Various – Bellyachers, Listen: Songs From East Africa 1938-46 review

Back in the nascent days of the record industry, HMV began a brief campaign to open up new markets in Africa. Songs were recorded, sent to Britain to be pressed and were then sent back as 10″ 78’s as part of a series known as “Native Records”. Despite the rampantly colonial title, the records were aimed at African buyers, with the majority of the songs drawn from Kenya & Uganda and sold as a way to drive both record and gramophone sales in an as yet untapped market place.

While only proving to be a footnote in pre-rock music history, these auspicious recordings have been lovingly excavated via EMI’s archive by Honest Jon – the crate-digging label who have previously struck gold with the excellent post-Windrush calypso compilations London Is The Place For Me. The first in a series of three, this equally wonderful collection focuses on the period between 1938-46 and is peppered with both story-telling minstrelry and the Arabic-leaning sounds of taarab.

As if to almost shock the listener into appreciating the general lo-fi quality of the recordings to come, opener “Wireless” by Ssekinomu sees a flickering ndingidi (a single-stringed fiddle) and a staccato vocal modulate and distort violently thanks to the primitive audio capturing. However, such obscure quality is rare – the following song, Ali & Party’s “Enyi Wa Hiari”, is brittle but still captures the distinctively East African melodies, characterised by swooping violins and mournful vocal intonation. Elsewhere, the folk story “John Geko” is told with stubborn, forceful vocals and an accompanying accordion, while in a similar vein, “Njane Kanini” by Shinda Gikombe is told almost solo, save for some thin handclaps in the distance. The severe lo-fidelity frequently adds much to these outstanding songs – just listen to the sinister, distorted and eroded bell sound on Machakos Party’s “Meselou” for example. There are few things on earth that sound quite so sinister and haunting. Not only is this a fascinating artifact, aided by an extensive inlay booklet on the CD release, it also makes for an incredibly unique and unusual listen.

Oliver Keens