Celebrating Africa Month with the continent's music legends
In celebration of Africa Month, "This is Africa" with Richard Nwamba features 10 of the continent’s legendary names.
Today, the 30 of May, the show will showcase Momo Wandel Soumah from Guinea; Valiha master Justin Vali from the Big Red Island, Madagascar; Thione Seck from Senegal; from the archipelago of Cape Verde the Queen of Mornas and Coladeras Cesária Évora and Bonga from Angola.
This is Africa on 702 for the curious!
MOMO WANDEL SOUMAH
Guinea became the first Francophone country in Sub-Saharan Africa to demand independence from France. French President Charles de Gaulle reluctantly let the Guineans go their own way on 2 October 1958 with Ahmed Sekou Touré as the President. The first thing that Touré did was to call for a cultural revolution that would enable the country’s musicians to unearth the traditional music that was largely dormant when the French still called the shots. Touré’s concept of “authenticité” (authenticity) was decades ahead of that of Mobutu sese Seko’s. One of those musicians who answered the call was the late Momo Wandel Soumah. Soumah and others travelled from village to village listening and documenting the traditional music of almost all the ethnic groups of Guinea. The result of all this hard work is some of the most original traditional music ever to come from the African continent. All Momo Wandel Soumah’s albums are a treasure trove for lovers of traditional African music!
If there is someone who proves the folly of turning imperfect humans into demi-gods, it is Thione Ballago Seck. One of Senegal’s most gifted singers, who also happens to come from the griot caste, he was already a multi-millionaire when he decided to supplement his millions by passing off as genuine dough about 120 million US dollars of fake currency. When he was arrested he blamed his lapse in judgement on “maraboutage”, the Senegalese version of witchcraft! But if you ignore all that idiocy you will find in Thione Seck one of the greatest singers alive in Africa today. His vocal prowess is such that, even if the electricity were to disappear during one of his electric performances, he would still be heard above the screaming voices of the excited throngs. By far my favourite Senegalese singer, I choose to applaud his matchless singing talents while despising his vile attempt at illicit gain. I suggest you do the same!
If you were to fly to Mindelo, on the island of São Vicente, one of the ten islands that make up the archipelago of Cape Verde, you would land at the Cesária Évora International Airport. After clearing immigration and customs you would be greeted by a barefoot statue of, that is right, Cesária Évora. Decades before African musicians could eke out a living from their craft, Cesária Évora used to sing in the seedy bars of Mindelo to bored sailors who were more interested in checking out the local prostitutes than listening to languid mornas about São Tomé, Angola or some other faraway destination. So, when Cesária was done singing nobody cared to applaud and she, in turn, would light a smoke, take a swig or two from whatever booze the bar owner chose to give her that night and then start another song. This went on for years until compatriot Bana, real name Adriano Gonçalves, invited her to the Portuguese capital, Lisbon. It was there that fellow Cape Verdean and producer José da Silva heard her sing and, as they say, the rest is history.
Born Barcelo de Carvalho, this Angolan star always had a nose for trouble. When the Portuguese were still in charge of Africa’s second-largest oil-producing country, Bonga could not keep quiet about the suffering of his fellow Angolans. When he became aware that the Portuguese secret police, PIDE, got wind of his political utterances, he decided to flee to France where he did away with his Portuguese name and started to use Bonga Kwenda or simply Bonga. From then on his music would articulate the oppression of Angolans under the fascist regime of António de Oliveira Salazar and later Marcello Caetano. After the independence of Angola Bonga still found a way of getting himself into trouble. His sympathies were with Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA and the ruling MPLA did not take kindly to that. For years Bonga was persona non grata in Angola. But, Bonga’s politics aside, I don’t know of any Angolan musician who is bigger than this gravel-voiced megastar!
It is common knowledge that musicians hardly ever use the names given by their parents or some relative. If your name happens to be Justin Rakotondrasoa you better find something far easier and shorter to pronounce. What about Justin Vali? Well, that is more like it. Except Vali is also the name of Madagascar’s most popular tubular bamboo zither. The English call it the valiha but the Malagasy call it just vali. Was this daring or presumptuous of this man to call himself by the name of the Big Red Island’s most beloved musical instrument? I guess when you happen to be the undisputed master of this favourite instrument you are entitled to such an honour. It is true that the French got rid of Madagascar’s last queen, Ranavalona III. But that was back in 1897, way before the current king of valiha was born. But if the Malagasy royals were still around, they would have been entertained by this great master valiha player, playing the royal valiha, of course. But Justin Vali would still find time to play the ancestral valiha too for commoners like me, of course!