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Samba Mapangala and I first took up residence in Kenya at about the same time in the late 1970s. But at that time I was still a novice to African music and didn't know anything about him or his music in Les Kinois. It took me several years of continuous listing to the National Service of the Voice of Kenya (and occasionally the vernacular services) before I gained an appreciation of what was out there musically. By the time I returned home to the USA in the fall of 1980, I was devotOriginal Kenya release of Malakoed fan of Kenyan and Tanzanian music. But it wasn't until London's Earthworks label put out Samba's Malako LP in 1984 that I was finally introduced to his music. As I have written elsewhere, I think this album is one of the finest recordings of African music ever made (and I make the point again in the CD notes for African Classics below).

By the time I next returned to Kenya in 1985, Samba was gone; forced to leave because, as a Zairean, he was denied a work permit necessary to perform in Kenya. I was very excited when in 1986, Samba was able to return to Kenya and perform at Nairobi's Garden Square nightclub. I was a frequent visitor there and came to know Samba not only as one of his fans but as a friend.

Below, I include the CD notes I wrote for African Classics: Samba Mapangala & Virunga. It provides a little of the history of the Virunga sound. I also had the pleasure of restoring the audio for three of the tracks (Fonseka, Sister Ali, and Mabiala) never before on CD as well as mastering the disc (i.e., getting all the tracks ready for CD replication).

African Classics: Samba Mapangala
& Virunga (Sheer SLCD149) 2008 (buy from Amazon.com)

It has been more than 25 years since Samba Mapangala burst onto the international scene with his renowned album Malako. The now-classic recordings made in Nairobi in 1981 immediately captured the East African audience and started a love affair with his music that continues up to today. Along the way, Samba has added fans from throughout the world with seven international releases.

Those special Malako recordings, two of which are included in this compilation ("Malako" and "Yembele"), marked the birth of Orchestra Virunga. Up to this point, the group was a concept; an idea that Virunga leader Samba Mapangala had been carrying around in his head but had yet to put into place as a real, performing group. In the work of Samba's previous group, Les Kinois, you can hear the beginnings of what was to become the Virunga sound in their recordings from the late '70s. But in 1981, when Malako was recorded, Samba was between groups. His intention was to make a record in order to earn a little money to go back to Kinshasa and recruit musicians for a new band. For his studio session, he assembled a group of friends and acquaintances including a number of musicians from Bana Ngenge, a Congolese band based in Nairobi. The record that emerged from the process was nothing short of stunning: The Virunga sound was born. It was an immediate sensation in East Africa and prompted Samba to abandon plans for the Kinshasa recruiting trip. Instead, he assembled a group in Nairobi that included some of the session musicians and others from the local scene. After a couple months' practice, they made their debut at Nairobi's Starlight Club in November 1981.

So just what is the Virunga sound? The early years were rooted in Nairobi's rich musical environment of the late 1970s and early '80s. This landscape included three competing, yet cross-pollinating, genres of African music: (1) the guitar-rich, pulsing beat of benga, a family of local Kenyan styles; (2) Kenyan and Tanzanian rumba (sparse, clean guitar with horns and saxes); and (3) resident Congolese rumba bands with their tight vocals and long sebenes (the instrumental climax). Samba Mapangala's Virunga was influenced by this environment but, it is his talents as lead vocalist, songwriter, arranger and bandleader that really set his music apart from other Nairobi groups or Congolese groups in general. Samba is a master of melodic compositions that evolve and expand over the course of a song. We hear delicate interlocking guitar lines transform into thrilling guitar solos, taking turns with trumpets and saxophones, but all held together by the dazzling voice of Samba Mapangala leading multipart harmonies. This collection spans about 20 years and, as you can readily hear, the Virunga sound has grown, experimented, and developed over time. But throughout this period, the music is distinctly "Virunga" and his clear, versatile, engaging voice continues to thrill fans all over the world. - Doug Paterson

CD notes written and © 2008 by Douglas B. Paterson contained in African Classics: Samba Mapangala & Virunga (Sheer SLCD 149).

East African Music - African Radio

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

Last updated 30 December, 2008.

Copyright 1996-2008 Douglas B. Paterson, All Rights Reserved.