14 March 2014

Zambia: Give Love to Your Children, Musi-O-Tunya

music review

The legendary Zambian band's compilation captures the energy, excitement and unpredictability of Zamrock at the peak of its 1970s glory.

"Give love to your children / like the sun gives strength to the soil / the moon gives fear to the night / and the stars lead the way for the blind / and the wind gives life to the leaves. / Give love to your children."

These majestic opening lines offer a powerful taste of the holistic, even cosmic, span of Give Love To Your Children by the legendary Zambian band Musi-O-Tunya.

The recently re-released compilation brings together songs recorded between 1972 and 1976, in the heyday of the Zamrock, a psychedelic genre that emerged amidst the economic troubles and social tensions of mid-70s Zambia.

Many people credit Musi-O-Tunya and their renowned front man Rikki Llilonga with creating the flamboyant musical style, but this album was their second after Llilonga left the band. The remaining line-up, however, was still more than enough to spark that Zamrock magic with Wayne Barnes on guitars, band leader Derek Mbao on bass and vocals, Brian Chengala on drums alongside Aliki Kunda and Jasper Lungu on congas, and all backed up by a bold brass section.

Even with its wide scope, Give Love To Your Children is a collision of worlds. The cover is a sign of this, made up of a cross-section of interwoven colourised photographs, showing the eclectic mien of traditional Zambian music alongside the hip image of 1970s Zamrock.

The unpredictable soundscape of the album similarly juxtaposes a myriad of diverse influences. Musi-O-Tunya were clearly inspired by the rock sounds of 1970s Europe and the US, but this is only a fraction of the psychedelic textures and sounds. Fuzzy, frenzied solos from guitarist Wayne Barnes whip across songs as Derek Mbao's earthy bass restlessly moves the groove forwards and round. Brian Chengala's percussion meanwhile brilliantly pushes the beat and jams through an entire arc of feeling, building and dropping the intensity while - above all - maintaining a completely danceable afrobeat or kalindula. The brass section too is glorious, triumphantly leading the band at times. Together, as Musi-O-Tunya, the band has sheer groove.

Throughout Give Love To Your Children, Musi-O-Tunya explore a huge number of ideas, whether through the recurring joyful, sprawling guitar solos or the sombre - in meaning, if not in tone - lyrics of 'Starving Child' ("Someday everything will be alright / Everything's going to be alright").

The result is still a consistent, powerful record. So often cover-all statements like 'great energy' are readily applied to albums but if there was ever a time to use the cliché, it is here. This is a band intimately in tune with one another and the result is a full-to-bursting sound.

However, that is perhaps where the clichés should end. In fact, to some ears Give Love To Your Children could be unpredictable and it's certainly complex. But this is arguably to its strength, and it is the moments of sheer excess that are most filled with personality and character. The album's lyrics also cover typical Zamrock concerns and darker social and personal issues (the profound 'My Baby' for example) but also break with that convention by entering hazy, hallucinogenic territory too.

But this is what is so compelling about Musi-O-Tunya: they are unafraid to experiment with traditional ideas and spoken word. For example, there are whole sections that are free from all traces of 'modern' instrumentation. 'Bashi Mwana' is in this vein and is perhaps even a welcome break from the fuzz and intensity of the previous tracks. Lyrically, songs are an even balance between English, Bemba and Nyanja. 'Katonga' is one of the album's highlights, opening with a traditional call and answer and accompanying trumpets, only to kick into to a trippy guitar solo and slick afrobeat rhythms before turning again to a bright sung harmony.

You may have trouble keeping up, but this is an album not to be missed.

Musi-O-Tunya's Give Love To Your Children (Now-Again Records) is out now.

James Bullock is a freelance journalist and researcher with a particular focus on sub-Saharan political development, post-colonial literature and West African music. He has been published in the Financial Times and Monocle magazine. You can contact him via his twitter.

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