Remmy Ongala: songs for the poor man

When the first wave of what came to be categorised as ‘world music’ hit the UK in the early 1980s, it resulted in leading record companies in the UK releasing some outstanding albums of African music. Some were added to my record collection, among them Baaba Maal’s Djam Leelii, Salif Keita’s Soro and King Sunny Ade’s Juju Music, and two Sound d’Afrique compilations released on the Virgin record label.  One album I played repeatedly was Agwaya by Orchestra Makassy from Tanzania, long since out of print.  The music capered and glittered, driven on by the dazzling lead guitar of Remmy Ongala.

Ongala had been born in Zaire, and had experienced a tough childhood;  both his parents had died by the time he was nine.  After building a reputation as a musician in Zaire, Ongala moved to Tanzania.  In 1980 Orchestra Makassy, a band from Dar Es Salaam, got together in a Nairobi studio to record an album for some young Brits who wanted to cash in on the African music boom that was happening back in the UK, thanks largely to the King Sunny Ade album.

The band was named after Mzee Makassy, the leader and principal vocalist, but it was Remmy Ongala’s driving guitar, particularly on the opening track, ‘Mambo Bado’, that grabbed your attention right from the first note.  Here it is again to brighten up the January gloom:

Ongala’s fame spread throught East Africa as a result of his guitar work with Orchestra Makassy, and later Orchestre Super Matimila.  He brought to these bands the soukous dance style of his homeland, mixed with Tanzanian and other East African rhythms.  Today the Guardian marks his passing on 13 December with a revealing obituary by Robin Denselow.

One thing that Denselow highlights is how much the British ear missed when listening to Ongala’s music – he wrote outspoken Swahili lyrics which championed the urban poor, dealt with subjects such as poverty and Aids.  In 1989, Ongala and Orchestre Super Matimila travelled to the UK to make their first recordings outside Africa, for Real World. The album Songs for the Poor Man included several of his most thoughtful lyrics, sung mainly in Swahili.

Kifo (Death Has No Mercy):

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