I always make a concerted effort with these posts to keep varying up both the genre of music the artist I profile falls in and the region of the world from which they’re based. It’s important to me to keep this variety on this page so that anyone who lands here on any given day can find something interesting and relevant quickly, without having to back-track very much. My tastes and moods also change about every five days, so I’m often not currently listening to what I was last week (and no one is listening to anything on this blog…obviously). So this week’s installment comes from Africa, is about a group that is largely acoustic in nature, and are the first to wish me a happy birthday on facebook this year. Just sayin’.
Pictured above is my friend John Mambira, a man who nearly graced the banner of this site and sings lead vocals for Zimbabwean “afrocoustic” group Bongo Love. I first heard of Bongo Love in their performances opening for and then sharing the stage with the band Dispatch during their DISPATCH: ZIMBABWE concert stand in New York City. I didn’t attend the concerts, but was following closely (and downloading mp3s after each night)(legally) and was ecstatic to hear an mbira group from Zimbabwe invited onstage during a benefit concert as their country sank deeper into economic depression. I even brought recordings of those shows in for extra credit in my first Ethnomusicology course at university during our unit on African music. Nerdy stuff, to be sure, but the point stands that Bongo Love had entered my life in a big way.
Fittingly enough, it was only a few weeks after I was sharing Bongo Love’s music with a professor that I met the band in the flesh. In the Fall of 2008, Dispatch-related rock group State Radio were touring the U.S. with Bongo Love opening each date of the tour. I’m quite the fan of both groups, so a friend of mine planned to follow the tour and catch two dates and an acoustic benefit show one weekend in late September. I met the group, spoke to them briefly about their music, and even was roped in to run sound for them last-minute at a benefit at Northwestern University for the Sudanese Community Center. I bought all of their albums and traded the shirt off of my back for one of theirs. And became facebook friends with the band.
Bongo Love were formed in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, in 2001, and for the past decade have been pioneering a style of music they refer to as “afrocoustic”- acoustic music played largely with sub-Saharan instrumentation. On two albums, Afrocoustics and Rwendo (Journey), released in 2006 and 2008 respectively, the group supplements their warm grooves with pleasant arrangements that add unexpected elements such as violin solos to the buzzy timbre of their music. When I last saw the group in 2008 they performed live as a quartet featured John Mambira on vocals and percussion, Trymore Jombo on mbira, Godfrey Mambira on bass marimba, and Themba Mawoko on lead marimba. Mawoko has since left the group, but the now-trio continues to perform, and are actually currently on tour in Canada as I write this.
The recognizably African instruments Bongo Love uses to fill out its ensemble are specific choices; while they cite such Western artists as Bob Marley and Carlos Santana as influences, by using African keyboard percussion, djembes, and a Zimbabwean mbira (this incredible instrument that is important and interesting enough that entire books have been written about it) the group wears its African identity on its sleeve even before incorporating traditional dress as stage costume and lyrics in the native Zimbabwean languages of Shona and Ndebele. With the aforementioned lyrics and rhythms pulled from traditional Zimbabwean music crossed with easygoing and easily listenable melodies, Bongo Love are uniquely pre-packaged as cultural ambassadors of their homeland.
While the mbira and marimba dominate Bongo Love’s recordings, it is Mambira’s vocals that steer the songs from a more traditional Zimbabwean style a la Thomas Mapfumo to the poppier sound the band takes on. With long verses punctuated by ensemble hits at the cue of Mambira’s vocal crescendos and djembe slaps, songs such as Ekhya (Kogae) and Sounds of Africa give the group a very organic feel that fits perfectly with their attitude and appearance.
While the tunes on Bongo Love’s studio albums are sweet and easy to listen to, the group’s live show takes their whole aura to a new level. Decked out in matching dress, the group takes the stages and whirls through instrumental jams, percussion-and-dance breakdowns, and at least on occasion the best rendition of “No Woman No Cry” I’ve ever heard. The air of peace and desire for a better world are tangible dreams at a Bongo Love concert.
While it’s been years since I’ve seen Bongo Love perform and they’ve undergone significant lineup changes, the group is still one I listen to regularly. I follow Bongo Love on twitter, and recently attempted to take a look at their official website (let me know if it looks like anything real to you). To me, the relationship I formed with the band in one brief weekend was only the icing on the cake for a group that played an interesting and captivating style of music with a sound born from their own heritage and history. No one is listening to Bongo Love right now, but the group’s soothing blend of African rhythms and melodies assuredly makes them great cultural ambassadors and an even better act to see play.