Entertainment


THE RETURN OF HIGHLIFE
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One of the most well known styles of music from the African continent is highlife. In the 1950s this was the dominant music in the urban centers of West and Central Africa. Ghana is widely thought to be the birthplace of highlife. The bands, with a big horn section complimented by a heady rhythm section and fronted by a singer, were patterned after American swing orchestras and calypso bands from Trinidad. From Ghana, E.T. Mensah was perhaps one of the most famous highlife musicians; when the singer shouted out "E.T. Mensah play your own horn" everyone listened to his trumpet shouts. There are two excellent CDs from this period, All For You and Day By Day. Both contain some songs sung in English and cuts that are actually labeled as "calypso."

Another very famous Ghanaian highlife group is the Ramblers. Their excellent CD, simply called The Hit Sound Of, includes their version of the soul classic "Knock on Wood." They are included with E.T. Mensah and Professional Uhuru on a CD collection entitled Giants of Danceband Highlife. Highlife developed through the 60s with greater use of the guitar ­­ check out another collection entitled Telephone Lobi (Telephone Lover). During this time soukous was developing out of what was called "rumba Lingala" in Congo and Zaire.
Highlife defintely had an influence on soukous in its nascent form. Meanwhile, nearby in Nigeria a different version of highlife was developing with much more emphasis on guitar and percussion.

Musicians such as Sir Victor Uwafio, Warrior and his Oriental Brothers, Osadebe, and Prince Nico became massive stars in Lagos, Nigeria and beyond in the 60s and 70s. In particular, Prince Nico and his Rocafil Jazz had a massive hit with his song "Sweet Mother." To this date the song remains known throughout the African continent, and indeed it may be the biggest hit from Africa ever. You can find this song on a CD called Aki Special. With the Biafran war and the defeat of Nigerias Ibos people, highlife seemed to die out. The Yoruba styles of Juju and now Fuji have become the popular styles in Lagos, but highlife and many of these musicians survive.

Highlife in Ghana also seemingly died when the Ghanaian economy bottomed out in the late 70s and early 80s. It has never fully recovered. One truly classic CD from the sunset of Ganaian highlife is Sweet Talks Hollywood Highlife Party featuring the emotional voice of a A.B. Crentsil, quintessential African guitar, punchy odd horn lines, and an endearingly cheesy organ sound. What can you say to a song entitled "nawa to be husband"?

Most of Ghanas musicians left in the 80s for London, Frankfurt, or Toronto, where they made records that suffered in the sterile ambience of high­tech studios and became captive to drum machines and synthesizers. However, there is a recent CD from a band in Ghana that shows there is some modern highlife that still pocesses that classic feel: the Western Diamonds Forever.

Any serious modern African music enthusiast must be concerned about the generic quality of much of the genres music now offered in the marketplace. African music has been a part of the European popular music landscape for some years now, especially in France where songs from Francophone Africa or Martinique and Guadeloupe can make the national hit parade. Because there is a popular potential there are many producers, record companies, and musicians working in African music

In the case of soukous, the Congolese popular dance style that has dominated the African music scene, there is simply too much formula music being cranked out. Meanwhile, here in America music from Africa remains on the extreme margins in the musical ghetto. The audience here tends to be more traditional or purist. One project that could have emerged only from enthusiasts here in America is the stupendous new CD from Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe called Kedu America.

From the opening moments of banter, a phrase in the English stands out: "Some very nice music." No pretentions of grandeur here; this recording is just true classic Ibo highlife from one of the legends of this musical genre. Recording in Connecticut and mixed in Seattle by dedicated traditionalists, this is the first state­of­the­art highlife recording.

The rhythm section is deep with an incredible trap drummer, congas, and clave (yes, like the Cuban clave ­­ in fact this highlife rhythm is much the same as the Cuban one), and rock steady bass. Meandering guitar moves in and around punctuated by wild bursts of wahwah guitar as the drummer constantly shifts accents. Then comes that voice. Osadebe's strained yet relaxed vocals are dense with emotion and phrasing. On top of that we have trombone, tenor saxophone, and the trumpet, often playing in unison but featuring some fine solos, including a superb muted trumpet.

Osadebe records some of his old classics mixed with some new material. For lyrics, check this: "Why? Why did Onuigbo die? Service, service, oh civil service." Ever on the verge of disintegrating, the music holds together in its relentlessly mid­tempo form that remains dancable all night long. This record is sincere from top to bottom and restores highlife to a respectful place. Very nice!



SAMBA MAPANGALA
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On July 5 sensational singer Samba Mapangala and his Orchestre Virunga will perform at the Maritime Hall (First and Townsend Streets). This promises to be a straight­ahead African dance show.

Born in 1955 near the Congo river port of Matadi, at an early age Samba made his way to Kinshasa, the capital of Zaire. He sang there throughout the '70s with several groups, including Super Bella­Bella and Les Kinois. In Kinshasa during that time there an incredible proliferation of bands and a shortage of work, so Samba journeyed to Kampala, Uganda, and then on to Nairobi, Kenya. There he formed Orchestre Virunga (named after the volcano in Eastern Zaire) with guitarist Mokili Sesti.

Orchestre Virunga quickly became one of the top bands in Nairobi, East Africa's largest city. The band's 1982 recording, Malako, was a huge hit. Available on the Sterns/Earthworks label under the title Virunga Volcano, the album is a sparse mixture of Zairean soukous guitar and Congolese and Benga rhythms. This pan­African sound is augmented by saxophone; Samba's smooth, wandering alto voice ­­ singing in Lingala, Swahili, and occasionally English and French ­­ elevates the music to an ecstatic level.

Making its music miles away from Paris has kept Orchestre Virunga closer to its African sources of inspiration. One of the group's albums, Feet on Fire, was recorded in London in 1991 after Orchestre Virunga's European tour. Feet on Fire is a no­tricks, straight­forward recording that showcases vocals, guitar, and sax. Its arrangements start out mid­tempo and kick into higher gear in that classic Congolese rumba form.

This tour marks Samba Mapangala and Orchestre Virunga's West Coast debut. The July 5 Maritime Hall show promises to be a night of nonstop dancing. Advance tickets are available at Round World Music (593 Guerrero); also available (and on sale) at Round World are Orchestre Virunga's first two CDs.

On the Latin music front, check out one of Cuba's favorite singers, Candido Fabre. Fabre gained fame as a singer with Original de Manzanillo from 1983 to 1993. His first solo album, Son de Cuba, is a real gem. Fabre's songs have become hits in the hands of such people as Celia Cruz, Willy Chirino, Oscar D'Leon, and of such Cuban groups as Los Van Van, Ritmo Oriental, and Orquesta Aragon.

Son de Cuba was recorded in Santa Clara this year with Fabre's new band. Sticking to the classic Cuban charanga form, the band features three violins, a flute, and a large rhythm section under the guidance of keyboardist Omar Pupo. This is a superb recording sound­wise, and the album's material is a mixture of new songs and older material.

Fabre does an excellent medley called "Exitos de Fabre" that includes all his big hits with Original de Manzanillo. Like the members of Fabre's previous group, these musicians know how to funk up the charanga. This one will get you dancing.


THOTH
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by Bronwyn Neal

The four men in the band Thoth take wearing skirts very seriously. "I think wearing a skirt is one of the most powerful things a person can do," said bassist Scott Kungha Drengsen. "Think of the people who wear them: priests, monks, warriors."

"And they're all channelers," noted violinist Stephen Kaufman.

It is Kaufman who most often bares his legs to the public, though the other three band members often follow suit ­­ er, skirt. A violinist since the age of eight, Kaufman started playing San Francisco BART stations and street corners in the late '80s, using the performance name S.K. Thoth. At first, he wore jeans. "But over time," he recalled, "I wanted to express myself more fully, and I found that the closer I got to that the less clothes I wore."

When Kaufman met percussionist Michael Chiaravelotti in 1992, Chiaravelotti already had a predisposition to loincloths. He had recently switched from a trap set to African hand drums after two unfulfilling years of "playing whatever covers it took to get rock gigs," and was also delving into his mother's Passamaquoddy Indian culture. Both men enjoy the greater freedom of movement that skirts offer over pants. For Kaufman, it is also a matter of exposing the flesh. "The skin is the primary place you can sense vibrations coming in," he said.

For some, words like "vibrations" and "channeling" ­­ plus the fact that Thoth uses a yin­yang sign for the "o" in its name ­­ are an invitation to label the band "new age." Thoth, however, sees itself more as ageless. "Our music has a sort of timeless quality to it," Chiaravelotti said.

One listen to the group's sensuous rhythms and melodies bears this description out. The sound is distinctly poetic, bringing to mind sacred rituals, labyrinthine ruins, and shimmering desert sands. Hearing it, it's hard to keep your hips from swaying ­­ which, according to Kaufman, is not something to be taken lightly. "I think our sound makes people vulnerable," he said, "because to move to it you have to let go of certain societal restrictions, namely movement of the hips. People are so used to dancing that up­and­down sort of dance to music with straight up­and­down beats. With our music, the beat's strong, but it's sinuous."

The music is sinuous, and the band members are sinewy; all of them are dancers. Appropriately enough, dancing is a central part of the Thoth experience. At shows, the band members typically dance for a while before picking up their instruments. "It's almost like a movement meditation to explore the space where we're playing," Drengsen explained. Dancers Nancee Sobonya and Jill Kornwise often perform with Thoth, and frequently the audience joins in the dance.

When I visited Thoth they were in the studio ­­ the living room of harpist Boris Goldmund's posh high­rise apartment overlooking the Bay ­­ making the DAT for their second CD, which will be available later this summer. The band is perfectly content self­producing its recordings; when I asked if they were hunting for a label Drengsen replied, "Distributorship would be nice, but a label might not be the best route. I can't see a label keeping their hands off us."

Lack of label angst is only one of Thoth's departures from the regular career track so many bands strive to follow. While other groups set their sights on fame, fortune, and MTV, Thoth dreams of traveling around Greece, Israel, and Egypt to play their music in temenoi, or sacred enclosures associated with temples. "And we'd like someone to pay for it," added Kaufman.

Temenoi are alluring to Thoth, Drengsen explained, because "they're energetically and acoustically perfect psychic apertures." Acoustics, he continued, are of prime importance to the band: "A place is perfect when the sound just washes back over you."

Luckily, Thoth has managed to find a few such places closer to home: the two Mission BART stations, for example. Judging from the band members' rave reviews, the 24th Street station is particularly well suited to Thoth's sound. "In both stations," Chiaravelotti added, "there's a plaque of bronze that we always end up playing in front of. The one at 24th Street is tuned to a B or an E, and when we play this certain song, I hit [the plaque] and it sounds like a gong. It's a sign that we're meant to play there," he laughed.

Thoth regularly plays for BART commuters not only in the Mission, but also in the Financial District, and there's more to the gigs than mere acoustic bliss. "I think the reason you make music is to be public," said Goldmund, who began performing on the streets of New York. Goldmund, who studied with renowned harpist Mildred Dilling, and whose instrument once belonged to Harpo Marx (a student of Dilling's), boasts an impressive musical career that includes six albums and numerous solo performances every year.

The new CD will be Thoth's first recording to include Goldmund, who joined the group this spring after hearing the band's first CD and sending Thoth a letter of introduction. Kaufman, Chiaravelotti, and Drengsen all agree that the harp is a welcome addition to Thoth's sound. "It is not heavy­handed as other chordal instruments can be," said Kaufman. "It's a gentle watering of the ground rather than a gushing pipe."

Thoth will play the Elbo Room Sunday June 23 at 8 p.m. (647 Valencia, $4 cover). For information on upcoming gigs, including a July benefit for the Coalition for the Homeless (date and location not confirmed at press time), call (415) 281­0102.


COCKPIT
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by Victor Miller

Cockpit, five women punk rockers appearing at random and with abandon in various dives about town, provides all the thrills with half the attitude of your average undiscovered but destined­to­be­famous­for­fifteen­minutes bar band. The group has potential but chooses, in true punkerino fashion, to spit on it, electing to play only when they feel like it or when an out­of­town tour offers the chance of intoxicated vacationing. Cockpit's songs still carry a snarly feminist message but they mostly deliver raw rock hedonism uber alles (or Alice).

The band was well received at a recent performance Kilowatt. Cockpit punched out a half hour's worth of 90­second mega­speed numbers that make for good dancing but abrupt sex. Lead singer Carla Lease's blond hair, maxed out lipstick, and matching initials will probably draw Courtney Love comparisons, as will the metaphoric similarity of the names Cockpit and Hole. But Lease has a better voice, a more sinister, less campy bad­girlishness and can machinegun more hip thrusts into one song than Elizabeth Berkeley was able to manage in all of Showgirls. She gets away with it only because the rest of the band can really rip. They're all up there obviously having a good time; they stopped worrying long ago about proving what no longer needs proving: testosterone is not the only hard­rock hormone.

Cockpit's humble origins go back to a mild­to­wild party in UCSB's stucco student ghetto, Isla Vista, in 1989. Three very drunk future Cockpit members, fleeing the slimy superficiality of the So Cal soiree, fled to a poorly grouted bathroom where along with most of the evenings libations the idea for the band came up. (Sounds like Punk Apocrypha to me, but that's their story.)

Cockpit was originally known as PMS (for pre­marital sex) but had to give up the name when the a capella group composed of Patty, Mary, and Sandy claimed the punk rockers would hurt their commercial value (they picked the name first) and started legal action. Santa Barbara's surf music and '60s girl groups like the Shangralas were early influences but besides an early recording of Annette Funicello's "Pajama Party" the band has since left these styles behind for basic punk.

Cockpit's early years included a serious side that involved feminist pamphleteering. Small Jehovah's­Witness­pamphlet­sized tracts given out at gigs dealt with women's issues without mincing words. One of these, a graphically illustrated treatise on one of the often overlooked and often poorly handled female erogenous areas, contains the weighty words of wisdom: "Women and carrots have one common enemy. That Enemy is dryness." Another shows a mother and daughter lamenting the machinations of fiendish oil companies that have conspired to systematically reduce the availability of tampon machines in service station restrooms.

These agitprop pieces were mostly the doings of Beth, who is no longer with band. The remaining quintet of all hard­consonant hard girls are Kelly, Karen, Carla, Katie, and Claudia. Their femiganda was also done somewhat as a response to audiences that insisted an all­women band couldn't be in it just for the music and beer but must have some kind of feminist message. Karen's brief and messy experiment with menstrual blood art gave most concert goers more than they bargained for message­wise. It was not a very popular part of the show when Cockpit did the cow pie circuit of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona in the de rigueur beat­up van ominously named the Molester.

"There's no message anymore. We're just existential," says Kelly. Everyone else looks confused at this. "Maybe the message is we're celebrating our sexuality," says Karen. "Celebrate your own damn sexuality in private," Carla says, glaring at Karen. "The message is we don't give a fuck; just bring us some beer," says Claudia. "We're just not serious about this," concludes Katie.

Cockpit will not be playing any where in July because they just don't feel like it. Maybe they will in August ­­ if they're in the mood. They will release a CD sometime soon. Buy it. Cockpit is pretty good.

  • childbearing hips

    you want a cartoon girl with barbie doll tits
    jackie jackoff, poly pinup, doris dish
    every bum's baby, puckering, primping, posing
    legs wide open and mouth closing
    I'm a real live girl I walk, I talk, I cry
    I can cheat and I can steal and I can lie
    I will grunt and stretch and strain to form another
    I'm your daughter, I'm your sister, I'm your mother
    red blooded American male on the rag
    I don't bleed the colors of America's flag
    when's the last time you saw your own blood flowing?
    poor old thing, cut yourself shaving?
    I've got chilbearing hips
    I can crush your logic with my passion blow
    I can suck your body dry and swallow you whole
    I can pin your motives in between my thighs
    try a real woman on for size
    I've got mother earth breasts and the belly of life
    I can feed you love and drink down all your strife
    If it's brains and brawn you want then look at me
    I'm more man than you'll ever be

    from Cockpit's four song single "Sick and Tired"

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