Sep 27, 2011

Rikki Ililonga & Musi-O-Tunya - Dark Sunrise


Singer-guitarist Rikki Ililonga may have lived in Denmark for 30 years, but he’s also an originator and ongoing steward of Zamrock. In the early 1970s, Zambia enjoyed, if that’s the right word, a set of circumstances finely tuned to instigate a rock and roll subculture. The landlocked central African country had been independent of English rule for about a decade, long enough for the first president to become the first dictator and to pick an economy-throttling fight with major trading partner Rhodesia … but not long enough for the white, English commercial class to pack up and leave. Since they had the money, the foreign-born folk exerted inordinate influence over what records made it into the shops and what got played on the radio. Take a legacy of hope, confront it with impending economic collapse, mix in an influx of international pop sounds in a newly emergent urban metropolis with strongly rooted rural cultural practices, cut off easy transit in and out of the country, then let it all simmer in the hot tropical sun — the result was a small circle of interrelated, mutually supportive psychedelic combos that included Witch, Amanaz, and Ililonga’s Musi-O-Tunya.

Collectively they displayed a penchant for fuzz guitar and heavy beats inspired by Cream and Hendrix, but there are also differences. At least on record, Witch and Amanaz could have been from anywhere where the guitars were loud and the tape decks cheap; Musi-O-Tunya’s singles and one album sound very much like music of Africa. The band’s burning guitar freakouts often took off from a foundation of skipping beats that could have originated in neighboring Congo or further west in Nigeria and Ghana, and even though English is Zambia’s official language, they sang a lot in Benba, Chinyanja, and Silozi. They also used an indigenous name; Musi-O-Tunya is the pre-British name of Victoria Falls and translates as “The Smoke That Thunders,” which isn’t a bad name for a band that aspires toward heaviness. Musi-O-Tunya’s earliest recordings date from a sojourn in Kenya in 1973, and while the drum-chant-whistle workout “Ng’ombe Shala” on one of its early singles displays the band’s roots, the flip side “Mpulala” shows that rock ‘n’ roll was part of the equation from the beginning. The crisp guitar sounds fresh out of the garage, the drumming and the song’s structure owe a lot to Mersey Beat, and the guitar and bass duel in the middle sounds like some kids trying to realize their favorite Yardbirds jam and not quite succeeding.

The recording quality on Wings Of Africa, Musi-O-Tunya’s sole album and the source of most of Dark Sunrise’s first CD, is a huge leap ahead of the one-take murk of the singles, and the music keeps pace. “The Sun” is lithe and lively; Canadian Kenny Chernoff’s soprano saxophone and Ililonga’s tart guitar fills snake in and out of the massed vocals and dynamic percussion. It’d sound just right next to your favorite tracks on the Nigeria Special and Ghana Soundz compilations. But it’s the tunes where Ililonga pushes his rock influences to the front that mark Musi-O-Tunya as a band apart. “Dark Sunrise” totally rocks, with a towering backbeat and big, fat guitar leads that’d bring a tear of jealousy to a nascent pedal-hopper’s eyes. The riff of “One Reply” sounds stunningly similar to Lou Reed’s “Charley’s Girl”; since it was recorded in 1974, two years before Reed debuted his tune on Coney Island Baby, one wonders if he could possibly have heard Musi-O-Tunya’s song first? Probably not, but in any case, the Zambians kick more ass than Lou did in his “playing football for the coach” phase, especially when Ililonga’s guitar tries to muscle to the front of the mix.

Is there any scenario more typical of ’70s rock than the talented guy saying “I don’t need these jerks” and going it alone? That’s just what Ililonga did in 1975, the year he recorded the first of the two LPs that make up Dark Sunrise’s second CD. The set comes packaged in a swanky hardcover book, and most of its pages are given over to Ililonga’s very specific remembrances of Zamrock’s circumstances and personalities. According to his telling, the rest of the band didn’t want to keep learning new songs, so he ditched them; certainly his solo LPs are powered by a hunger to play in a myriad of ways that Musi-O-Tunya did not. “Hot Fingers” is a shameless and aptly named bit of guitar flash; “Stop Dreaming Mr. D” memorializes his old band to the accompaniment of an acoustic guitar and harmonica that could have been played by Richie Havens; “The Nature Of Man” could be early Traffic mixed with a little Buffalo Springfield; “The Hole” is brazenly explicit get-it-on funk; and “Working On The Wrong Thing,” with its sparse groove and rude synth, would fit right in on that Shuggie Otis record. Whether the songs muse on the travails of Zambian urban life or Ililonga’s love life, they articulate a first person singer-songwriter stance that foregrounds the “I” (as opposed to the voice that represents or describes the community) in a way rarely heard beforehand in African pop.

Ililonga’s willingness and inclination to operate as a man apart has served him well. He left Zambia in 1980, around the time that the economy completely tanked but before AIDS wiped out his generation (to this day, 10 percent of the population is infected). He’s sustained his music career around Europe, and also facilitated the dissemination of Witch and Amanaz’s music in recent years alongside his own. One of Dark Sunrise’s chief pleasures is reading his reminiscences about his old mates and the scene they briefly inhabited., written by Bill Meyer


One of the great lost movements of modern African music finally gains time in the stateside spotlight in the form of two excellent reissues from Stones Throw archivist subsidiary Now-Again.

Until recently, the storied Zamrock scene of the mid-to-late 1970s was only prevalent within the parameters of the nation from which it derived - the Republic of Zambia, a copper-producing country landlocked by the unsteady climates surrounding them in Democratic Republic of the Congo to the north, Tanzania and Malawi to the east, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia to the south and Angola to the west. The country was also rife with poverty and the then-gestating AIDS pandemic that plagued the lives of several of Zamrock's founding fathers.

These dire straits did not make many of the albums released within the harsh confines of Zambia all that accessible beyond the few ex-pats who brought their record collections to Europe and the United States, where they migrated. Eventually, though, word got out about this fuzzy, freaky fusion of reverberating, wah-wah drenched electric rock, which the musicians had heard on Western pop albums from Jimi Hendrix, Santana and the Jefferson Airplane that were bootlegged into the country, not to mention being influenced by the high energy funk brought forth on James Brown's legendary 1971 tour of Zambia. Additionally steeped in the indigenous polyrhythms of the music along the Congo plus traditional Zambian folk, the sound of Zamrock became a sonic delicacy highly sought-after among the globe's most serious break hunters.

And there is no doubt that the time is indeed nigh for this rediscovery spurred by the crate diggers at Stones Throw/Now-Again. Dark Sunrise is a two-CD anthology of the scene's first breakout star, guitar wizard Rikki Ililonga, and his band Musi-O-Tunya. Housed in a beautiful, hardbound book-style package and featuring a scholarly essay on the evolution of the Zamrock revolution in the extensive liner notes, Dark Sunrise gathers together on the first disc Musi-O-Tunya's 1975 debut album Wings of Africa with a cache of super hard-to-find 7-inch singles that date back to early 1973, while the second CD houses Ililonga's two solo albums, 1975's Zambia and 1976's Sunshine Love, which are more rooted in the bandleader's affinities for the songwriting styles of Loaded-era Lou Reed and Taj Mahal back when he played with Ry Cooder.


Los Angeles being a car town, driving soundtracks are important and help calm the nerves and lift the spirits while navigating the oft-living hell that is the daily commute.

Thank goodness, then, for "Dark Sunrise," the exquisite new reissue of the mid-1970s music of Rikki Ililonga and his group Musi-O-Tunya. Ililonga was a prime mover in the Republic of Zambia's rhythm rock scene of the 1970s, and this two-CD set captures a unique, and nearly vanished, secret history. The release has filled at least one frustrated Angeleno's car with (very loud) distraction over the past few weeks.

Issued by the Los Angeles-based reissue label Now-Again, "Dark Sunrise" features 31 songs that jump tempos and signatures but retain a consistent rhythmic base. The southern African country from which the music sprang, the Republic of Zambia, was at the time a poverty-stricken place in which pressing records was an unaffordable luxury, so the mere existence of these songs seems somehow miraculous. Explains Now-Again owner (and the set's executive producer) Eothan "Egon" Alapatt in the reissue's liner notes:

"[T]he records that did surface in the collecting community of the monied Japanese, European and North American record obsessives of the mid-'90s were often in worse condition than worn Frisbees. The condition of the average Zambian record found 'in the field' is on par with that of the war-torn discs found occasionally in modern-day Angola."

Alapatt was aware of Ililonga's music through collector's circles, and tracked down the singer, who was living in the Netherlands and had workable master recordings -- some of which compose "Dark Sunrise."

It's perfect driving music, filled with steady rhythms, a funky horn section and some great, James Brown-esque swagger. Unlike the clean, gymnastic guitar tones being made in West Africa at the same time, the sound of the south was filled with fuzz guitars and solid chords, which makes the end result more driving, and a little more aggressive, especially on Ililonga's early recordings with his band Musi-O-Tunya.

The second disc features solo Ililonga, and he sounds like a mix of Arthur Lee, Bob Dylan, Damo Suzuki, Fela Kuti and Curtis Mayfield, and, musically, moves from groovy, Dylanesque garage-rock breakdowns -- augmented with congas and wood blocks -- to wilder, more guitar-centric, psychedelic work with tangled solos.

It's an important reissue, and offers yet another glimpse into the sound of Africa in the 1960s and 70s. In the past half-decade, countless African crate-digger classics have been reissued, each another piece of the puzzle from a continent less archivally minded than most. But "Dark Sunrise" is a peak, and a vivid glimpse into a particular moment in time., written by Randall Roberts


There are particular things in life which bring out sentiments even to the most hardened individual. And music is one of them. Especially good music. As Thomas Beecham said, “Good Music is that which penetrates the ear with facility and quits the memory with difficulty”.

At times, one need not even comprehend the lyrics in a song, as long as the ear recognizes the value of the beat at play, then the listener would understand the universal language that is music. As human tastes are varied, not every song is appreciated by everyone. Yet still, there are those who have had difficulties of purging the songs of Zambia’s most indomitable bands and soloists from their minds.

Though pace setters like Alick Nkhata and the Big Gold Six were more of folk singers, they were trail blazers in commercial recording and their songs were well received. Good as they were, not many heads were turned by their sounds, until a group of young men barely into their twenties banished themselves to the city of Nairobi, Kenya; in pursuit of good recording studios and lucrative contracts. The move paid off because their self exile imbued them with creative juices; consequently, they came charging with an energetic verve and a ground-breaking resonance. And before anybody realised what was going on, it happened. They had inaugurated a new sound which was later to be echoed by contemporary groups; a fusion of James Brown’s raw funk as well as Jimi Hendrix’s fuzzy psychedelia; music that flirts with Fela’s Afro-beat and Congolese rumba and simultaneously brings the blues of Taj Majal; and it was christened “Zamrock”.

Unbeknown to them, they were on an expedition that would degenerate into diametrically opposed opinions, which would lead to disbanding, leaving their fans feeling short changed and wanting more of the innovative sound from the new band. They were the Musi-O-Tunya!!!

The band was an institution, where, if you did well in your lessons, you would go on to larger things; which is true of most of its former associates, but if you botched your course, you were consigned to a cavity which; opportunely; never happened to any of them. Because as it was, the critical accomplishments of the band propelled the former members to greater things, masking the commercial failures, which were taken on the chin and treated as show-biz teething problems, given that while they found fame, they did not make a fortune. Be that as it may, all the former bandsmen went on to have successful careers long after the group went into oblivion.

The line up of those who had a stint in the group reads like a “Who is Who”, in the “Zamrock” Hall of fame. Rikki Ililonga, Ndara “Derreck” Mbao, Alex Kunda, Jasper Siliya Lungu, Paul “Ngozi” Nyirongo and Brian Chengala all graced the band, albeit some joined as a result of departures of other members, owing to the egos which were emerging. Of all the above mentioned; only Rikki and Brian, who now goes by the surname of Shakarongo, are still alive. It is more than thirty five years since they first recorded and their music has until now, been very rare and some of the most sought.

Fans do not have to wait anymore. The group’s founder, major song writer, and most successful former member, Rikki, has teamed up with “Now Again Records” and record distributer “Stone Throw Records”, both of Los Angeles California. They have released Dark Sunrise, an Anthology of Rikki’s music, a trilogy of Musi-O-Tunya’s first album, Wings of Africa and the band’s six singles, together with Rikki’s two solo albums, Zambia and Sunshine Love, on the “Now and Again” Label; junkies of early “Zamrock” are in Paradise.

Disk one is Musi-O-Tunya, whose opening tune is ‘Tsegulani’. The instantly recognizable, brusque and pulsating voice of Ndara “Derrek” Mbao comes hurtling and lamenting, taking you to a crescendo with the inimitable Paul Ngozi’s lead guitar wizardly. After six minutes and twenty seconds, you will think the song will have ended too soon, as it takes you into the second song ‘Mpondolo’, which opens with a Kalimba played by Derreck, and then the trumpet takes over, intermittently with the group backup vocals and a sporadic solo horn. Siliya Lungu’s expertise on African drums is explicit. The rest of the tracks are ‘Walk and Fight’, ‘The Sun’, ‘Dark Sunrise’, ‘One Reply’, ‘The Wings of Africa’, Jekete Yamankowa Part 1 & 2, ‘Chalo Chawama’ ‘Ng’ombe Shala’, ‘Mpulula’ and finally ‘Smoke’.

Disc two contains Rikki’s two albums, ‘Zambia’ and ‘Sunshine Love, which have a combined eighteen songs. It is a delight listening to the silky ‘Shebeen Queen’, the sorrowful ‘Munzi wa Kangwanda’, the forlorn ‘Angel Black’, the enlightening Musamuseke, the instructive ‘Ulemu’, and the captivating ‘The Hole’. The later, along with other Ililonga songs were proscribed on Radio Zambia. Given the sort of songs that receive airplay these days, it is unquestionably time to revisit the decision.



1. Tsegulani
2. Mpondolo
3. Walk and Fight
4. The Sun
5. Dark Sunrise
6. One Reply
7. The Wings Of Africa
8. Jekete Yamankowa Part 1
9. Jekete Yamankowa Part 2
10. Chalo Chawama
11. Ng'ombe Shala
12. Mpulula
13. Smoke
14. Sansa Kuwa
15. Sheebeen Queen
16. Stop Dreaming Mr. D
17. The Hole
18. Hot Fingers
19. Se Keel Me Queek
20. The Nature Of Man
21. Musamuseka
22. Zambia
23. The Queen Blues
24. Love Is The Way
25. Lovely Woman
26. Munzi Wa Kangwana
27. Working On The Wrong Thing
28. Ulemu
29. Sunshine Love
30. Take It Light
31. Angel Black

1 comment:

  1. among the most beautiful psychedelic rock < the last in bolt< musics ever made on any latitude-can't recommend it enough to your readers.a love from the first note affair.