The 1970s and ‘80s were a heady time for west African music, with bands influenced by the funk and soul sounds from the US and UK and some musicians, like Janha, striving to re-incorporate local rhythms and instrumentation into the mix. Karantamba is a prime exemplar of this trend, with electric instruments and funky rhythms often laid over complex patterns of traditional percussion, and lyrical content particular to the concerns of west Africa.
Now Teranga Beat has released Ndigal, a live recording of Karantamba dating from 1984. With a backing band of young musicians, Janha plays a scorching set of nine tunes ranging from the the snappy “Dimba Niyama” to twelve-minute-long album closer “Gamo Jigimar”, a gloriously hypnotic squall of sound. With most of the tracks hovering at the nine-minute mark, these tunes have plenty of time to establish a groove, stretch out, and incorporate any number of instrumental flourishes and solos.
Polyrhythmic percussion forms the backbone of the songs, with piles of guitar and bass and keyboards layered on top. Tempos are fast—no ballads here, this is high-octane dance music designed to get backsides sitting and energy flowing. In keeping with the high-energy vibe, the singing might politely be described as “unvarnished.” With lyrics in Mandinga, the vocals will remain opaque to listeners unfamiliar with the language. Passion and intensity shine through, but the skills are rough-edged to say the least.
In fact, the sound overall is rough as hell, in ways both good and bad. The vocals are passionate from the get-go, and there is no trace of the smooth polished sounds of Western pop or soul. Guitars are trebly in the extreme, percussion is polyrhymic and incessant, and keyboard breaks can be alarmingly shrill. There is something to be said, however, for a little polish. The horns on “Ne Dinding Fally” are embarassingly weak, and become audibly faltering as the song stretches along its ten-minute length. By the second half of the song, the horns are flat-out missing the notes. It doesn’t sound visceral and real; it sounds amateurish. Ditto the occasional moments when the twangy guitars sound distinctly out of tune.
Those moments are relatively rare, though. For the most part, the tunes benefit from their harsh arrangements and rough performances. The energy is palpable, and does much to overcome the rawness of the arrangements. Songs like “Titi” and “Satay Muso” escape from one’s speakers in a blaze of percussion and guitar, with “Satay Muso” in particular rolling along in a hypnotic groove that establishes itself in mere seconds.
Aficianados of Afro-funk or Afro-rock may find this previously unreleased recording to be of great interest. Be warned, though—this is almost field-recording quality, with little of the lushness or clarity common in today’s studio efforts. It has more in common, both sonically and in terms of arrangements, with the “African funk” compilations from Soundways Records or Analog Africa. Listeners who are forgiving of limitations in sound technology will find this performance an unexpected time capsule to savor.
And oh, what rhythms they are; kaleidoscopically unfolding as if they were being looped upon one another, the drums on this album work magic. “Na Dinding Fatty” has a particularly hypnotic pattern that expands and contracts periodically, but irregularly; the result is breathing room in a track that never stops to breathe. Additionally, the trumpet hook running throughout a good two-thirds of the 10-minute jam is filled with cracks and inconsistencies, giving the song a distinctly humanistic edge. Such unpredictability also creates an atmosphere of uncertainty, a general feeling that is amplified by the asymmetrical lengths of Ndigal’s vocal phrases. At times, two vocal lines repeat at different intervals, coming together and breaking apart in the dense musical tapestry. Thanks to the album’s warm and pristine production, we can hear every element in the mix clearly, and tracks like “Goré Nga” sound at once both carefully constructed and spontaneous. Present alongside the driving positivity that makes Ndigal sound so alive is a jammy anxiety, the incessancy of its uniformly quick tempi creating the slightest layer of unease.
But despite occasional flashes of uncertainty, the dominant emotion here is always joy. Understandable, given the story of the group’s genesis; Karantamba was founded by Bai Janha in 1982 in order to train young musicians — to “bring them up to a professional level,” as Janha says. And so the mood is consistently that of youthful curiosity, which — in Janha’s hands, at least — is always a friend to artistic symbiosis. As the guitars of the penultimate “Linga Ham” pass waves of sound between each other, the communication between players is almost audible; ditto for the perfectly executed tempo change that occurs at the one-minute mark. It’s a mesmerizing effect that calls to mind the best chamber group working today, the Bang on a Can All-Stars. Karantamba may not have that ensemble’s larger-than-life technical abilities, but they play with admirable gusto. Admittedly, this unstoppable dynamism can be a bit soporific when absorbed over the album’s 80-minute runtime. But in slightly smaller doses, and at its jubilant best, Ndigal glistens with propulsive vigor. In essence, it feels absolutely, completely vital.
1. Sama Yai
2. Satay Muso
4. Dimba Nyima
6. Na Dinding Fatty
7. Goré Nga
8. Linga Ham
9. Gamo Jigimar
10. Kuru Wo Kuru (bonus track LP only)