Matata: ‘Wanna Do My Thing – The Complete President Recordings’ reviewed

❉ Afro-funk pioneers’ complete President recordings, collected for the first time!

One of the unforeseen benefits of the wave of independence sweeping across Africa during the 60’s was an explosion of musical culture and a desire to put records out to meet the domestic markets.  Matata, a Kenyan based band put their first album out in 1969 having gained a following playing live throughout Nairobi.  The band’s core members were Congolese exiles who joined with local musicians in the late 60’s at a time when Jomo Kenyatta’s government had turned Nairobi into a place where ideas and dissident voices throughout Africa were congregating.

The band quickly gained a formidable reputation as a live band and entered a song into a BBC sponsored competition to find the best band in Africa.  In winning the competition Matata were invited to London to perform on the BBC and play some gigs around London.  The upshot of this was that the band found themselves with a manager, theatre impresario Pearl Connor, who used her reputation to get the band work in the UK and throughout Europe, including opening for Miles Davis in Cologne.  Upon returning to London the band signed a two album deal with President Records (best known at the time as the home of The Equals) which is what this 2 CD retrospective documents.

The two albums are spilt across the two CDs, first being the 1972 album Air Fiesta Matata.

The opening tracks have a loose feel with African percussion to the front of the mix with brass and guitars swirling around giving a somewhat psychedelic feel to the music.  Although it’s not clear, the impression is that the producers were trying to capture some of the intensity and feel of their live shows.   The difficulty in conveying this is largely due to the fact that, performed live, these would probably have lasted several minutes and here the limitations of an LP force the tracks to be shortened.  It’s a great shame as tracks such as opener Wild River and instrumental Jungle Warrior sound like they’re just getting going at the point they fade out.

The second half of the CD (side two in old money) shows the diverse influences the bands were absorbing.  I Need Somebody wouldn’t have sounded out of place on an early album by American band War whilst Wanna Do My Thing has groove which mixes the grooves of Atalantic/Stax R&B with a hint of James Brown.  Elsewhere there’s reggae flavoured Picha Yako  whilst closer Maendeleo Ya Kenya has a celebratory feel and is perfectly placed as the album’s final track.

The biggest drawback of this album is the lack of experience of the producers, as detailed in the excellent sleevenotes, who’d never actually produced an album themselves – being the head of the label.  The sound is flat in places and somewhat muddy in others.  It’s a shame there wasn’t an opportunity to get the master tapes and do a full remix but in no way deters from the quality of the material itself.

In 1973 two events affected the band significantly. As work permits ran out, they returned Kenya and a number of the band decided they no longer wanted to split their lives between London and Nairobi and decided to leave.  This was followed by the arrival of James Brown in Africa where he performed in a number of countries including Kenya.  Upon his arrival there Matata set up in the airport and played a number of songs.  Brown heard them and was impressed enough to come and join the band onstage.

James Brown had a massive influence on African music in the early 70’s, especially in English speaking parts of the continent and Matata’s second album Independence, released in 1974, is a testament to this.  Recruiting some South African musicians then working on the London scene, including legendary sax player Dudu Pukwana, to augment their numbers Independence is the sound of a band transformed.  This is a straight ahead funk album drenched in the call/response style of James Brown.  The band clearly had an eye on breaking bigger, singing the album entirely in English and here the tight punchy numbers work a treat.

From the opening shouts of Return To You the album locks into a solid groove and doesn’t let up across its 12 tracks, the only exception being the reggae flavoured I Believe Her.  As for the rest it’s funk all the way Good Samaritan I Feel Funky being an uptempo dance numbers whilst I Don’t Have To Worry and Good Good Understanding having slightly slower grooves which hint at the band’s African roots.  It’s quite a contrast to the first album but it’s also clear to see why this album commands high prices in its original vinyl form.

After playing live for a while disagreements with management and the label finished the band off.  There are a number of bonus tracks included although only B-side Empty World is anything like essential. The remainder on disc 2 show what could have happened had the band continued through various reformations.  Whether you’re a lover of 70’s African funk or bands who took the sounds of James Brown and made them their own, there’s a lot of good music here.  It’s a well researched and very worthwhile reissue.

❉ ‘Wanna Do My Thing – The Complete President Recordings’ is released by SoulMusic Records, a division of Cherry Red Records, RRP £11.99

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