Wednesday, 21 September 2016

World Tour

clockwise from top left: Mbongwana Star, Malawi Mouse Boys, Dove Slimme, The Parlotones
Week 3: Central, South and East Africa

After last week's epic road trip, I fancy a couple of flights this week. We are after all travelling a very long way. First, from Bamako in Mali to Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Formerly known as Zaire, DR Congo is huge. Like, really, really massive. It's the second largest country in Africa (the fourth largest by population) and the eleventh largest in the world. You can fit 11 Great Britains into DR Congo and still have a bit of space left over for a few Northern Irelands. We are talking BIG here.

Its capital Kinshasa is located in the south west of the country near the south east border of Congo. Last year, an album called 'From Kinshasa' was released by a band called Mbongwana Star and it is rather excellent. While primarily a rock band, 'From Kinshasa' has a real electronic feel to it, enhancing the groove and rhythms of the songs. Live, they're rawer, more organic. But as The Swede pointed out recently, they are also pretty phenomenal. 'From Kinshasa' is a fascinating record and rather addictive too.

Back on the plane, heading for Johannesburg. Now with South Africa being the most westernised of African nations, you would think it has a thriving pop music scene. And you'd be right, of course. South Africa is rich with diverse cultures and with it as varied a music scene as you could wish to have.

During my hunt for a South African act to sweep me off my feet, I came across this track and video by a band called The Parlotones. Now this lot are massive - and I mean MASSIVE - in their native homeland, having enjoyed number one singles and albums and goodness knows how many awards. And yet, I'd never come across them before. They certainly haven't made it into the UK, despite having released eight albums over the past 13 years. Push Me To The Floor is from their fourth album 'Stardust Galaxies' from 2009. I love it and can't think for the life of me why The Parlotones aren't household names around the world. Not very African-sounding (if you want to define it), but a great tune, and that's what matters most.

Malawi next and once again, it's by air we go, taking off from Johannesburg and landing in... wait a minute... Blantyre? Isn't that near Glasgow? This isn't a Scottish climate though. Hmm, so it seems we really are in Malawi, one of the poorest countries in the word. This is a place so poor that one of its most recent musical discoveries is a group of fellas whose instruments are homemade from any old bits of scrap they can lay their hands on. They're called the Malawi Mouse Boys and they are, quite frankly, utterly utterly wonderful.

Owing to food shortages, the field mouse has become a delicacy in Malawi and the four members of the Malawi Mouse Boys used to eke out a living selling grilled mice on sticks to passersby on the highway outside of their village. They would write gospel-tinged folk songs for amusement. They were discovered by Californian producer Ian Brennan who recorded their first album live in the open air. Now the band has toured the world and released three albums, the most recent of which arrived back at the start of the summer. Yasowa Mzeru means "That's not wise" and perfectly illustrates the Malawi Mouse Boys' music and vocal harmonies. Umasiye Manga, however, is one of the most moving and powerful things you'll ever hear. Meaning "My loneliness", it was written by singer Joseph Nekwankwa about the death of his mother when he was just a boy. That is genuine sobbing you hear at the end.

Both these tracks are from the group's most recent record 'Forever Is 4 You' and is perhaps my favourite and most remarkable find of the year.

Here's some footage of the Malawi Mouse Boys around the time of their second album in 2014. I'm not sure what I love most about it - the makeshift drum kit and its ingenious hi-hat, or the fact that one of the band members is wearing a Wonder Stuff t-shirt...

Our final stop in Africa is Kenya and we're going by road. It's quite a drive from Malawi, but we can do it (with an overnight stop in Tanzania). I understand there's a growing rock scene in Kenya, particularly in the south. Dove Slimme cite Paramore, Muse, John Mayer and Jimi Hendrix among their influences. To date, there's not a lot of recordings, but a new single entitled Here I Stand was released a couple months back.

Have to say I'm rather taken by their lovely singer Jillian Ndirangu, but let's keep this professional, shall we? While Dove Slimme is part of Kenya's burgeoning metal scene, don't let that influence you - you can hear their more alternative influences creeping into their sound. Leo Ni Leo is a track from the band's 2013 EP 'Cool On The Inside' and is very, very good.

So onto another continent next week, to an area where pop music is often rather difficult to find...


  1. Excellent stuff Robster - but no stopover in Zimbabwe - some great stuff from there Bhundu Boys,Thomas Mapfumo,Four Brothers, Real Sounds of Africa
    Going back to my Kershaw days!
    Looking forward to the next leg of the voyage

  2. Malawi Mouse Boys are stunning. How have I not heard of these guys before? Bloody wonderful stuff - thanks Robster.

  3. When I was in S.A. I discovered the amazing BLK JKS. If you like Parlotones, you should check them out.