock As Told Through The Music Of Its Pioneer: 1973-1976.

Ililonga learned his chops on the guitar from a homemade guitar (known as a banjo in Zambia) and learned to play in the "Northern" style, where guitarists performed in mining areas; interestingly, this style morphed into the hugely popular "kalindula" style which competes with reggae, hip-hop and R&B. Ililonga reveals in an interview in the liner notes that he listened to a wide range of Western styles from blues to funk and soul to Bob Dylan and even Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground. This explains his virtuosity on the guitar and also the wide range of song styles showcased on the compilation. He says he was lucky to see artists like James Brown, Taj Mahal and Manu Dibango perform in Zambia, all of whom were influential in his musical development. Afrobeat and Congolese music were also key influences.

The first CD contains some of his best music, in my view, particularly the Wings Of Africa album tracks; from the moody Dark Sunrise (you have to read the liner notes for the tragedy behind this song) to the "fuzzy" guitar pyrotechnics on Mpondolo and on to the call and response of the garage band-like Jekete Yamankowa, the songs bubble along, often brilliantly accompanied by hot brass (another James Brown influence said Ililonga) and some distinctive singing.

The second CD contains his 1975 masterpiece Zambia, with its layered recording created by some of the first multi-tracking in the country; some of his moving ballads like Sheebeen Queen and Sansa Kuwa show his excellent singing chops as well. Ililonga said that when he returns to perform in Zambia, it is these ballads which locals want to hear -- he escaped the HIV disaster of the 1980s in Zambia by relocating first to London and then Denmark where he resides and continues to record and perform.

This story of an African music star is inspirational, for as Ililonga explains there has been tragedy too; his loss of many of the original Musi-O-Tunya members was particularly hard to bear as was the decline of the bustling music industry in Zambia the 1990s (sadly, a trend right across West, Central and South Africa).

Ililonga's music fits in perfectly with Afrobeat and Afrofunk from Nigeria and Ghana and if you like the psychedelic rock of Nigeria and Ghana then his wild fuzzy guitar riffs will not disappoint you. He brought more African percussion to his sound (than say WITCH), and sometimes you hear South African style gospel harmonies (Christian music is big in Zambia) floating over the musical backdrop. You can also hear sad ballads that are more "indie" than Afrobeat or Afrofunk. Fascinating stuff, well worth checking out. More information from nowagainrecords.com.


John Clewley can be contacted at clewley.john@gmail.com.

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