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V/A - The World is Shaking: Cubanismo from the Congo 1954-55

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Artist: V/A

Album: The World is Shaking: Cubanismo from the Congo 1954-55

Label: Honest Jon's

Review date: Jun. 9, 2009

By the mid-point of the 20th century, the mighty Congo River had brought an influx of people from all over west and central Africa to the twin port cities of Leopoldville and Brazzaville. Leaving village life behind for the new promise of industrial wealth and the cultural ferment of life in a fast-growing metropolis, citizens and travelers in this time and place created and witnessed the birth of one of the world’s great popular musics: the Congo Rumba, which went on to dominate African pop for decades.

This collection, culled from the – apparently staggering – riches of the British EMI Hayes Archive, gives more than a glimpse of a mostly pre-electric – but decidedly high energy – party music. As befits a culture of flux and ferment, the variety of styles that twine together on these tracks from 1954-1955 is dizzying and exhilarating. Traditional rhythms and songs from the huge African interior meet the finger-picked palm wine guitars and re-imagined Cuban son, brought in by West African sailors and dock workers plying their ancient trade in the river ports. Songs are sung in a patch-work of languages, as if to reach out and engage any and all listeners passing by the musicians’ home, bar or street corner. Cheap acoustic guitars are plucked hard, with rhythmic finesse and a massive tone that makes one imagine fingers of iron on strings. Solo singers might echo the muted tone of a Cuban septeto singer, while choral voices make a sweet and poignant blend that is part church, part rural village.

There are also tastes of the wonderful likembe or thumb piano (Jene Mpia ‘s “Klim”), and fine examples of guitar picking (Rene Mbu’s “Boma Limbala”) that cycles and shimmers in spirited imitation of the likembe itself. These things bring proof of a remarkable continuity of tradition that has survived the tortured history of the region and its people; evidence of sounds and approaches that lived on into the soukous era and are still going strong in the new-roots music of bands like Konono No. 1 and Kasai Allstars.

As much fun as sorting out these roots and branches might be for armchair travelers through musicological time and geography, there is something else equally exciting going on here: the welcome unearthing of music so undeniably strong in life and energy that it simply needs to be heard again.

By Kevin Macneil Brown

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