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Tolinga Virunga - We Love Virunga


By C.C Smith


Last month I travelled to England to attend several concerts by Samba Mapangala and his Orchestra Virunga.


I was also meeting up with Ethan Bloomberg, Samba’s U.S. representative and advisor, who is a connoisseur of East African. Also present was Martin Sinnock, one of the world’s leading experts and collectors of Congolese music, and columnist for my magazine, The Beat.


Samba has just put out a new album called Song and Dance, and the short tour of England was to support the release. As an extra added attraction, the tour includes guitarists Syran Mbenza and Bopol Mansiamina, who came in from Paris to assist their long-time friend and colleague.


I first heard Samba’s music in London in 1984 and was instantly a fan. The stunning, pitch-perfect a cappella intro to “Malako Disco” still knocks me out, and the song is as fresh as ever, blending Congo dance music with distinctive Kenyan elements, like the skittering hi-hat cymbal riding atop the flowing music.


Samba composes and sings in both Lingala (Congolese language) and Kiswahili. His astouding voice has been described as melting in the ears.


Samba is Congolese but made his reputation in Kenya. He had a good deal of success in Europe, America and throughout East Africa in the 1980s and ’90s, but since relocating to the United States 9 years ago, his music was put on hold while he established a life for himself and his family.


His last newly recorded album was Ujumbe in 2001, so the new disc is a long-overdue treat, and I dearly hope presages the renaissance of his career. We need him back!


The first night I saw them, at the Amersham Arms in South East London on Mar. 21, was a bit rough: the sound was bad, the audience sparse and the 9-member band having only played together for a week was still trying to gel.


Still, it was an enjoyable performance: Samba still has his magnificent voice and with two backup singer/dancers put on a lively show.


The next evening in Brighton was even better: more people in the audience, better sound and better ambience.


But it was the third show, in Graffham, East Sussex, a tiny country town, when the group actually became a band. Two hundred people filled the rustic hall and were dancing from the first note.


Syran, who had put down his Kekele-acoustic guitar to pick up his electric again for this tour, was conducting the orchestral manoeuvres with guitar cues and glances, and ripping off mind-blowing leads.


The highlight for me came when they trotted out the old warhorse, “Malaika.” I started to think, 'oh, geez, do we have to hear this again?'


But Samba, reaching deep down in his soul, brought out such intense emotion that the song was completely transformed, and Syran responded with one of the most profound, heartfelt solos I’ve ever heard him play.


For more information on Samba Mapangala and the new album Song and Dance: www.virungarecords.com. Martin Sinnock and Ethan Bloomberg have recorded an Internet radio broadcast on Samba that will be available from April 7.”


C.C Smith is the editor and publisher of the Beat Magazine, he first wrote this piece for Mattgy.net


Are you a fan of Samba? What do you think of Smith's take on the band? Please e-mail comments to comments@thenewblackmagazine.com



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