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Rikki Ililonga & Musi-O-Tunya - Dark Sunrise

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Artist: Rikki Ililonga & Musi-O-Tunya

Album: Dark Sunrise

Label: Now-Again

Review date: Feb. 10, 2011

Singer-guitarist Rikki Ililonga may have lived in Denmark for 30 years, but he’s also an originator and ongoing steward of Zamrock. In the early 1970s, Zambia enjoyed, if that’s the right word, a set of circumstances finely tuned to instigate a rock and roll subculture. The landlocked central African country had been independent of English rule for about a decade, long enough for the first president to become the first dictator and to pick an economy-throttling fight with major trading partner Rhodesia … but not long enough for the white, English commercial class to pack up and leave. Since they had the money, the foreign-born folk exerted inordinate influence over what records made it into the shops and what got played on the radio. Take a legacy of hope, confront it with impending economic collapse, mix in an influx of international pop sounds in a newly emergent urban metropolis with strongly rooted rural cultural practices, cut off easy transit in and out of the country, then let it all simmer in the hot tropical sun — the result was a small circle of interrelated, mutually supportive psychedelic combos that included Witch, Amanaz, and Ililonga’s Musi-O-Tunya.

Collectively they displayed a penchant for fuzz guitar and heavy beats inspired by Cream and Hendrix, but there are also differences. At least on record, Witch and Amanaz could have been from anywhere where the guitars were loud and the tape decks cheap; Musi-O-Tunya’s singles and one album sound very much like music of Africa. The band’s burning guitar freakouts often took off from a foundation of skipping beats that could have originated in neighboring Congo or further west in Nigeria and Ghana, and even though English is Zambia’s official language, they sang a lot in Benba, Chinyanja, and Silozi. They also used an indigenous name; Musi-O-Tunya is the pre-British name of Victoria Falls and translates as “The Smoke That Thunders,” which isn’t a bad name for a band that aspires toward heaviness. Musi-O-Tunya’s earliest recordings date from a sojourn in Kenya in 1973, and while the drum-chant-whistle workout “Ng’ombe Shala” on one of its early singles displays the band’s roots, the flip side “Mpulala” shows that rock ‘n’ roll was part of the equation from the beginning. The crisp guitar sounds fresh out of the garage, the drumming and the song’s structure owe a lot to Mersey Beat, and the guitar and bass duel in the middle sounds like some kids trying to realize their favorite Yardbirds jam and not quite succeeding.

The recording quality on Wings Of Africa, Musi-O-Tunya’s sole album and the source of most of Dark Sunrise’s first CD, is a huge leap ahead of the one-take murk of the singles, and the music keeps pace. “The Sun” is lithe and lively; Canadian Kenny Chernoff’s soprano saxophone and Ililonga’s tart guitar fills snake in and out of the massed vocals and dynamic percussion. It’d sound just right next to your favorite tracks on the Nigeria Special and Ghana Soundz compilations. But it’s the tunes where Ililonga pushes his rock influences to the front that mark Musi-O-Tunya as a band apart. “Dark Sunrise” totally rocks, with a towering backbeat and big, fat guitar leads that’d bring a tear of jealousy to a nascent pedal-hopper’s eyes. The riff of “One Reply” sounds stunningly similar to Lou Reed’s “Charley’s Girl”; since it was recorded in 1974, two years before Reed debuted his tune on Coney Island Baby, one wonders if he could possibly have heard Musi-O-Tunya’s song first? Probably not, but in any case, the Zambians kick more ass than Lou did in his “playing football for the coach” phase, especially when Ililonga’s guitar tries to muscle to the front of the mix.

Is there any scenario more typical of ’70s rock than the talented guy saying “I don’t need these jerks” and going it alone? That’s just what Ililonga did in 1975, the year he recorded the first of the two LPs that make up Dark Sunrise’s second CD. The set comes packaged in a swanky hardcover book, and most of its pages are given over to Ililonga’s very specific remembrances of Zamrock’s circumstances and personalities. According to his telling, the rest of the band didn’t want to keep learning new songs, so he ditched them; certainly his solo LPs are powered by a hunger to play in a myriad of ways that Musi-O-Tunya did not. “Hot Fingers” is a shameless and aptly named bit of guitar flash; “Stop Dreaming Mr. D” memorializes his old band to the accompaniment of an acoustic guitar and harmonica that could have been played by Richie Havens; “The Nature Of Man” could be early Traffic mixed with a little Buffalo Springfield; “The Hole” is brazenly explicit get-it-on funk; and “Working On The Wrong Thing,” with its sparse groove and rude synth, would fit right in on that Shuggie Otis record. Whether the songs muse on the travails of Zambian urban life or Ililonga’s love life, they articulate a first person singer-songwriter stance that foregrounds the “I” (as opposed to the voice that represents or describes the community) in a way rarely heard beforehand in African pop.

Ililonga’s willingness and inclination to operate as a man apart has served him well. He left Zambia in 1980, around the time that the economy completely tanked but before AIDS wiped out his generation (to this day, 10 percent of the population is infected). He’s sustained his music career around Europe, and also facilitated the dissemination of Witch and Amanaz’s music in recent years alongside his own. One of Dark Sunrise’s chief pleasures is reading his reminiscences about his old mates and the scene they briefly inhabited.

By Bill Meyer

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