If you’re listening to the above clip you could be forgiven for thinking it was an excerpt from some African band rather than the Lavender Hill album but it’s not far off. First, this is something new and un-heralded so if you were expecting a vlog or a podcast, apologies. Last week I was interviewed by Alex Horwood the photographer and videographer we work with. I thought it would be a quick 15 minutes but he turned up with 2 cameras, a still photographer, lights, and a sound recorder. After he finished he told me he wouldn’t finish editing for at least a week, so we had to make some changes to our scheduling for this week’s Adventures in Music. Luckily I had this one in reserve, so let’s talk about one of my influences. African Music.
Music didn’t take me there but within minutes of leaving Lome airport in West Africa, I couldn’t escape it. You heard it on flimsy antique Japanese transistor radios from the roadside, blaring out of bars, from markets where rip-off copies of Western soul, pop and rock sat next to the work of Congolese, Senegalese, Malian and Cameroonian musicians. I’ll be honest, I didn’t understand it until one day I heard Mory Kante’s “Yeke Yeke” and it all came together. All music is visceral. You hear it, you like it or you don’t like it. It was the exuberance, the inexorable rhythms…the sheer energy I loved.
Describing African music as an entity on its own is a little disparaging. It’s like lumping soul, jazz, pop, rock and folk together. One person who has done more to educate the UK public about this huge sprawl of rhythms, killer percussion and brilliant vocals, it’s Andy Kershaw. When I returned to Europe, listening to him actually broadened my knowledge, he is so well-versed in this music. There are so many strands in West Africa where I spent a few years and we haven’t even talked about Southern Africa. Then you think about the crossovers, from Fela Kuti, the African reggae of Alpha Blondy from Cote d’Ivoire and the individual brilliance of Youssou N’Dour who has pulled influences from everywhere to create a music all his own. On my iPlayer I even have a few songs by the Afro-Celt project, a fusion of Irish and Kenyan music. All the different countries have their own brand and it’s generally an evolution of traditional music paired with Cuban and Latin rhythms. In Senegal it’s M’balax; in Cameroon it’s Makossa and I’ll be talking about that later in the blog. And I can’t help mentioning the Ghanaian band Osibisa who brought the sounds of their continent to Europe in the 1970s with a storm and one of the best album covers I’ve ever seen! And just to namedrop, I spent one unforgettable evening in Accra jamming with their keyboard player Kiki Gyan.
I played in a few bands with fellow Europeans in the early years, churning out covers for ex-pats through West Africa and although I knew a few I really didn’t collaborate with local musicians until I went to live in Cameroon.
In the coastal city of Douala there was a vibrant music community, led at the time by the fantastic sax player Manu Dibango. I’d only been there a few weeks when a friend pushed me onstage with a group of African musicians. We started to do weekly slots in the city’s clubs and our band, called Tempting Fate, was in demand. There weren’t too many European/African combinations. And through the guys I met Tom Yom’s.
Tom’s brand was makossa. It’s a blend of traditional music, soul with strong bass lines and heavy brass, but we started a collaboration that stopped only when I left Africa. It crossed all the boundaries and if today I break the rules of music, or push its boundaries he persuaded me it was OK to do it. He was a really accomplished, serious musician and although self-taught in both music and production he was adventurous and not afraid to try new techniques, one of which was sampling. He would record traditional African instruments then re-create their sound on his synth. I started work on a solo album with him but it wasn’t finished for reasons of time – he had to go to France to work. It was pretty ironic that African musicians earned more in Europe than in their own country and if the chance arose, off they went. One gig in Paris or London could earn them enough to live in Africa for a year. But from that half-finished project came two of the songs you can hear on the Lavender Hill album: “Apocalypse” and “Temptation”. The clip from ‘Temptation” above was my best effort at reproducing a couple of percussion instruments Tom put on the original recording, sadly lost in the depths of time. But we worked on another song he included on one of his albums, “Sunny Days”. We did the demo at his studio in Douala, then I met him in Paris to record the vocals. Although it’s not very African, you can hear his fantastic voice. He’s the second one you hear. That’s me the other half of the duet.
Tom died in 2007. Manu Dibango sadly died of Covid last March at the age of 83 after a distinguished career. Unfortunately he’s only known in the the English-speaking world for “Soul Makossa” and being sampled by Michael Jackson but he and Tom were huge in Africa. Somewhere there’s a picture of Tom, Manu and I. Wish I could put it on this blog but having moved around so much it was lost. Kiki Gyan isn’t around any more, a victim of his success more than anything. But when I think of everything they, and the dozens of African musicians I played with over the years I lived there, taught me; and remember the joy and pleasure they took from their music I can only feel immensely grateful; and you can bet echoes of those rhythms and beats will be there in future songs on every album we make.