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06/02/2016
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SIAMA RIVERS -- FROM THE CONGO TO THE MISSISSIPPI

Everyone can spell Mississippi but not everyone can spell Siama Matuzungidi's last name, so he is proud bearer of a single name -- like Adele, Bono or Cher! In the history of Congolese guitar there is a distinguished line of mi-solo players: this is a style of guitar that alternates between lead and rhythm and can be the engine room of a good song. The inventor was unquestionably Mwamba D├ęchaud whose younger brother Docteur Nico became one of the greatest exponents of African guitar. Then there was Vata Mombasa who led Orchestre Lipua Lipua. Just as Vata Mombasa was known as "the Professor," his colleagues dubbed Siama "Mualimu" which means "the teacher," because of his intelligence on the guitar. Among the legendary Congolese bands he was part of, Siama started out in the Cavacha band of Dona Mobeti (the cavacha was a wildly popular dance in the 70s). After that band split, one faction was led by Mopero wa Maloba who created Shama Shama, but groups often fell apart on tour and Siama was asked by his friend Koko Zigo Mike to come to Kampala, Uganda, where they formed Kombe Kombe. That band got a contract at the Garden Square in Nairobi where they regrouped as Viva Makale. Further splits led to Bwambe Bwambe, Pepelepe, Shika Shika of Jimmy Monimambo, then to Moja One of Moreno, and to Lovy Longomba's brilliant work before Super Mazembe, and then to Virunga, led by Samba Mapangala. After seeing Virunga at the Starlight Club in Nairobi in 1983 I became obsessed with this sound of the expatriate Congolese bands in Kenya, and started to retroactively collect information and recordings by them. Siama's career -- as he was in many of the key bands -- is central to my research. This is his first album in many years; he is now based in Minnesota so has a cosmopolitan band featuring Indian singers and even an Indian veena, Tibetan flute, country pedal steel guitar, jazz piano, and pan-African percussion, so maybe "By Way of the Ganges" could be a subtitle to the album. His acoustic guitar is strong and the instrumentation neatly complements it without drowning him out. There's a palm wine-style song, "Yele Yele," and other West African touches. One thing about musicians like Siama is they cannot stop making music and even out of Africa he finds some sympathetic souls to join him. When the trumpet comes in on "Mpevo," I thought of Hugh Masekela -- he came from South Africa to the US but also created an Afro-beat sound when he teamed up with Hedzoleh Sounds. Among several songs Siama wrote for Shika Shika, "Sisili" is reprised here, as well as "Kueya" which he originally performed with Samba Mapangala and Virunga. This is a welcome return to the studio for one of Congo's unsung legends.