Review

Out of Africa: a global mix of musical styles

Celebration: Congo Music
Vision Arts and Culture
Kinshasa

In much of the Western world, religious music as a genre is quite separate from popular music. Whether on radio stations, in concert halls, or recorded albums, the two forms are rarely mixed.

In Africa, however, religious music is more often heard side by side with popular music - and is far more likely to be found on pop radio play lists.

In this context, the album Celebration: Congo Music belongs to this category, emerging as perhaps the strongest effort so far to compose and record African music inspired by the Bahá'í Faith.

The result is appealing to anyone interested in "world music," a current trend in popular music that blends musical styles and cultural influences from around the globe and is a major element in many of the songs of today's top performers.

A collaborative effort involving about a dozen musicians in the Democratic Republic of the Congo - many of whom are Bahá'ís - and a group of Canadians who provided the technical expertise and equipment necessary to produce and distribute the album, Celebration features 13 songs that span a global mix of musical styles, from traditional French ballads to Caribbean reggae.

While the influences of everything from American country and western to rap are evident, the rhythm of the traditional Congolese rumba provides a unifying underpinning throughout the entire recording.

The languages of the songs include English, French, at least four different languages or dialects from the Congo itself, and some from Nigeria.

The lyrics draw on the history, teachings and holy writings of the Bahá'í Faith, presented as a "celebration" of its inspirational message of unity and oneness.

The result is a happy and uplifting album that almost continually surprises and delights listeners by its diversity, creativity and spirit.

Many of the songs draw on a wide range of styles and expressions even within themselves. Take Le Desert de l'Ignorance, for example, which takes the listener on a journey of styles that opens with the kind of "pop fusion" one might hear on any of today's top-selling songs and moves on to an instrumental section that features Congolese and South African percussion and chants. That interlude is then overlaid with an American-style rap spoken in French. A female chorus later joins in and the song finishes with an almost symphonic crescendo. Although this description may read as if the song were a confused pastiche, it works well, drawing the listener into a powerful musical experience.

Le Desert was composed by Oscar Diyabanza, who was the artistic director for the National Ballet of Zaire for more than 20 years. Although not a Bahá'í himself, Mr. Diyabanza has written a song that speaks of wandering through the "desert of ignorance" until finding Bahá'u'lláh's message of "peace and love of all humankind."

Other performers on Celebration include Pembe Lero, a percussionist and song writer who was a key figure in the collaboration that led to the album, Marius Mof'Nene, a singer, guitarist and composer who performed for many years with OK JAZZ, one of Congo's premier bands, and André Zamambu, a singer with the Orchestra Sim Sim, one of Congo's most venerable groups.

At the other end of the musical spectrum from Le Desert is Prière du Matin, a prayer of Bahá'u'lláh set to music. Sung by a relatively unknown young singer named Kabila, it is accompanied by a single acoustic guitar in the style of a traditional French ballad. The result is beautiful and moving.

Most of the songs, however, have a fast pace that carries the listener along with a driving rhythm. The melodies are catchy and bright, but never redundant. Instruments are a mix of Western and traditional, as in the delicate rumba Ntoma Ya Nzambe, which features three likembes, also known as "thumb pianos," to create lead, rhythm and bass tracks.

The album was recorded and mixed in Kinshasa at Studio Aurore, a small recording house founded by Jason Sheper, a Canadian-born musician who acted as executive producer on the album. It is distributed by Live Unity Productions, a Toronto-based production company, founded by Jack Lenz, a prominent producer, composer and artist in his own right. Live Unity also provided essential technical assistance to Studio Aurore, helping them choose and obtain modern recording equipment and also by offering the "loan" of a top recording engineer, Kevin Doyle.

"We are really trying to meld traditional African music with modern music in a way that makes it something that Western people would want to listen to, rather than a museum piece - and which at the same time makes traditional music accessible to young Congolese," said Mr. Sheper, who also composed some of the songs and plays bass on many of them. "We also wanted to create a collection of styles that, in effect, travels around the world and at the same time celebrates the spirit of the Bahá'í Faith."

Celebration: Congo Music can be ordered from Live Unity Productions, Toronto: www.liveunity.com

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