Molokai

From tie-dyes to skinny ties, musical styles accompanied by a style
of dress tend to persist longer than those lacking a fashion
statement. In the late ’70s, Papa Wemba kicked off the
sapeur movement, which combined haute couture with even
hotter music: the then-Zairean soukous that updated and
re-Africanized Cuban charanga with electric instruments. A
couple of decades later, Wemba’s music is no less stylishly
appointed.

Soukous at its infectious best is a melodious, quicksilver blend of
slithering guitar lines, insistent snare beats and sweet
call-and-response vocals. On Molokai, however, Wemba strives
for a more international (as in Western pop) sound with a ten-piece
band of five African and five European musicians. Recorded mostly
live in the studio with a rock producer, the album ranges from the
perfect, if far too brief, pure soukous of Bakwetu to the
sentimental politics of If the Children Cry. Even when Wemba
returns to his charanga-fan roots, as he does in Esclave,
synthesizers now replace the string parts. Nothing on the album, in
fact, matches the peerless beauty of its opening track, Excuse Me,
which consists simply of Wemba singing unaccompanied in his mother
tongue.

FromEscape(December
1999.) Subscriptions: $18/yr. (4 issues) from Box 462255,
Escondido, CA 92046.

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