It's been an amazing year for reissues of hitherto-lost '70s music from Africa. I can't remember a time in this decade when I’ve been so excited by the quality of music being reissued. The last time I recall such an intoxicating year was 1998, and that was based largely on one album: Buda Musique's Ethiopiques Vol. 4: Ethio Jazz & Musique Instrumentale, the landmark anthology of vibraphonist, composer and arranger Mulatu Astatke's two LPs. (He'd issued them on Addis Ababa's Amha Records in the late '60s and early '70s.)
This year, we’ve received not only an Astatke anthology that fills in the small cracks left by Buda's watertight album, but also other trawls through well-known West African musical hotbeds (Soundway Records' thorough Ghana Special) and tiny nations such as Benin, whose musical heroes might never have been heard by Western ears were it not for labels like Soundway and newcomer Analog Africa, which issued not one but two anthologies of Benin's best this year.
For all the lip service paid to the resurgence of vinyl, it's still an arcane format for most people, so those interested in the most faithful reproductions of African albums will likely have to invest in a turntable. Germany's Shadoks and New York's Academy LPs reissue their African albums on vinyl only, at least until the demand is high enough to warrant a move from the fringe to the middle. Best Buy will never stock these records, and that's kind of the reissuer's point. These records shouldn't be farther from your grasp than a quick Google search.
Egon's Favorite African Funk Reissues Of 2009
Kyenkyen Bi Adi Mawu
Kyenkyen Bi Adi Mawu
from Various: Ghana Special
by Alhaji K. Frimpong
From art director Lewis Heriz's exquisite packaging (this anthology is packaged as a hardcover book with a CD included on each side of the dust jacket) to compiler Miles Cleret's extensive notes and near-perfect sonic reproduction, Soundway Records once again proves why they, above all other European companies interested in exposing their African record collections to the world, are the best in the game at the moment. Cleret foregoes the tired, yet still commonplace, egotist’s approach to his notes and tracklist. He shines a light on everything from gems such as the late K. Frimpong’s well-known "Kyen Kyen Bi Adi Mawu" (finally available to all in stereo!) to unknown and obscure bands such as The Barbecues, whose 1972 45 on Ghana's Polydor subsidiary stands as my favorite rediscovery of 2009.
Though Strut issued what might be the definitive document of this Nigerian psychedelic-funk ensemble's '70s work at the turn of the decade, there were too many magic moments on BLO's first two albums to fit on one 74-minute CD. It's taken some years, but now any fan of African music -- perhaps one who caught BLO's Berkley Jones and Laolu Akins jamming with the former Cream drummer in the recently reissued Ginger Baker in Africa DVD -- can hear mind-melting tunes like "Time to Face the Sun" on this completist's dream.
from New York, Addis, London: The Story of Ethio Jazz 1965-1975
by Mulatu Astatke
Compiler Miles Cleret wonders if this album might be someone's introduction to the now-ubiquitous Mulatu Astatke, and what a wonderful experience hearing that first, intoxicating song will be to that lucky soul. One of Ethiopia's unsung music revolutionaries -- bestowed legendary status first by hip-hop "beat diggers" and now by anyone familiar with Jim Jarmusch -- Astatke deserves his crown not only as the "Father of Ethio-Jazz" (a phrase he coined), but also as a composer and arranger of the highest order. Many songs on this anthology have seen reissued on Ethiopiques and a recently issued Mulatu of Ethiopia bootleg. But songs such as Ethiopian teen idol Muluken Melessee's "Wubit," previously only available to those willing to shell out $1,000+ for a copy of the Eritrean-pressed Axium 45 issue from 1975, can revel in the moody glory of Ethiopia's funky golden age.
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New York, Addis, London: The Story of Ethio Jazz 1965-1975
New York, Addis, London: The Story of Ethio Jazz 1965-1975
Currently, this album is only available as a limited-edition vinyl reissue, but Shadoks will release Africa on CD in 2010 -- and with good reason. The "Zam-Rock" scene that hit Zambia in the early 1970s after then-president Kenneth Kuanda mandated that Zambia's main radio station focus 95 percent of its airtime on Zambian musical acts is just beginning to give up its ghosts. And just in time: Many of Zambia's rock godfathers have passed away; only two original Amanaz members, vocalist Keith Kabwe and fuzz guitarist Issac Mpofu, survive. The tale of somber, plodding numbers such as "Khala, My Friend" wait with them.
We Intend To Cause Havoc. What an incredible name for Zambia's best-known psych-rockers. WITCH issued no fewer than five albums and three 45s in a 10-year span. The ensemble's last surviving member, Jagari Chanda, still hawks privately pressed CD compilations, which he titles Remembered, on Lusaka’s streets. Shadoks reissued the band's first album -- posited by many to be the first commercially released "Zam Rock" album -- this year; a CD will see release next year. This is transcendent music, as familiar to Western ears as it is to those still living in the Copper Belt who remember WITCH's devastating live performances.
The East Nigerian high-school rockers in Ofege hit it big in 1973, when they hooked up with Lagos-based super-producer Odion Iruoje and session guitarist Berkely Jones of BLO and cut their first and -- in my opinion -- best album. Try and Love saw issue in Nigeria and Ghana and offered takes on The Velvet Underground and Fela Kuti (by way of Jimi Hendrix, thanks to Jones' fuzz guitar). The inaugural album issued by Academy LPs, Try and Love is also on CD and includes an interview with Iruoje that shines some light on this inspired young group's breakthrough.
Spain's Vampi-Soul picked the perfect album with which to enter into the African-funk reissue game. Big-band leader Victor Olaiya's 14-minute funk/highlife medley of James Brown's "There Was a Time/Cold Sweat" sounds like a modern-day DJ mash-up of Brown's Live at the Apollo performance and, well, one of Olaiya's highlife numbers. Elsewhere on the album, Olaiya's version of "Mother Popcorn" offers another excellent take on the JB sound. His female vocalist also makes a glorious mess of Marva Whitney's "Things Got to Get Better."
I recently wrote about the Godfather of Benin Funk, the maestro El Rego and his band The Commandos. This anthology -- the third from Germany's Analog-Africa to delve into the recording scene of the small West African countries of Benin and Togo -- is my favorite to date, perhaps because they've included El Rego's rollicking "Djobime" within.
In the interest of full disclosure, I worked with Comb & Razor blogger Uchenna Ikonne to license this album to Shadoks for reissue. But I have to give a shout-out to one of my favorite late entries into the Nigerian psych-funk scene. Originally released in 1977, and a precursor to later disco/boogie albums, Float is a weeded workout as reliant on fuzz guitars as it is on synthesizers -- a difficult-to-pin-down and buoyantly optimistic masterpiece.
Another Academy LPs reissue, taken from an album originally issued around the same time as the Tirogo album, highlighted above. I wrote about this album in a post about my West African finds at last year's WFUM Record Fair. Had I known Academy would reissue this expressive take on late-'70s Nigerian funk, I probably wouldn't have shelled out $300 for a copy! Ikonne's detailed liner notes -- which shed light not only on the band's rise and fall, but also on the fall of the Nigerian recording industry in general -- make this purchase worthwhile.
Egon is the general manager of the Stones Throw label. He also founded Now-Again Records, which reissues American funk and soul albums, and the Soul-Cal imprint with Peanut Butter Wolf. He DJs funk and psychedelia sets at venues all around the world.