Longtime favorite singer Samba Mapangala recently unleashed a killer new album with a fortified Orchestra Virunga. Maisha Ni Matamu (Life is Sweet) covers broad sonic territory, including reggae and other Caribbean influences, but the bedrock Congolese rumbas are, and have been for decades, the band's foundation. Mapangala's Congo roots are enhanced on this release with crucial contributions from guitarists Popolipo, Syran Mbenza, and Huit Kilos, and Komba Bello Mafwala on drums.
The opening title track is straightforward soukous that will fill any dance floor, while the acoustic "Tupendane" is at the other end of the spectrum, a gently swinging, acoustic appeal for harmony among people everywhere. "Tupendane" features John Bashengazi, a musician from the Eastern Congo who plays all of the instruments and sings along with Samba. Other songs range from celebrations to exhortations to care for the environment and each other. "Tupende Miti (Let's Plant Trees)" offers its wisdom in multiple languages, giving a tribute to Wangari Maatai, the Kenyan Nobel Prize winner responsible for widespread reforestation in her country and beyond.
Mapangala has been based in the U.S. for years, but he built his career in Kenya after leaving the Congo. Doug Paterson has a good biography and appreciation here. His many recordings always feature wonderful guitar and his emblematic singing. While this record captures the veteran in good form and the production sounds first-rate, there are no nine-minute rumba classics comparable to those that kept Mapangala at the peak of popularity in East Africa for decades. He is more worldly now, and so is his music, and that is a mixed blessing for this listener.
I was going to post an audio snippet of "Maisha Ni Matamu," but found this fun video that has the whole song, with the gentleman trying to keep up with the young women, on the cold streets of NY. I thought: Enjoy!
P.S. I've decided to start including reviews of new releases on this site, reviving in this format my earlier activity with The Beat magazine. I'll sprinkle them among the sharing posts, looking a bit different; I hope you find them useful. Maisha Ni Matamu (Life is Sweet) can be purchased for download at CDBaby, Amazon and iTunes, if a low bit rate is okay for your ears. Full-bandwidth CDs can be found here.