African music before Graceland

I have included links to some of the music on You Tube.

Before Paul Simon’s Graceland LP, there were a number of musicians who you may have not heard of who also dabbled in African music. The three musicians, Stewart Copeland, Ray Lema and Hector Zazou, all have had very varied musical careers. Stewart Copeland is well known for his work with the late 1970s-1980s super group The Police then onto writing soundtracks (Rumblefish) and now writing symphonies. Ray Lema is lesser known, but he did achieve some type of stardom as a contributor to Copeland’s The Rhythmatist. Unless you are a Francophone, the brilliant work of Hector Zazou, a French musician/producer, is probably the least known of the three Chez Le Commandeur.

Bear in mind, that this music I will examine was before American folk/pop star Paul Simon discovered South African music for us a year later in 1986 with his Emmy award winning Graceland. Simon collaborated with South African superstars Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba and Ladysmith Black Mambazo as well as other musicians to back up his ‘western” style songs. Truth be told, I was already aware, as were many others, to South African music through the 1982 breakthrough LP Scatterlings by Jaluka which featured a mixed group of South Africans: Johnny Clegg and Zulu musicians Juluka-Scatterlings (1982) (Full Album).

Also, around this time, I visited with my younger brother (Harry) and his wife (Kate) in Toronto as they had just returned from two years (1981-82) as teacher trainers with Canadian University Services Overseas (CUSO) in Nigeria. They brought back music from Nigeria in the form of King Sunny Ade Synchro System and his African Beats King Sunny Ade: Synchro System and other music by Ebenezer Obey. The Synchro System LP is still one of my all-time favourite LP covers.

As a result, I was well into African music by then especially when the cassette The Rhythmatist (1985) the Rhythmatist came out by Stewart Copeland (the former drummer of The Police). Copeland had gone on a musical odyssey through Equatorial Africa from Brazzaville, through Zaire to Kenya. It was originally recorded as a documentary where he was in search of some musical African drum beats. He also had the participation of the accomplished Congolese musician/singer Ray Lema. Copeland’s cassette was the first time I had heard of Lema and I soon became acquainted with his music, and subsequently bought his Medicine CD (1984) Ray Lema-Peuple Yo.

Back to Copeland, armed with fancy tape recorders, he also recorded many traditional musicians and their music along the way of his musical journey. For example, the Mbuti Pygmies of the Congo, Masaai and Samburu dancers and singers from Kenya, plus the Giriama drummers and singers from Kenya’s Swahili Coast. Part of the documentary shows him taking the train down to Mombasa and later docking at Lamu and doing some recordings there and then being chased into the sand dunes near Shela.

From 1982-1984, I had travelled through the spine of Africa from Cape Town to Cairo–all overland and, I too, had recorded along the way. I had been influenced by Brian Eno’s Ambient Series and another British ethnomusicologist David Fanshawe who had travelled through Egypt, Sudan and Uganda to do field recordings for his record African Sanctus (1972) David Fanshawe-Crucifixus.  Naturally, I thought I would attempt to do the same ambient recordings on my 1982 world trip with a dodgy Sanyo recorder and later trips through Africa with Sony Walkman Pro tape recorders. Like Copeland did two years later, I also recorded Giriama dancers and drummers who performed their traditional dance routine next to the Malindi Youth Hostel. Also, I recorded various mosque calls from Lamu all the way through Sudan and Egypt up to Jerusalem’s Old City.

In the summer of 1985, I was working in Banff National Park when I first heard The Rhythmatist while I was staying at the Buffalo Camp bunkhouse in Banff. My next door neighbour was playing this on her cassette deck and I was curious who it was. Compared to Simon’s Graceland LP with his American lyrics; Copeland’s The Rhythmatist is truly an African album. I still like parts of Simon’s LP but only the South African stuff. That is probably because the South African music was written by Ray Phiri from his group Stimela. Both Phiri and Simon got into a huge dispute over Simon not giving Phiri the royalties from music he had written.

I too would become more familiar with Ray Lema when he also worked in collaboration with producer Hector Zazou on Reivax au Bongo (1986) Hector Zazou (1985)-reivax broie du noir. I truly love any of Zazou’s work–he is an unmatchable visionary in music and pit he died just a few years ago. I had to search all over to find this Reivax au Bongo CD in some upscale store on Queen Street West in 1990. Zazou took fifteen classical musicians and vocalists and mixed them with his own electronic sounds, traditional African instruments and three African singers: Kanda Bongo Man, Bony Bikaye and Ray Lema.

I first heard of Hector Zazou’s music on the University of Toronto’s CIUT Saturday programme called Global Rhythms. The dj, Ken Stower, had a penchant for Hector Zazou and played a number of his CDs. Zazou was the master of concept CDs and incorporating many gifted musicians in his concept whether it was the polyphonic Corsican choir music Les Nouvelles Polyphonies Course, or a tribute to the French poet Rimbaud in Blue Sahara with Cheb Khaled, David Sylvian, Gerald Depardieu… Hector Zazou-Lines or another music project about Northern Hemisphere female singers including Jane Siberry, Bjork, Suzanne Vega… Music from the Cold Seas. I have CDs of Blue Sahara and Music from the Cold Seas, but I still do not have a copy of Les Nouvelles Polyphonies Courses either.

I could never find The Rhythmatist in CD or the VCR that Copeland made of his African journey and only my erstwhile friend Mark Holmes has actually seen the VCR version. Some Italian guy had posted the documentary on You Tube in three segments, but I see that it has since been withdrawn–pity.

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