East African Music - African Radio

Samba Mapangala and Virunga

  by Douglas B. Paterson

Congolese vocalist and band leader Samba Mapangala has been a dominant figure in East African music since the mid-1970s. Arriving in Kampala, Uganda with his group, Les Kinois in 1975, they eventually made their way to Nairobi in 1977. The beginnings of the famous Virunga sound were already evident in their recordings prior to the breakup of Les Kinois in 1980. Shortly after that, Samba recorded the now famous Malako recordings in Nairobi with his newly formed Orchestra Virunga. The Malako LP (now titled Virunga Volcano) was one of the pioneering releases of the newly emerging world music scene in Europe in the mid-1980s and an instant favorite. The style was typical of other East African groups of the time: a lean sound with complex, interlocking guitar lines; rapid-fire bass; light, fast-paced percussion; with horn or sax overlays. What was different about Samba and Virunga was the quality of the product. The songs began with Samba's catchy melodic lines and evolved over a nine or ten minute period through beautiful vocal harmonies and brilliant guitar and horn soloing. Samba's voice, even today, is unique among African vocalists for its pleasing quality and versatility. For World Music editor Simon Broughton, Virunga Volcano is among the 100 Essential (World Music) CDs.

Virunga's East African roots are, no doubt, one of the primary factors that set them apart from other Congolese bands. At the same time, it is perhaps because of their East African base that they haven't really had a chance to develop on the world music scene. In the eighties, the band was hampered by work permit problems (that forced Samba to move to Kampala in 1985), Nairobi's deteriorating but expensive recording facilities, and Kenya's shrinking live music market that makes it difficult to keep a large band together. Sadly, in 1993, Samba gave up on the local night club scene and disbanded the group. Virunga as a concept continues. In 1995, Samba created a new Virunga release in Paris under the auspices of Senegalese producer Ibrahim Sylla. That CD, Karibu Kenya, features some of the top names in Parisian soukous: Diblo Dibala, Pablo Lubadika, Komba Bellow, Wuta Mayi, Bibi Den's Tshibayi, and Syran Mbenza. In the summers of 1996 and 1997 Samba toured the USA and UK backed by members of the Nairobi based group Bora Bora and other friends. The 1997 tour also featured the late John Ngereza of Les Wanyika as well as the late Fadhili William of Malaika fame.  Out of the 1997 tour came the Vunja Mifupa CD.

Samba's Ujumbe (A Message) from 2001 was recorded in Paris with some of the great Congolese session musicians based in Europe. Virunga Roots Volume 1, is a collection of recordings made in the late 80s in Nairobi and Paris. Previously, most of these songs were only available in limited distribution on cassette (the Vunja Mifupa and Paris-Nairobi cassettes listed below). Song and Dance (2006) is the latest studio offering, a solid performance with blending the East African and Parisian sounds-- superb guitar, beautiful sax, and as always the sweet voice of Samba Mapangala. The 2008 release of African Classics: Samba Mapangala & Virunga is a collection of Samba's work over a 25 year period, some of his fans' favorite tracks along with three tracks never before released on CD.

These days, Samba resides in the United States but he has a superb touring band that performs with him as he returns to East Africa, and tours Europe and the USA. His performance at the 2007 WOMAD Festival in the UK can be heard online. He was selected by the Kenyan Embassy in Washington to perform at the Pan African Inaugural party for President Obama. Noting the occasion, Marco Werman talked with Samba for the Global Hit segment of the radio news program, The World.

In February, 2009, Samba and Virunga performed at the Sauti za Busara music festival in Zanzibar and did a series of concerts in Kenya. In a follow-up recording session in Nairobi, Samba put together a tribute to the Zanzibar festival in his song "Zanzibar", which is featured on the 2011 release, Maisha Ni Matamu.

Partial Discography:
(If you know of other recordings that should be included, let me know.)

It's Disco Time with Samba Mapangala 1982 (ASLP 927)
Mabiala 1983 (ASLP )
Malako 1984 (Earthworks/Rough Trade) [The UK release of Disco Time]
Safari 1988 (Kenyan cassette)

Vunja Mifupa 1989 (CBS Kenya IVA 40 071, cassette)
Virunga Volcano 1990 (Earthworks, CD) [Malako + two songs]
Paris-Nairobi 1990 (European cassette)
Feet On Fire 1991(Stern's Africa STCD 1036, CD)
Karibu Kenya 1995 (Sun Music, CD)
Vunja Mifupa 1997 (Lusam 01, CD)
Ujumbe 2001 (Stern's / Earthworks STEW43CD)
Virunga Roots Volume 1 2004 (Samba Mapangala)
Song and Dance 2006 (Virunga Records VR002, CD)
African Classics 2008 (Sheer Sound SLCD 149)
Live On Tour 2009 (download only, CDBaby.com)

Maisha Ni Matamu 2011 [Life Is Sweet] (Virunga Records, CD)

Listen to Samples / Purchase CDs and MP3 Downloads

East African Music - African Radio

To contact Douglas Paterson, send email to DPaterson@EastAfricanMusic.com.

Last updated 7 September, 2011.

Copyright 1996-2011 Douglas B. Paterson, All Rights Reserved.