One of the principal appeals of Damon Albarn’s Honest Jons record label is its ability to deliver a history lesson without talking down to you, to introduce the listener to a whole new style or area of music and leave them wanting more.
Such has been the case with music from Nigeria, Mali and the Caribbean, and now the label returns to the EMI archives to put together a collection of the music coming out of Congo in 1954 and 1955, and, more specifically still, the rumba.
Gary Stewart’s excellent accompanying notes tell you all you need to know about the music and its background, detailing the political changes and social climates that helped to shape the extraordinary sounds in store on the album. What’s very curious, for ears largely shaped by Western classical and pop music, is the level of influences, rhythmic in particular, that can be heard in the music of seemingly ultra-white bands such as Vampire Weekend or Foals.
Where to start? It seems almost churlish to pick out highlights from the 21 tracks on offer, but Adikwa Depala‘s contributions are continually illuminating, and the way the violin closely shadows the vocals in Akei Cimetierre is profoundly affecting. C.C.T. Ebongisi Mokiri, a song about the Congolese Tobacco Company, is a curious piece of music too, a vibrant, congested set of crossrhythms forming the back drop to references about the company’s exports.
The sense of community found on songs such as Andre Denis‘ Cherie N’ Aluli Yo is uplifting, and is a theme running through the collection. So, too, is the extraordinary range of percussion instruments on display, none more so than the fluid interplay of Boniface Koufoudila‘s Ntango N’ Abali.
Stewart, in his writing, explains also how sounds from Europe and the West came to influence the Congolese, and in particular the music of Louis Armstrong and Tito Rossi. The song he chooses to illustrate these references is Depala’s Moni, Moni Non Dey, the intricate play of the stringed instruments complementing the yearning vocal.
You’ll have gathered from this that another Honest Jons-sponsored voyage of discovery awaits. So if your head has been turned by the label’s other visits back to the 1950s, and in particular the London Is The Place For Me calypso series, you’ll find much of interest and fascination here. And the more you play it, the more the fascination grows.