THE RETURN OF HIGHLIFE
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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,"
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,"
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
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.
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,"
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.
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
I'm your daughter, I'm your sister, I'm your
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
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
I can feed you love and drink down all your
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
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