Today’s album dates from the ’80s when WOMAD
, a.k.a. World Of Music Arts And Dance, was coming into its own as a force for good in the cultural discourse of those years. Having established its identity as a multi-culti music festival, WOMAD began issuing albums. The earliest of these documented the festival itself (cf. Music & Rhythm
). Later releases were continent-spanning anthologies
with copious notes, maps and photographs spread across large format booklets tucked within the gatefold sleeves so beloved of vinyl enthusiasts.
Finally, the label issued albums devoted to individual artists
who had performed at WOMAD. Nalilia Mwana
was one such lp, first appearing in 1988. It is my favorite among the label’s single artist releases. Here’s some biographical data about Remmy Ongala
, from the sleeve notes:
Known as the ‘Doctor,’ Remmy Ongala is based in Dar Es Salaam with his band Orchestre Super Matimila. In Tanzania Remmy’s popularity amongst the people, particularly the young, is unrivalled – only the president is better known. His reputation as a singer, writer and performer precedes him even in the remotest parts of the Tanzanian bush. originally from Kindu in north-eastern Zaïre, Remmy performed in bands from the age of sixteen, following in the steps of his father, a popular local musician. His rich voice is backed by fluid East African guitar melodies. the influence of Zaïrean soukous is ever-present in the steady drive of the music, but hints of Latin, Caribbean and even soul give the music a broad, open and unique quality.
It is difficult to obtain recorded music from East Africa. Making a record can be thwarted with problems – there are virtually no recording studios. this LP ws recorded on the simplest two-track facilities which accounts for the inferior quality. It is even difficult to obtain musical instruments and when Orchestra Matimila were formed in the mid ’70s they took their name from the local businessman who bought the instruments.
The album’s sound quality isn’t bad at all, really, though the bass player could shine more brightly. His performance on “Arusi Ya Mwanza,” which pairs stunning economy with a consummately erotic vibe, is the motor driving the track. The same recording of this song turned up on the Earthworks compilation Legends Of East Africa bearing the alternate title “Mume Wangu,” credited to Orchestra Makassy. The latter group comprised Ugandan and Zaïrean musicians, one of these being Remmy Ongala, the nephew of the band’s founder. Makassy was based out of Dar Es Salaam for a while, which precipitated Remmy’s move to Tanzania. He remained there in the wake of Orchestra Makassy’s subsequent migration to Kenya. The provenance of “Arusi Ya Mwanza” is all a bit mysterious and life may indeed be too short for splitting hairs about such matters. Suffice to say, the WOMAD version of the song sounds of a piece with the balance of Nalilia Mwana, its audio quality superior to the Earthworks disc.
Remmy issued more albums through the two decades that followed Nalila Mwana
‘s release. One other, Sema
, appeared on WOMAD’s label. Two others, Songs For The Poor Man
, appeared on Peter Gabriel’s Real World
imprint, which inherited WOMAD’s artist roster (including Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
) and marketing push. Predictably, the Real World releases were guided by English producers and sound as slick as Afro-Sheen
on the comb. These records possess superior audio quality, yet contain little of Nalilia Mwana
‘s visceral impact. The record you will hear today plays as rumba rock scored for a small group. It feels Latin, but with none of the hysteria that colors so much salsa. Remmy’s voice is a hefty instrument, one that Super Matimila is entirely capable of supporting. He sings about the big issues: poverty, dislocation, life and death, shame and redemption. None of which may matter to you, but you can dance to all of it.
left the planet in December of 2010 at the age of 63 after a decade characterized by compromised health, Ongala having suffered a stroke in 2001. His final years as a performer were devoted to gospel music. His transition from secular repertoire was marked by the singer cutting off his signature dreadlocks. One could view this as a curious turn of events for a guy who gave every indication of being a first-rate hedonist, but I’ve heard of stranger things happening. Remmy’s mom, who liked her boy’s locks, had died sometime before, so I guess the tonsorial adjustment was only a matter of time. Regardless of his ‘do, be it sainted or sinful, this much is obvious: Remmy Ongala played, as noted by the NY Times in their obit
, “with a groove and a conscience.” Good enough for me.