by Douglas B. Paterson (1)
Zairean vocalist and band leader Samba Mapangala has been a dominant figure in East African music since the mid-1970s. Arriving in Kampala, Uganda with his group, Les Kinois in 1975, they eventually made their way to Nairobi in 1977. The beginnings of the famous Virunga sound were already evident in their recordings prior to the breakup of Les Kinois in 1980. Shortly after that, Samba recorded the now famous Malako recordings in Nairobi with his newly formed Orchestra Virunga. The Malako LP was one of the pioneering releases of the newly emerging world music scene in Europe in the mid-1980s and an instant favorite. The style was typical of other East African groups of the time: a lean sound with complex, interlocking guitar lines; rapid-fire bass; light, fast-paced percussion; with horn or sax overlays. What was different about Samba and Virunga was the quality of the product. The songs began with Samba's catchy melodic lines and evolved over a nine or ten minute period through beautiful vocal harmonies and brilliant guitar and horn soloing. Samba's voice, even today, is unique among African vocalists for its pleasing quality and versatility.
Virunga's East African roots are, no doubt, one of the primary factors that set them apart from other Zairean bands. At the same time, it is perhaps because of their East African base that they haven't really had a chance to develop on the world music scene. The band has been hampered by work permit problems, Nairobi's deteriorating but expensive recording facilities, and Kenya's shrinking live music market that makes it difficult to keep a large band together. Sadly, in 1993, Samba gave up on the local night club scene and disbanded the group. Virunga as a concept continues, however, with Samba preparing a new release in Paris in April, 1995 under the auspices of Senegalese producer Ibrahim Sylla. For the new recording, titled Karibu Kenya, the "new" Virunga back-up band comprises some of the top names in Parisian soukous: Diblo Dibala, Pablo Lubadika, Komba Bellow, Wuta Mayi, Bibi Den's Tshibayi, and Syran Mbenza. Samba will form his touring bands from among both Parisian and East African musicians.
Virunga Volcano 1990 (Earthworks, CD) [The 1982 Malako LP plus two]
1. Douglas Paterson is a cultural anthropologist and community college instructor residing in Seattle, Washington, USA. He is the current president of Rakumi Arts, a non-profit organization dedicated to African arts, music, and culture in the Pacific Northwest region of the US.