Amayenge “Zambia Legends” (Zambia Music Copyright Protection Classical Society)
Welcome back to the Republic of ILWTTistan, the fanzine nation that is still MAD AS HELL about the whole EU referendum thing. But shouts going out to the great cities of Manchester, Liverpool, Cardiff, Bristol, Newcastle, Belfast and all the other places that voted *REMAIN* (it wasn't just London and Scotland, and we shouldn't really have implied that last time). It's right that we must leave the EU now, but there's plenty still to fight for as to how gracefully, and successfully, we do that. And ideally we wouldn't want to sound like we've got a beef with 52% of our compatriots, but when 52% of people have effectively voted UKIP then basically, beef gonna happen.
Anyway. Let's get away from the woes of today. Late-night Radio One, as I was growing up, frequently threw together mighty Peel Session match-ups. One of many to knock my little socks off came in the school summer holidays, on 27 July 1988, when Peel broadcast the debut session from politically-conscious Weston-super-Mare hardcore fiends Ripcord (including no less than nine fine songs that would appear on their landmark “Poetic Justice” LP), together with a repeat of the first session from Zambian stars Amayenge, recorded earlier in the month as they toured the UK. The Ripcord session was, naturally, excellent – it can be picked up now on their “More Songs About...” compilation – but it was Amayenge whose session would really start hares running.
At this point we feel honour-bound to point out that other artists Peel played that night (thanks, Peel Wiki) included three more of our all-time favourites - Public Enemy, Carcass, and Eric B & Rakim - as well as the kind of healthy smattering of English indie-pop that tends to get us through the night, now just as then. Peel was nothing if not ahead of the game, and the love we have for music today might have withered on a teenage vine were it not for him.
Unlike fellow Zambians Shalawambe, who also lit up Peel shows around this time, or the super-trebly Zimbabwean sounds of Four Brothers or the Bhundu Boys, whose guitar breaks would on occasion recall the Chesterf!elds or Mighty Mighty as much as southern African pop traditions, Amayenge were really a troupe rather than a “band”. Indeed, no less than a dozen of them are credited with having gatecrashed the Maida Vale studios to deliver the four tracks which John played that night in 1988. The session, including topical three-minute pop treat “Free Nelson Mandela”, would soon appear on a Strange Fruit 12” single, which we were stupid enough not to get our hands on while we still could (yes, there really was a time you could buy an Amayenge record in Woolworths or WH Smith).
Indeed, until this year all we had really managed to source from Amayenge’s golden era were two tracks on “Zamb!ance” - a world music section steal from the days when there was still a Tower megastore at Piccadilly Circus - and lonely download cuts sourced from various artists compilations called “Zambush! Volume 1” and the soberly pun-resisting “Sounds Of Zambia, volume 3”. That’s a shamefully low haul, given that Amayenge have reportedly released 30-odd LPs. As McCarthy might have had it, there is clearly “something wrong somewhere”.
However, at the start of this year an Amayenge set (rightly) named “Zambia Legends” mysteriously appeared on i-Tunes, and it has helped cheer up an otherwise rather depressing 2016 (not for music, we’d emphasise: just for everything else). A few telltale clicks and crackles on the audio suggest that it’s been mastered from vinyl, but given that’s as close as we’re likely to get to Amayenge on vinyl, we can live with that. Plus, unlike our Shalawambe CD, none of the tracks have been mastered from scratched-to-smitheerens vinyl that hops, skips and jumps all over the bloody shop.
It’s “Mao” (a traditional song which serves both as an ode to agriculture as means of production, and a tribute to the Zambian President) that kicks off proceedings, and from the first instant it really *tumbles* by, just like the record as a whole, a sound of pure energy and sunshine. Orchestrated by bandleader Chris Chali (RIP), this is organic and expansive African folk music, and rhythmically there is a hatful of stuff going on: unlike some of their contemporaries, and whether they’re playing traditional Zambian tunes or their own compositions, it’s really not just about the jangle. The same sheer warmth that gushed over Peel the first time he heard these songs is tangible.
Of other tracks here, “Chibuyu Buyu” and the joyously epic “Munise Munise” both enjoyed outings on that first Peel Session (a second 1988 session saw them preview the faintly Smiths-ish “Mazela Mazela”), while “Mushala” and “Mazela Mazela” featured, we think, on their self-titled 1985 LP which was given a global release four years later, alongside the Strange Fruit EP. In addition, Discogs tells us that “Chibuyu Buyu“ and “Kanyama” had doubled up on a (Zambia-released) 7” single back in 1986, the kind of righteous double-A side that could give even the “Solace” / “Please Rain Fall” face-off a run for its money.
Although the music is mostly… well, kalindula, there are some intriguing nods to Western influence. “Kawaya Waya” strangely hints at agit-funk before, rather oddly, being disfigured by a US rock-style guitar solo. And true, in places there is a certain… jangle, with a couple of scratchily trebly songs that beg to be hidden on a Sound Of Leamington Spa comp, just to see what might happen. But for most of the running time, the music is vibrantly ALIVE, flying in all directions: the bandleader whoops up rhythmic frenzy, the backing singers cheer in unison, the whistles ring out, a cockerel crows (“Tenkwacha”), on “Bamabangu" there are guest vocals from what must be either a baby, or a pet.
Throughout, unfazed, the band play on. We have no real idea what they’re singing about, but it sounds great (we’re reminded of the old Melody Maker meme that Napalm Death's indecipherable lyrics were actually all about canoeing). Amidst all of this melodic uproar though, this riot of colour in sound, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the subject matter of some of the songs is apparently dark: “Tenkwacha” is perhaps the most egregious example, its sweet and stunningly sung refrain clashing markedly with its theme of child prostitution.
The compilation closes, appropriately enough, with “Munise Munise”, which is less a song and more a celebration. That night in July 1988, Peel closed his show with the (five-minute) session version, remarking with evident awe as it finished how he would be carrying it around in his head for the next few days. The version here really should feel unwieldy, clocking in as it does at almost 12 minutes, but no - just like some of the old reggae dubs that last that long, it doesn’t outstay its welcome by a single second. If anything, it inhabits your soul for the duration, making you feel suddenly rather naked when it’s over.
So forget about the mad and maddening world outside. Buy this, play this. (And then play some Ripcord, too).