STRUT RECORDS IS SET TO RELEASE SUNBURST'S AVE AFRICA, THE COMPLETE RECORDINGS 1973-1976 ON JUNE 24, 2016.
Strut presents a definitive collection of recordings from one of Tanzania’s most revered but short-lived bands of the 1970s, Sunburst. Covering their entire output from 1973 to 1976, this first retrospective features their singles for Moto Moto and TFC, their sole album, ‘Ave Africa’ and an unreleased radio session recorded in Tanzania in 1973.
Starting out playing “copyright” covers of James Brown and Santana in 1970 at Chez Margot’s in the Airline Hotel, Dar Es Salaam, the young Sunburst was formed by Zairean guitarist Hembi Flory Kongo who recruited resident drummer Johnny “Rocks” Fernandes, bass player Bashir Idi Farhan and organist / vocalist Kassim Magati. They were soon joined by Zambian-born lead singer James Mpungo.
Soul, funk and R&B music had long influenced young musicians in Dar, in particular following a concert by US bluesman Buddy Guy in 1969. Domestic bands like the Rifters, Groove Makers, Sparks, Barkeys and Tonics sprang up and soul music became popular at ‘boogies’, weekly events at the city’s dance halls and clubs, moving on from the popularity of earlier styles like pachanga and twist. The Dar es Salaam neighbourhood of Upanga was nicknamed Soulville, since several bands playing soul music were based there.
Meanwhile, the Tanzanian government were attempting to steer the youth away from what they perceived as harmful influences. President Nyerere’s Ujamaa policy, sometimes referred to as African Socialism, was being introduced across the country and focused on self-reliance and education. In November 1969, soul (both music and dancing) was banned in Tanzania because it was “the cause of bad manners in the country’s youth.”. It quickly became clear that a ban would not be practical, much like Operation Vijana a year earlier, an effort to outlaw mini skirts and bell-bottom trousers. These measures had little, if any, effect on Sunburst, who signed a year-long residency at Bahari Beach Hotel.
As Sunburst grew together, their repertoire began to include original compositions and their first songs reflected the diverse background of the band and their influences, both musically and lyrically. ‘Black Is Beautiful’ was a nod to James Brown’s ‘Say It Loud’ but also drew inspiration from hanging out with Dar’s growing African American community. In 1973, Sunburst were the main band at a party to welcome Black Panther Party associate Angela Davis, who visited the country for a week. ‘Enzi Za Utumwani’ (‘Slavery Days’) spoke of the history of colonial oppression of African people around the world. Musically the song had a strong coastal influence, and its rhythm and melody were an indication of the melting pot of later Sunburst work. A few years later ‘Enzi Za Utumwani’ would be covered by Japanese jazz musician Sadao Watanabe.
After June 1973, Sunburst quickly gained a local and national audience when they recorded a live session for Radio Tanzania, the state-owned radio station. At the time, recording at the Dar es Salaam radio studio was the only way for many Tanzanian bands to ensure that their compositions would be heard on the airwaves. Television in mainland Tanzania would only be introduced nearly two decades later. From this session, the song ‘Kosa Langu Mpenzi’ became popular among Tanzanian youth, describing a true story from the love life of singer James Mpungo.
In July 1973, Sunburst participated in a band competition in Dar Es Salaam, taking the title of ‘Beni Bora’ (‘Best Band’). Their popularity in Tanzania was at an all time high. When American jazz musician Dizzy Gillespie came to perform in Dar in December 1973 and his bass player fell sick, the US embassy approached Sunburst and Bashir, the band’s bass player, replaced him for Dizzy’s first gig.
A few months later, the group travelled to Nairobi, Kenya and recorded for Moto Moto, a Kenyan record label whose catalogue featured many Tanzanian bands. The session, led by famous producer Phares Oluoch Kanindo, resulted in four songs, released locally on two singles and licensed for overseas release on RCA. The Sunburst songs stood out from most of the other Tanzanian music commercially issued during this era since the majority were in rumba, ‘jazz’ or taarab styles and sung in Swahili and other local languages rather than English. In Dar es Salaam, Sunburst were not the only band whose music incorporated elements of soul and jazz, but the majority of their peers did not release their music commercially, with the notable exception of Afro 70.
In 1974, Sunburst met Zambian musician Rikki Ililonga from the Zamrock group Musi-O-Tunya, who was en route from Mombasa to Zambia. He invited them to come to Zambia to “explore possibilities”. Shortly after, Hembi, Bashir and Kassim travelled there and performed during independence celebrations. The trip led them to the Copperbelt and then Lusaka, Zambia’s capital. At their first show there they met Peter Bagshawe, a British accountant who worked at a car company, who became a good friend and supporter of the band. In October of that year, Peter secured Sunburst the support slot for a Zambian tour by Kenyan funk band Matata (the dates regrettably turned out to be a disaster because of an incompetent local promoter who ended up not paying the band). Despite this, the tour had positive outcomes. Eric Allendale Dubuisson, a Dominican-born musician from the UK and an ex-member of popular group the Foundations, was playing trombone for Matata and joined Sunburst after the tour. Peter Bagshawe then became their manager, convinced of the potential of the band.
By 1975, Bagshawe had rented a house for the group and had bought them a second hand Toyota Hiace van. Sunburst took up gigs at different spots including Lusaka restaurant and nightclub, La Gondola and performed on a weekend show on ZNBC, Zambian national television. They recorded several songs for Radio Zambia, including a tribute to Zambia’s president Kaunda, and a song marking ten years of independence. Rikki Ililonga remembers: “They very quickly became a crowd puller. They called their music Kitoto Sound and Hembi’s approach to guitar set them apart from the usual Congolese style. He was more of a Santana freak and that was the stuff most of my generation related to.”
In September 1974, Mozambique’s freedom fighters of Frelimo met in Zambia with the newly instated government of Portugal to sign the Lusaka Accord, an agreement handing over colonial powers and granting Mozambique independence. Sunburst performed at a celebration party where they met Frelimo leader Samora Machel. Three months later, they played at the wedding of Machel and Graça Simbine, in the presence of Heads of States of friendly nations.
In April 1976, Sunburst started working on their first full album, recording at the famous dB Studio in Lusaka. The band had undergone some changes in membership since their days in Dar es Salaam - original drummer Johnny Rocks had left after converting to Islam and getting married and Sunburst had recruited a new drummer, Katako Lubula (nicknamed “Rocky”), a former member of the great Baba Gaston band. Kazadi Mbiya joined on congas and bass. Both from Zaire, they composed and sang and brought in a new language and musical background. Then there was trombonist Eric Allendale, at 40, the senior band member. Rikki Ililonga participated in the recording sessions, uncredited.
The recording of ‘Ave Africa’ was paid for by the group’s manager and the album was released in early 1977 on Sunburst’s own label, Kitoto Records. The British-born Trevor Ford, later a famous political cartoonist in Zambia under the nickname Yuss, created the powerful illustration on the front cover.
The LP came out at a time when Zambia was enjoying a stream of releases by bands that would now be considered icons of Zamrock such as Witch, Ngozi Family, Musi-O-Tunya and The Blackfoot. The sleeve text described the Sunburst sound as “a fusion of the traditional sounds of Africa with Western Rock, spiced with a piece of the Caribbean” but the intricacies of the Kitoto Sound that Sunburst had crafted for years peaked on this recording. Band members born in six different countries were tapping into a multitude of influences, styles, languages and stories. “We try to compose songs that have a bearing to the situation we live in,” James Mpungo recounted at the time. “Our songs are songs that support freedom struggles, songs that encourage peasants and workers to work harder, songs in praise of our leaders. We also sing a lot of songs criticizing our people for allowing themselves to be too westernized and throwing away their traditional values. And above all, we preach love and happiness!”
While their album was being prepared for release in Zambia, Sunburst left the country to pursue a residency at New Africa Hotel in Dar es Salaam. Back in Tanzania in 1976 they recorded three more singles, this time for the state-owned Tanzania Film Corporation (TFC). ‘Banchikicha’, its lyrics based on a popular children’s song, was an instant radio hit, and remains a popular tune that still receives occasional airplay in Tanzania to this day.
To the surprise of many, the promotion of the ‘Ave Africa’ album back in Zambia coincided with the news of the break-up of Sunburst. Manager Peter Bagshawe explained that the year before, members had wandered off into different directions. Eric Allendale had left for Nairobi where he took up a temporary gig playing at the Hilton Hotel. Congo player Kazadi also moved to Kenya, Bashir went to Tanga where he formed a new group with his brothers, and Katako remained in Zambia. The rest of the group had sold their equipment, trying to buy tickets to travel to Sweden. Bagshawe explained that the break-up was the result of the band surviving on bare minimum earnings for years which had led to discontent. He continued, “Not all of the songs are in our local languages and the music is not simple. It’s hard to really sell easily on our market, which is quite small.”
In the decades following the break-up of Sunburst, the band members remained active in music, from Katako’s stint with the legendary Les Mangalepa in Nairobi to James singing with Sound of Hope in the Kilimanjaro Hotel in Dar es Salaam, while Eric Allendale played with different bands in France and the UK.
A search for the band members in 2013 led to Bashir, who is now living in Oman and still playing music on the hotel circuit with his brothers. He had not spoken to Hembi in nearly 20 years but the band leader was tracked down in Nairobi where he continues to perform weekly with a church band. Johnny Rocks can be found every week playing live music in the Holiday Inn hotel in Dar es Salaam. Manager Peter Bagshawe moved to South Africa in 1991 and, despite losing contact with the band, kept an archive of their recordings, photos and a demo on tape cassette that still plays well 40 years down the line.
AVE AFRICA LP (1976)
1. KITOTO SOUND
2. UKUTI UKUTI
3. BA MOTOKA NA CASTLE
5. YOUR DAY WILL COME
6. ANI UNI
7. WAKULU WA KUNO
8. WE NEED EACH OTHER
11. HOW CAN I GET TO YOU
12. AVE AFRICA
TFC & MOTO MOTO 45s (1973-1976)
1. SIMBA ANGURUMA
2. KIPATO SINA
5. BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL
6. MAI WETU MAI
7. ENZI ZA UTUMWANI
8. LET’S LIVE TOGETHER
9. MATATIZO NYUMBANI
10. K.K. OF ZAMBIA
UNRELEASED RADIO SESSIONS (1973)
12. SIMBA ANGURUMA
13. ENZI ZA UTUMWANI
14. BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL
15. WAKULU WA KUNO
16. GET A LITTLE OLDER
17. KOSA LANGU MPENZI
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