Various Artists: The World Is Shaking: Cubanismo from the Congo, 1954-55
Honest Jon's is doing something unusual here, taking us back to the early days of the style, opening a window into the years before the Greats came along.
The word Cubanismo in the subtitle seems to promise certain things: salsa, maybe; Cuban percussion, the click of claves, a man shouting "Sabor!" and a chorus of other men responding. Sharpness, above all, a rotating melody, and quick spits of noise. Well, the clave click is here, but it doesn't always have the same prominence that gives traditional Cuban music some of its precision. The clicking in Adikwa Depala's "Matete Paris" has a patient, almost hesitant, sound, as if the musician is secretly wondering if he's doing the right thing. In Andre Denis' "Cherie N'Aluli Yo" he's buried under a pile of guitars and a crowd of singers. He fights his way to the top in Depala's "Moni Moni Non Dey", persists thinly through Laurent Lomande's "Maboka Marie", and spends Jean Mpia's "Tika Koseka" battling with kazoos. The kazoos criss-cross through the song while men hum buzzily in the background -- it's like listening to a rumba sung by bees.
The music on this album was recorded several years before the Congo became independent of its twin colonisers, France and Belgium. Belgium had the larger piece of land, the area that is known today as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The ex-French Republic of the Congo, child-sized in comparison, sits off to the northwest. A large river, also named the Congo, runs between the capitals of the two countries. This conurbation swelled in population during the colonial years, thanks in part to new railways that connected it to the Congolese countryside. Businesses and factories were established there. Workers want entertainment, so the number of musicians grew along with everything else.
Independence came in 1960, and with that the Cuban-Congolese rumba style that had been germinating among those musicians became more polished, more explosive, and more popular, spreading across half of Africa. The '60s and '70s saw the rise of the great Congolese rumba bands, and the most celebrated Latin American-Congolese musicians, Franco and Sam Mangwana at the forefront. Most Western compilations that cover this kind of music tend to start in the '60s or mid-'50s, at the earliest. The Rough Guide to Franco begins in 1956 with "Merengue", and when you compare this to other tracks on the album that were recorded in 1972 and 1985, it sounds fairly basic and rough. So Honest Jon's is doing something unusual here, taking us back to the earlier days of the style, opening a window into the years before the Greats came along, a time when the people of this Central African colony were still listening to the their Cuban records and going to shows held by touring Cuban bands, figuring out how these foreign musicians did it and how they could reshape it into something that was theirs.
This led them to things like the kazoos, a real what-the-hell moment the first time I heard it. The guitar in some of the songs, "Cherie N'Aluli Yo" for one, borrows from a West African style known as palm wine, a collection of ingredients brought to the coast there by sailors. Palm wine introduces a un-Cuban labyrinth of stringy jangle to the basic Cuban sound. The lyrics are sung in what the publicity sheet I've got here identifies as "Congolese languages", so I'm going to guess this means mainly Lingala, Kikongo, and Swahili. These languages sound softer, blurrier, higher than Spanish, and there's a fuzziness to the choruses that sets this music apart from the demanding call-and-response of Cuba, although that might also be due to the age of the recordings. When Depala, backed by a squeaky violin, addresses the woman he loves on "Yoka Ngal", he comes across seeming plaintive, a Congolese Stuart Murdoch. Lomande has a violin too, and he and it together create a kind of drawling chant that pushes against the clave.
The songs on The World is Shaking have been dug by Honest Jon's from the EMI archives, a building described by the UK journalist Alexis Petridis as "an apparently endless steel vault" stocked with old 78s recorded by EMI agents in different parts of the world. The album is part of a series that, so far, includes music from the Middle East, African music recorded in 1920s Britain, and Marvellous Boy, the music of West Africans inspired by calypso. Marvellous Boy and The World is Shaking come from the same decade, and the same goes for this album as went for that one: the music is vintage, not perfect, but valuable, a contribution to the history of musical recordings that might easily have been lost forever in an "endless steel vault" of crumbling records.