Friday, June 6, 2014

A Musical and Cultural Journey: Muyei Power – Sierra Leone In The 1970’s USA

Review of the recently uncovered African gem, Muyei Power – Sierra Leone In The 1970’s USA
 by Dustin van Wyk

British musical archaeologists Soundway Records’ recent sonic excavations led them to Sierra Leone via California, as they uncovered a gem of record (or records) produced by 70’s Afro-fusion collective Muyei Power. Having formed a close relationship with lead vocalist and bandleader Abou Whyte, the team have managed to compile a collection of singles (originally released as 45’s via California label Makossa Records) that the group recorded between 1975–1976 whilst touring America. Recognised as one the biggest bands at the time in Sierra Leone, their sound is an explosive cross cultural blend that fuses funk , rumba, rock , jazz and soul music into traditional Sierra Leonean arrangements.

The album opens with an isolated bass line from ‘Wali Bena’, which is immediately met with summery guitar lines and a mass of percussions comprised of crashing cymbals, congas played in triplets and syncopated drum patterns. The vocals follow suit as Whyte’s intense and passionate performance is met with hypnotic backup harmonies. Towards the end, the band makes room for a guitar solo that is both soulful and exotic as its carefully planned out phrasing treads on an afro-Cuban melodic passage that effectually turns into an abrasive rock solo with high bends and sweeping trills.

The mutual understanding of each section of the group creates a welcoming atmosphere to these tracks, as each instrument compliments the next by allowing them to shine and ultimately help enhance the storytelling of Whtye’s lyrical themes. This is evident in ‘Be Patient’, which initially falls into a slower tempo with its Latin-esque horn melodies that are harmonized with the understated up-strokes of the rhythm guitar. The percussion line is sprinkled with vibrant shakers played at the end of every bar, looping tambourines and delicate bongo hits. The real treat occurs in the track’s mid-section, as a lone drum pattern picks up and sets the new tempo that the rest of the band effortlessly fall into. The song moves from its Latin roots into a full blown Congolese inspired rumba as sparse shakers are replaced with frantic congas. The same melodies seem more colourful and lively as the band partake in their signature vocal harmonies sung in their native Limba dialect.

‘Ben Ben Bee’ opens up with a wall of percussions that set the rhythm of the song. It effectually gives way for an eastern charmed saxophone lead, while jittering guitar lines help emphasise its melodic passages. The quick vocal chants that move between a call and response style approach to a full choir, help solidify the beautiful brass refrains. The arrangement allows the bass to come to the forefront in the bridge as it has a ‘solo’ moment where it walks through pentatonic scales that are complimented with tasteful harmonic phrasing.

‘Bi Loko’ is a melting mixture of soulful funk and raw afro-beat, with its punchy and loose arrangement that emits a strong groove. It also gives room for each musician to move freely as they alter their riffs and refrains, making it feel more like an impromptu jam session than a carefully mapped out piece. By the end, the song is transformed into a musical conversation between the lead guitar with its distorted solos and the saxophone that slides in and out of the frame.

The celebratory tone of the record makes for an inviting listen , and not only allows outsiders to understand and appreciate the universal sounds of Muyei Power but also the feeling and atmosphere of Sierra Leone during this era which , from this listening, was filled with rich vibrant spirits.