A few years ago, LA reissue label Now-Again led the rush to share with the world the joys of Zamrock—a beguiling take on psychedelic rock recorded in the mid-70s by a small coterie of bands in the African nation of Zambia. The music—by artists such as Witch, Amanaz, Paul Ngozi, Chrissy “Zebby” Tembo, and Rikki Ililonga & Musi-O-Tunya—inevitably sounded like a mutated hybrid of several different styles, combining a clear reverence for the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix, the influence of James Brown, and rhythms borrowed from indigenous forms. Last month the great British label Strut added another chapter to the story with Ave Africa, a sprawling 29-track anthology that collects the complete recordings of Tanzanian band Sunburst.
Sunburst formed in 1970 as a hotel band in Dar Es Salaam, the largest city in the country. They played covers of American funk and rock, in stark contrast to the dominant local sounds, which at the time were Swahili-language taraab and rumba. They were probably violating a law promulgated by president Julius Nyerere that attempted to ban soul music and dancing (which were viewed as harmful influences) but that proved largely impossible to enforce. As time passed, Sunburst began writing their own material, sometimes inspired by America’s black-power movement—one of their earliest recordings, from 1973, was an original tune called “Black Is Beautiful.” (The group also served as the unofficial house band for a visit to Dar Es Salaam by Angela Davis of the Black Panther Party.) The following year, Sunburst met popular Zamrock musician Rikki Ililonga, who invited them to visit Zambia. They accepted his invitation, and at their first performance (in the capital of Lusaka) they met a British accountant named Peter Bagshawe who became a huge supporter of the band. He tried to organize tours, rented the group a house, and bought them a van to tour in. The following year they recorded the album Ave Africa, released in 1977 on the band’s own Kitoto label (which was largely financed by Bagshawe). Unfortunately, by the time the record came out, Sunburst was in disarray, with its various members moving in different directions.
At the time of its release, the album was advertised as “a fusion of the traditional sounds of Africa with Western Rock, spiced with a piece of the Caribbean,” a description that still holds water. Searing hard-rock guitar, often flanged or processed with a wah-wah pedal, dominated the band’s songs; Zambian-born lead singer James Mpungo steeped his vocals in soul, and most of the tunes used plush horn arrangements. Today’s 12 O’Clock Track is “Simba Anguruma,” a high-energy jam that’s fairly representative of Sunburst, with call-and-response vocals, wah-wah-kissed guitar, slinking trombone, and driving organ licks.
Luiz Gonzaga Jr., Plano de Vôo (EMI, Brasil)
Jimmy Giuffre Trio, The Train and the River (Atlantic)
Maggi Payne, Ahh-Ahh: Music for Ed Tannenbaum’s Technological Feets 1984-1987 (Root Strata)
Dillard Chandler, The End of an Old Song (Tompkins Square/Folkways)
Robin Kenyatta, Until (Vortex)