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Let the Zamrock revival begin: Now-Again releases Rikki Ililonga and Musi-O-Tunya [Updated]

November 25, 2010 |  7:00 am

Rikki-10-cd Los Angeles being a car town, driving soundtracks are important and help calm the nerves and lift the spirits while navigating the oft-living hell that is the daily commute.

Thank goodness, then, for "Dark Sunrise," the exquisite new reissue of the mid-1970s music of Rikki Ililonga and his group Musi-O-Tunya. Ililonga was a prime mover in the Republic of Zambia's rhythm rock scene of the 1970s, and this two-CD set captures a unique, and nearly vanished, secret history. The release has filled at least one frustrated Angeleno's car with (very loud) distraction over the past few weeks.

[Updated: The original version of this post misspelled Rikki Ililonga's last name.]

Issued by the Los Angeles-based reissue label Now-Again, "Dark Sunrise" features 31 songs that jump tempos and signatures but retain a consistent rhythmic base. The southern African country from which the music sprang, the Republic of Zambia, was at the time a poverty-stricken place in which pressing records was an unaffordable luxury, so the mere existence of these songs seems somehow miraculous.  Explains Now-Again owner (and the set's executive producer) Eothan "Egon" Alapatt in the reissue's liner notes:

"[T]he records that did surface in the collecting community of the monied Japanese, European and North American record obsessives of the mid-'90s were often in worse condition than worn Frisbees. The condition of the average Zambian record found 'in the field' is on par with that of the war-torn discs found occasionally in modern-day Angola."

DarkSunriseLPBoxDetailTwo Alapatt was aware of Ililonga's music through collector's circles, and tracked down the singer, who was living in the Netherlands and had workable master recordings -- some of which compose "Dark Sunrise."

It's perfect driving music, filled with steady rhythms, a funky horn section and some great, James Brown-esque swagger. Unlike the clean, gymnastic guitar tones being made in West Africa at the same time, the sound of the south was filled with fuzz guitars and solid chords, which makes the end result more driving, and a little more aggressive, especially on Ililonga's early recordings with his band Musi-O-Tunya. 

The second disc features solo Ililonga, and he sounds like a mix of Arthur Lee, Bob Dylan, Damo Suzuki, Fela Kuti and Curtis Mayfield, and, musically, moves from groovy, Dylanesque garage-rock breakdowns -- augmented with congas and wood blocks -- to wilder, more guitar-centric, psychedelic work with tangled solos.

It's an important reissue, and offers yet another glimpse into the sound of Africa in the 1960s and 70s. In the past half-decade, countless African crate-digger classics have been reissued, each another piece of the puzzle from a continent less archivally minded than most. But "Dark Sunrise" is a peak, and a vivid glimpse into a particular moment in time.

-- Randall Roberts