Siama Matuzungidi was a soukous legend in his homeland, the Democratic Republic of Congo in the 1970s and early 1980s. The former Zaire is, alas, a troubled land and Matuzungidi and lots of other musicians fled. He landed in Minneapolis in the 1990s, via Uganda, Dubai, and Japan. Our gain; Africa's loss.
For those unfamiliar with soukous, it's a popular form of dance music sometimes called the "African rumba," as it appears to be one of the few musical types that migrated from the Caribbean to Africa rather than vice versa. Like Cuban son, which inspired it in the 1930s, soukous makes judicious use of bright brass and it's good party music. That's the musical history side of things, but Rivers is far more than an African lilt grafted to a Latin beat; in fact, this album shows Matuzungidi experimenting with various styles. True to its subtitle, we indeed hear music inspired by the Congo–try "Sisili," or "Malembe"–but also tunes whose roots lay along the Mississippi River that runs through his adopted home. For the most part, though–as we hear in the bluesy " Ndombolo" and "Mpevo–" think the Mississippi considerably south of Minnesota. The latter song is one of several tracks that feature trumpet from Bobby Marks that will make you jump, and bass and piano lines that would be more at home in, say, Memphis than Minneapolis.
Matuzungidi's vocals invite adjectives such as "silky," spirited," and "sunny. Given that most of the songs are in African languages, I've no idea what he's singing most of the time, but most of it felt joyous, so I hope I wasn't grooving to somebody's pain. You'll have trouble standing still to "Jungle Zombie," its solid dance grooves muscled up by bold brass. The brass serves to give heft to a hypnotic melody line from which departures spin. The overall effect of the song is like being bathed in a warm river with a strong current pulling you downstream. It's a good metaphor for an album that often delivers you to unexpected places. Matuzungidi's guitar and Tony Axtell's bass set the melody for most of the tunes, but you'll hear lots of instruments you probably don't associate with Congolese music: concert flute and piano (Brian Ziemniak), a full drum kit (Greg Schutte), and cello (Jacqueline Ultan), for instance. The most surprising of all is the veena playing of Nirmala Rajasekar. Let's add the Ganges to our list of rivers; the veena is a lute-like instrument that is the likely ancestor of the sitar and whose sound it resembles. It is often called a "Carnatic veena" and is used throughout southern India in "classical" music that is often religious in nature. I think Matuzgungidi's references are more secular on "Maisha Mazuri." It has a little bit of everything in its robust mix: cymbal-crashing percussion, guitar and piano arpeggios, and a veena lead that would do a rock musician proud. Add to this Matuzungidi's vocals, which on this track are as sexy as Barry White but with ten times more energy. If Matuzungidi hasn't surprised you enough, he rounds off the album with "Yolanda," a sophisticated and moody tune that owes a debt to moody jazz.
This is certainly one of the year's finest albums. Check it out. By the way, Matuzungidi's Website promises there is track information in the CD. I got a download, so those who buy the CD can read the liner notes and let me know how far off base I am in some of my assumptions!