World in Stereo: Rikki Ililonga & Musi-O-Tunya’s Dark Sunrise

Each week, World in Stereo examines classic and modern world music while striving for a greater appreciation of other cultures.

Rikki Ililonga: Dark SunriseRikki Ililonga & Music-O-Tunya: Dark Sunrise (Now-Again, 11/23/10)

Musi-O-Tunya: “Dark Sunrise”

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Gritty garage-rock grooves from mid-’70s Zambia comprise Now-Again Records’ latest release, Dark Sunrise, the double-disc (or three-LP box set), 31-track chronicle of Zambian “Zam Rock” godfather Rizketo Makyua “Rikki” Ililonga and his groundbreaking band Musi-O-Tunya.

The anthology fits Now-Again’s current obsession with Zambia’s 1970s music scene, whose landmark bands WITCH and Amanaz have seen record reissues from the specialized global funk label. But after one listen to the killer rock grooves from Dark Sunrise, with its furious fusion of US/UK/African rhythmic dynamics, fuzzed-out electric guitars, and hypnotic brass sections, audiences will come to understand why the obsession is exceptionally reasonable, if not completely necessary.

The anthology spans three crucial years chronicling Musi-O-Tunya’s debut album, Wings of Africa, which is known to be Zambia’s first-ever psychedelic rock release. Also containing rare 7” singles (only available on the CD package) from the band, the comp goes on to follow Ililonga’s prolific solo career in its beginning stages, with a focus on two albums:  Zambia and Sunshine Love.

By the mid-1970s, the Republic of Zambia was much like its neighbors; liberation was met with new challenges concerning one-party rule, and the economy was largely dependent on foreign skill sets. The country fell on hard times as an already high poverty rate was made worse after the price of copper, Zambia’s principal export, suffered a worldwide decline. The dire backdrop set the scene for Zambia to develop a kind of music that gravitated towards the harder and darker side of funk and rock.

The genre of “Zam Rock” takes influence from the some 70,000 Europeans who called Zambia home at the time of independence in 1964. In addition, Zambia’s national radio station proved to be highly influential on Zambian musicians; most of its content was Western records that were most likely American and British imports.

Musi-O-Tunya’s combined aesthetic of rock and traditional African rhythms led to the coinage of the “Zam Rock” label. Wings of Africa marked the first pop music independently released in Zambia.  It was also quite an experimental time in Ililonga’s career, making the band’s early recordings run a wide range of rhythms and moods.

The anthology actually works somewhat retroactively, beginning with the last recording that Ililonga did with the band, “Tsegulani,” followed by Wings of Africa in its entirety, and ending with some raw, rare singles from the band’s first recording sessions in Kenya in 1973. In these early stages, Musi-O-Tunya’s musical vision sought to take rock and soul’s signature 4/4 backdrop and replace it with African rhythmic flourishes. Tracks like “Mpondolo” borrow Congolese rhythms — with their fusion of Afro-Cuban congas and bongos — and overlay everything with fuzzy electric guitar. In many ways, “Mpondolo” is a track that is more African than anything else: it has a sweet, driving melody, it’s extremely repetitive, and it contains an intrinsic Afrobeat feel.

Especially from those early recordings, we see Ililonga’s experimental solo career in the making. “Jekete Yamankowa Pt. 1” sounds extremely adventurous for the time period — a defiant garage-rock offering with a Zambian call-and-response twist. Early recordings like “Mpulua” and “Smoke” are filled with beautiful moments of inventive fusions, anthemic in scope, and inspirational in melodic delivery and vocal dynamics.

“Dark Sunrise,” however, best foreshadows the music that Ililonga would go on to make during his solo career. It’s easily the heaviest Musi-O-Tunya track on the anthology, with a growling guitar riff that transforms into an extended, psychedelic Jimi Hendrix-esque blues solo. Even the alto saxophone sounds smoky.

For his solo material, Ililonga unleashes melancholic, brooding, and introspective versions of Western genres. “Sheebeen Queen” and “The Queen Blues” take an American-style folk stance in the vein of Bob Dylan. The dark, brooding personality of “Stop Dreaming, Mr. D” can be heard as the African equivalent to Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man.” Mr. D and Mr. Jones are essentially the same protagonist, dealing with conventions of identity and reality.  “Lovely Woman” and the highly sexualized track “The Hole” take on driving bass lines and fuzzy guitar rhythms, channeling the funky, raw energy of James Brown.

There are also songs that are so surprising in influence that they make you wonder how a sound could not only reach Zambia but also catch Ililonga’s ear.  “Sunshine Love” sounds like Lou Reed had a hand in its creation. With its folk-inflected guitar riff and nonchalant vocal performance, it might as well be a  lost Velvet Underground single. Then there are tracks like “The Nature of Man” and “Se Keel Me Queek” that recall quirky, progressive pop, much like David Bowie.

From the Ililonga perspective, Dark Sunrise is a fascinating snapshot of Zambia’s 1970s music scene. A project overseen by Stones Throw general manager Eothen Alapatt in conjunction with Ililonga himself, the anthology is one of the most accomplished undertakings from Now-Again. Not only is this a much-deserved testament to the level of musicianship in Zambia, but Dark Sunrise gives listeners a first glimpse of the global sound in Africa.  Ililonga was a musician way ahead of his time, and it’s almost unbelievable to think how long it took his music to reach the masses.

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