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The Boston Phoenix Graceland Grads

Bakithi Kumalo and Dominic Kanza

By Banning Eyre

DECEMBER 14, 1998:  Twelve years ago, Paul Simon's Graceland album introduced many Americans to African pop music for the first time. The Grammy-winning disc and Simon's subsequent tours also introduced African musicians to America, and some have come to stay. Two who started working with Simon in the '80s now live in Brooklyn and have just released albums of their own. South African bassist Bakithi Kumalo became world-famous for his athletic break on "You Can Call Me Al," and he's worked on and off with Simon ever since. Simon recruited Congolese guitarist Dominic Kanza after Graceland, and though Kanza never achieved the same visibility as Kumalo, he also spent time in the studio and on the road with Simon and his band. The two players have taken lessons from the experience, lessons they are now applying in the hope of breaking the barriers of the limited Afropop market.

"I learned how to create a song," Kumalo explains over the phone. "I've watched Paul for many years. He has no hurry. Sometimes we play one song for three weeks. The groove is right, but something is wrong. He's always trying to find something. That's what I've learned working with Paul. Patience." San Bonan (SIAM Records) is Kumalo's first solo release since he moved to the US, in 1993. It represents roughly a year and a half spent in the studio, building songs layer by layer. Kumalo says he didn't want to create a "world beat" record, and though these 12 tracks include one or two warm, township-tinged pop songs, like the loping "Mbali (Flower)," there's also a strong shot of breezy jazz fusion in the David Sanborn tradition. There's a tribute to Jaco Pastorius with just Kumalo on bass and Don Alias on percussion, and a couple of songs where the adventurous bassist embraces Latin pop, music that surrounds him in New York.

Kanza, on the other hand, was inspired by Simon's ability to mold African pop sounds into more familiar forms. "What Paul Simon did," Kanza notes during our phone conversation, "was to take the fresh South African sound without altering it, and to structure it in a way that was acceptable to Western ears." The seven tracks on Kanza's self-produced Congo! (DKMusic) all hew close to the guitar-driven soukous sound that put his native Congo (formerly Zaire) on the musical map. But the songs are far shorter than the average soukous blowout, and they're arranged with refrains, bridges, and English lyrics. Kanza sings about love and a certain nostalgia for Africa, but he says that understanding the lyrics is not the key to reaching Americans. He points out that most of the people who bought Santana's "Oye Como Va" had no idea what it meant. "Language is not a tremendous barrier," he insists. "It's the sound."

So while Kumalo seeks to move beyond the music he grew up playing, Kanza is out to "save the Zairean sound" from its ghettoized existence. A little history about the two artists helps to explain this difference. Kumalo came up through the township music scene. By the time Simon found him in Johannesburg, in 1984, Kumalo had paid his dues playing township soul, Zulu traditional pop, mbaqanga and other local styles. He was ready to take on new challenges. Kanza was born in Zaire but spent his first 12 years in London. When he moved back to Kinshasa, in the late '70s, and began his musical career, he perceived the burgeoning rhumba rock scene around him as a storm in a teacup. He and his brothers started a successful band playing foreign hits like "Rapper's Delight" and "The Beat Goes On." Kanza laughs when recalling that it was only back in Europe that he began to miss Zairean music and learned to play it.

The '90s have been good to Kumalo. His work with the likes of Gloria Estefan, Randy Brecker, Laurie Anderson, and Cyndi Lauper, not to mention Simon, have given him a taste of mainstream success that has so far eluded Kanza. Whether that success will also grace Kumalo's San Bonan remains to be seen, but the album gives him a real shot at the sort of crossover audience so many African artists crave.

Meanwhile, Kanza keeps his focus on the song itself. His composition "Broken Heart" ambles through a Simon-esque lover's complaint before revving into a short burst of out-and-out soukous. Showing his Congolese colors, Kanza remains loyal to the concept of the band, and when his streamlined outfit the African Rhythm Machine get in front of an unsuspecting audience, he sees his formula working. The organizers of South Bend's May Fair -- an event with absolutely no "world music" identity -- called Kanza's set this year the best show they've put on in 20 years.

It's still a long way from South Bend to South Park. For all their ingenuity and drive, African musicians have a ways to go before they can substantially enlarge their slice of the American pie. Simon should take heart, though, for having helped two artists so dedicated to the cause.

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