Back to the Source

From gospel music and jazz in the U.S. to rumba in Cuba, samba in Brazil, and myriad other styles scattered through the Americas, the influence of African traditions in the Western Hemisphere has been both geographically widespread and culturally dominant. Almost five centuries since the first slaves arrived, bringing with them a vast array of cultural traditions, musicians remain obsessed with unraveling and better understanding the many ties that link the traditions of Mother Africa and the New World.

In recent years, a fruitful new twist surfaced when astute observers began to document that, for many decades, the flow of cultural information between the Americas and Africa has been a busy two-way street. One example that’s well established in Afro-Cuban music lore was a highly publicized 1974 visit to Kinshasa, Zaire by the Fania All-Stars, where such famous salseros as percussionists Ray Barretto and Roberto Roena experimented with African drums. In true revolving door fashion, Cameroonian saxophonist Manu Dibango had performed the year before with the All-Stars at a fabled Yankee Stadium concert. Those high profile examples, however, only begin to tell the story of how vibrant hybrids of Latin music styles began to evolve in the birthplace of the genres’ underlying rhythms.

An accelerated cross pollination of such Afro-Cuban rhythms as rumba, mambo and cha-cha with West African sensibilities began in earnest in the post World War II years. That’s the propitious era that a small London-based independent record label, Honest Jon’s, has focused on for several critically acclaimed compilations. The World Is Shaking: Cubanismo from the Congo 1954-55 reflects the character of small group Afro-Cuban music of the time, rendered in a slightly more lilting fashion with the local Kikongo and Lingala tongues replacing Spanish in the vocals. The more stylistically encompassing Africa Boogaloo: The Latinization of West Africa surveys the artistry of such groups as Orchestre Baobab, Orchestra OK Jazz and Orchestre Yaya Mas, capturing everything from the guitar-led Cuban conjunto sound of the 1950s to the horn-heavy grooves of ‘70s era Latin soul. The combined 34 tracks of the two releases provide an ear-opening and hip-moving introduction to authentic Latinized African sounds.

Ricardo Lemvo, a U.S. based singer, composer and bandleader who was born in Zaire, has become the best known champion of Cubanized West African music in his adopted land. With his band Makina Loca on Retrospectiva (Mopiato Music), he updates over a decade of hits, shifting smoothly between Spanish and a variety of West African dialects as his band navigates son montuno and bolero rhythms with as the same aplomb as they dance through such pan-African forms as semba, soukous and kizomba. A Lemvo favorite, “Yiri Yiri Bon,” is reborn as a Colombian cumbia replete with signature Congolese electric guitar riffs.

Samuel Torres, a Bogotá-born percussionist and composer, credits a trip to Africa where he performed with guitarist Richard Bona in Yaoundé, the capital city of Cameroon, with sparking an interest in African music and its connection to many of his homeland’s rhythms. On Yaoundé (Blue Conga Music), Torres explores many of these shared stylistic roots. He discovered, for instance, the striking similarity between the currulao, a style from Colombia’s Pacific coast region, and the balafon (a wooden xylophone) music of Cameroon. On “Ronca el Canalete,” which utilizes the currulao tempo, Torres plays his congas to approximate the sonic quality of an African marimba while Argentine vocalist Sofia Rei Koutsovitis interprets the song’s tricky 11/8 rhythm. The album’s title tune is based on a popular Cameroonian rhythm in 9/8 in what Torres describes as a “musical threading” that unites Colombia and Africa once again.

Cuban keyboardist and composer Omar Sosa also finds new connections between primordial African rhythms and the Afro-Latin universe on Ceremony (Otá Records), an ambitious collaboration with Germany’s NDR Bigband. The Camagüey native began to more fully appreciate the cultural strands that link Africa to the Caribbean and the rest of the hemisphere when he moved to Esmeraldas, Ecuador in the early 1990s. This region of Ecuador is famed for the cultural integrity of a breakaway band of slaves that found refuge here. Sosa was particularly drawn to the sound of their African-derived mallet instrument, the marimba-like Timbila. He revisits and updates several of the themes he created while in Esmeraldas on Ceremony, performing on the marimba on “Cha Con Marimba,” a trance-inducing melody that reverberates with the deep spirituality that continues to unite traditions on both sides of the Atlantic.

By Mark Holston