In the ’70s, it wasn’t unusual for soul and funk singles to be so long that one track was split over both sides of the record. But in Kenya, in the ’70s and ’80s, every single was like that. Five minutes was never enough; the audience wanted a track to last eight or nine minutes and the artists were happy to comply. And there was another, more important, reason: people didn’t have the money to buy entire albums, but they could afford singles.
Orchestra Super Mazembe, from Zaire via Nairobi, were the kings of this Kenyan pop scene. They hit it big in 1977 with their infectious “soukous” style, a sped-up descendant of Congolese rumba. Their lilting vocal harmonies and cascading guitars struck a chord across East Africa, and once they reached the top they stayed there until the mid ’80s, releasing more than 40 singles, all of them hits. The fact that they sang in Lingala, a language from the other side of the continent, was immaterial. This was all about the music.
These nine tracks from the late ’70s and early ’80s are glorious and uplifting, with glistening lead guitar, fiery horns and percussion that defy the feet to stay still. There’s a formula to the Super Mazembe sound: each track has a four-part structure, starting off restrained before catching fire around the two-minute mark, then fading out halfway so the record could be flipped over. Then the main riff returns, fast and frantic. Sometimes, as on “Yo-Mabe” horns trade lines with the guitar to send the music spiralling higher and higher. On “Mwana Nyiau,” the singers miaow like cats, while the music teeters on the edge of chaos, a piece of brilliant madness.
There’s so much warmth here that it almost feels like it raises the temperature a couple of degrees. The pleasure is palpable — you can almost hear the smiles. Yes, there’s a formula to the music, but the effect is so joyful it really doesn’t matter.