Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Samba Mapangala & Orchestre Virunga

  • Virunga Volcano [Earthworks/Virgin, 1990] A-
  • Ujumbe [Sterns/Earthworks, 2001] A-

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Virunga Volcano [Earthworks/Virgin, 1990]
One of numerous wannabees who departed a Kinshasa controlled by Mobutu and/or Franco and Rochereau to service rumba-starved Kenyans, Mapangala named his band after a Zairean volcano. And up against the rustic underdevelopment of Nairobi pop in the '70s, any soukous variant could pass itself off as an eruption. But in the world-beat disco of 1990, Virunga's snaky bass and nimble guitar come off as spaced and delicate as the falsetto leads Mapangala trades with Fataki, his only permanent sideman, and the twin saxophones are low-budget funky, their cheesy embouchure stuck between alto and soprano. So for outsiders the music's beauty is far more fragile, or spiritual, than artist or natural audience believe. Which doesn't mean we can't sway to it. A-

Ujumbe [Sterns/Earthworks, 2001]
Cover claims to the contrary, not "fiery stuff"--not by the hyped-up standards of the soukous this eternal exile has now outlasted. That's why it's special, and that's why it's good. Everywhere he's gone, from Matadi to Kinshasa to Kampala to Nairobi to Paris to his safe Maryland home, Mapangala has brought along a tenor as sweet as a licked frenum and a tune sense that knows what it wants--no wonder he found the sway of Swahili swing so amenable. Here he gathers about him a different set of Afro-Parisian hotshots than on his last visit, except for, no stupe he, the two standouts: guitarist Caien Madoka and trap drummer Komba Bellow Mafwalo. "It is bad to criticize people behind their back, especially when they have tried to help you," one trot reads, but who cares? The music carries any message of tolerance you care to verbalize. A-