Rikki Ililonga & Musa-O-Tunya: Dark Sunrise

Rikki Ililonga & Musi-O-Tunya
Dark Sunrise

It should be clear, from the large amount of global crate-sourced compilations that have been emerging over recent years, that anything Europe and America were throwing up in the way of psych beat and funk in the 1960s and ’70s was being replicated — and in some cases anticipated — in most of the industrial or industrializing countries of the world. African countries have proved as rich a resource for the new vinyl archaeology as they have for the continuing roots-based world music market, but, as with world music, the well (or mine or ocean or treasure trove or whatever your preferred metaphor) is very far from being exhausted. Indeed, unlike natural resources whose exploitation ultimately leads to irreversible depletion, cultural resources such as music seem infinitely recyclable, endlessly renewable. If there is exhaustion here, it is only that of the cultural capitalist who has been there, seen and heard that, collected everything. Even then, there’s always something more.

It’s no surprise, then, to find the explanations and contextualizations surrounding the recently mined Zamrock scene (that’s rock from Zambia, mainly from the 1970s) making much of the difficulty of obtaining the music produced by acts such as WITCH, Paul Ngozi, Amanaz, and Rikki Ililonga & Musi-O-Tunya. As Now-Again’s Eothen Alapatt explains in the liner notes to his compilation of Ililonga’s work, Zambian records from this period were never pressed in large numbers, being a luxury item in a country devastated by poverty and those that did survive were often in poor condition. Zambia was never a destination of choice for cultural tourists in the way that, say, Nigeria was, nor did it have an obviously international star of the stature of Fela Kuti.

There is some confusion about whether the Wings of Africa by Ililonga’s band Musi-O-Tunya was the first indigenous pop album released in Zambia or whether that accolade should go to WITCH’s Introduction (reissued recently). In an interview with Alapatt, Ililonga says that, while his album was recorded and released in Kenya in 1973, its appearance in Zambia in 1975 actually followed that of Introduction, making WITCH “the first”. This detail becomes unimportant, however, when the works are compared now, for Ililonga’s work is so clearly more convincing in its assertion of what Zamrock meant and why we should be interested in it.

From the opening percussion of “Tsegulani”, a late Musi-O-Tunya single that is placed at the beginning of the Dark Sunrise comp, it is obvious that we are in the presence of a very different kind of music to the Anglo-American models imitated by WITCH. The drums, for a start, are African, and, when they are very quickly joined by juicy bass guitar and horn stabs, the mood is more Afrobeat than James Brown, and psychedelic rock doesn’t even come into the occasion — not yet, at least. The deal is sealed by Ndara “Derreck” Mbao’s fantastic vocals, which eschew WITCH’s English for a mixture of local speech and chanting that, again, seems straight out of the Fela camp. Only then, after two and a half minutes of Afrogroove, is the track swamped with distorted electric guitar (courtesy of Paul Ngozi on his one recording with the band prior to a solo career), rising from the choir to Funkadelicize the congregation.

After this stellar opening, we are treated to six tracks from Wings of Africa, which have Ililonga present on lead guitar and occasional lead vocals. Standouts include “Mpondolo” (which proceeds from an opening on kalimba to full-force guitar fuzz, wah-wah, and whatever Ililonga feels like throwing at the instrument), “Dark Sunrise” (a track as somber and brooding as its title and inspired by a harrowing tale told by Ililonga in the interview included in the liner notes), and “One Reply”, which makes excellent use of western drum kit. Despite English language lyrics on many of the tracks and the use of American and Anglo models (Ililonga lists a rich variety of influences, from Buddy Guy and Tak Mahal to Bolan, Bowie, and the Velvet Underground), Wings of Africa retains a distinctive Zambian flavor, a curious mixture perhaps best epitomized by the use of the (English language) Zambian national anthem at the start of the title track.

The most WITCH-like (and also the most Velvets-like) track is the wonderfully muffled and scuzzy “Jekete Yamankowa”, originally released over two sides of a single and kicking off a run of singles that make up the rest of the first disc on the set. But even here, the call-and-response style relocates the garage riffs to Zambia by way of Kenya. The equally muffled “Chalo Chawana” suggests Ililonga had been listening to Deep Purple, with its cheeky “Black Night” guitar line. It’s great and, true to Zamrock style, transcends its possible inspiration as effectively as Purple transcended theirs (Ricky Nelson’s remarkable version of “Summertime”).

The second disc of Dark Sunrise consists of material from Ililonga’s first two solo albums. The first of these, 1975’s Zambia, is pretty much a solo affair, Ililonga making use of multitracking (a Zambian first, apparently) and layering lead and backing vocals, guitars, bass, and drums over each other. He does an excellent job of bringing all these elements together, aided at times by two trumpet players. Wailing electric guitar features heavily, but Ililonga’s vocals are often a key attraction, as on the infectious “Sansa Kuwa” and on “Sheebeen Queen”, where he switches to acoustic guitar for a track that suggests a joining of Lou Reed, Van Morrison, and Bob Marley. Another acoustic number, “Stop Dreaming Mr. D”, adds harmonica, resulting in a haunting blues-soul feel.

Ililonga doesn’t thrill all the time and for the same reasons that WITCH don’t: an over-reliance (evident on “The Queen Blues”) on sticking to template that doesn’t allow his individuality to shine. Even some cosmic guitaring can’t lift “Love Is The Way” (from second solo album Sunshine Love”) above the pedestrian. Ililonga seems to be aiming for a more “international” sound on this album, and sometimes it works. When it does — as on “Working On The Wrong Thing”, with its weird deep guitar interfering like a coded message from a passing spaceship — it’s fascinating. Overall, though, these shorter tracks lack the excitement of the Musi-O-Tunya numbers and make a less persuasive case for Zamrock ‘s individuality. They also suggesting that Ililonga — brilliant musician though he is — works better amidst more collaborators.

The packaging of the discs, as usual with Now-Again, is excellent, with extensive notes and the aforementioned interview. Alapatt has done his subject proud here and made the most convincing case yet for the vibrancy of the Zamrock scene.

RATING 8 / 10

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