Something Is Wrong: Vintage Recordings From East Africa


Thirty‐five precious, stinging selections from an HMV run of more than 400 78s -- recordings made in Uganda and Kenya from the mid‐1930s to the mid‐1950s. Three main types of performance are featured (not forgetting a lovely early Kenyan big‐band calypso, as if straight from the pen of Lord Kitchener). Most are minstrelsy, with songs ranging dazzlingly through subjects including loneliness and death, bastards and cut‐off trousers, trains of fire and no‐good rich people, a murder mystery and a drunken punch‐up at a rumba party in Kampala, and metaphorical cocks, hard pedalling and kettles which won't boil. Set to the deep grooving of an ndingidi one‐string fiddle, the very opening verses exemplify this fluency and range, within an account of the coming of the radio to the Ugandan capital. Some were angry and confused -- they could hear the talking but see no one, and would not believe that the voice came only from the loudspeakers. The singer SSekinomu weaves in asides about female creativity and the imprisonment of Prince Mawanda, the king's eldest brother, before the song ends as it began, with thanks and compliments for the new technology, to the Bazungu, the Whites. Other minstrels accompany themselves on various sorts of lyre, and guitars carrying the influences of U.S. country music and Congolese 78s, the influx of Congolese musicians, and the harmonies of Christian church music. There are also tough, raw contributions on button‐accordion: "Listening to this kind of Kikuyu song is more a feat of endurance than an aesthetic pleasure," noted the musicologist Hugh Tracey at the time. There is taarab music from the Swahili‐speaking communities of the east coast, and Arab and Indian communities in ports like Mombasa, which had imported Egyptian and Indian music since almost the start of the century. Lilting melodies are provided by violins or Indian harmoniums, sometimes also an oud, along with Indian or Arab percussion. Finally, there is the startling sound of four larger Ugandan ensembles, with songs about getting drunk and the relative merits of prostitution and motherhood, and the king's deportation by the British, deploying "the man who crunches rocks between his teeth." The style dismayed the missionary Robert Ashe, who visited the court of the Kabaka in 1884: "Our ears were deafened with the din which a motley band of musicians were making. Kettledrums and hand drums were rolling, horns braying, flutes screaming ... while blind musicians twanged away on their banjos, the whole making a most discordant harmony." Luxuriously presented, like a small hard‐cover book, with full notes, including extensive translation and haunting photographs; with the recordings brilliantly restored at Abbey Road.