POP MUSIC / Night classes with the old school: Has world music used up all its credit? Philip Sweeney on the fortunes of the Bhundu Boys and Salif Keita

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The Independent Online
What has become of the vanguard of artistes who spearheaded the European boom in African music in the Eighties? Some, like the Nigerian King Sunny Ade, returned to their home markets. Others went in the opposite direction, opting for the international African / tropical circuit, membership of which confers status at home, but not necessarily record sales or musical popularity. Few have successfully combined the two.

In 1986, the Bhundu Boys, a hard-working but second-rank beerhall Zimbabwean dance band, hit the European fast track after a final impromptu London date before their flight home after a tour of Scottish pubs. Within a year they were headlining festivals and signing with the record label WEA, while Biggie Tembo, their personable and showmanlike lead singer, was working up a nice little cult following of his own. Then their momentum dissipated. A flood of equally good bands increased the competition. The WEA album flopped. Biggie Tembo left to pursue an erratic solo career.

Bassist David Mankaba, and a year later his replacement, Sheperd Munyama, joined the growing number of Southern African musicians to have succumbed to Aids.

By the beginning of 1993 the four-strong Bhundus were back based in Harare, but working almost exclusively abroad. A month ago I came across a poster advertising a Bhundu concert on a wall in Fiji. Last Saturday they were in Bristol, a little frayed at the edges - keyboardist / singer Shakespear Kangwena had a bad sore throat - but still calling 'Burruru] Burruru] Burruru]' gamely to the appreciative, jit-jiving audience whom they enjoined to ululate in response.

The Bhundus' musical mix remains as simple, formulaic and effective as ever - a lumpy, cantering rhythm on snare drums and hi-hat, a high-pitched lead guitar echoing the traditional piano lines of Shona music. Their repertoire includes all the old favourites - 'Shabini', 'Hatisitose', etc - but also steps in and out of the dodgier territory of their most recent album, Friends On The Road, in which they team up with an assortment of British guest musicians to highly variable effect. Live, the worst excesses of the record are eliminated and their excursions into Country & Western ('Ring of Fire', 'My Best Friend') are good fun. A plentiful supply of Strepsils, possibly a second guitarist, and the Bhundus should have a great deal of beerhall mileage in them yet.

The Malian Salif Keita's trajectory has been altogether smoother than the Bhundus', though not quite as astral as he might have hoped.

Keita achieved cult status via a couple of haunting records made with the Ambassadeurs du Motel in the early Eighties. In 1987, his album Soro, a slick, glossy, funked-up Paris studio production, hit the burgeoning African market in Europe with perfect timing, and the albino nobleman from the heart of the ancient Mandingo empire was suddenly the most talked about African singer outside the continent. Since then, Keita's direction has been resolutely away from his roots, working increasingly with progressive jazz and rock-oriented musicians and leaving the Malian market to the new young Bambara singers who have supplanted the Mandingo sound in recent years.

Internationally Keita has become a fixture among the ever growing ranks of 'world music' festivals and a musical ambassador at large for the continent. Last month he was in London for the launch of a new African Arts festival, staying at the Groucho Club: he can be expected to crop up on Stop the Week or Have I Got News For You? any day now.

Last week Keita played two British dates, out of the blue. I caught his band in Bristol, playing to an 80 per cent capacity audience with not a hint of the French chanson standards he is planning to include on his next album. The band was even more multi-national than before - including a new Senegalese drummer and South African trumpeter, and a French Antillean keyboard player - and played together well, loud and at the unremittingly strenuous level that has characterised his post-Soro work.

The high point of the evening, once again, was 'Mandjou', Keita's old praise-song for the late dictator / hero Sekou Toure, former President of Guinea. Here the Malian Moussa Diakite's delicate guitar-work, the lovely Mandingo melody and the arresting harmonies reminded one how Salif Keita, a dozen years ago, first dealt himself into the game he has since prospered at.

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