There’s nothing quite like the nostalgic energy that beams through Mwenda Jean Bosco’s song “Mwendo Tulikwenda.” Appearing on Dust-to-Digital’s thoughtfully-annotated new collection Listen All Around: The Golden Age of Central and East African Music, this languid ballad sounds like it could’ve been recorded in somebody’s living room: Jean Bosco plucks out a melodious phrase on his guitar while someone else taps out a Latin clave rhythm on a beer bottle. Two friends join in on vocals, musing on the hardships faced by laborers who leave their home villages to seek new opportunities in the city.
Listen All Around is full of moments like this—homespun and mellow, reflecting times gone by while embracing what’s to come. With a couple exceptions, the collection’s 47 tracks were recorded by ethnomusicologist Hugh Tracey throughout the 1950s in Malawi, Kenya, Zanzibar, Tanzania, and what’s now the Democratic Republic of Congo. A kind of Alan Lomax for Sub-Saharan Africa, Tracey staged numerous such recording expeditions, roving the countryside with his wife and assistants in search of local talent, whom he’d capture on tape after setting up portable recording equipment at schools, radio stations, and welfare centers.
Anthropologist Alex Perullo made a Herculean effort to compile this two-disc collection, drawing from the Tracey family’s field notes, doing his own interviews with musicians and using other sources in an effort to unpack the tracks’ fascinating mix of local dialects, Cuban-style rhythms, likembe-inspired guitar techniques, and other elements. His thorough liner notes in an 84-page book released with the album offer a window into a transitional era when African nations like the Congo were hurtling through globalization and decolonization, and a rising crop of professional musicians were eager to forge their own popular music.
For all that research, Listen All Around is also just a nice listen: Feel free to while away the summer hours listening to “Mamie Sistah Mai Deah” by Alexander Ayub’s Coast Social Orchestra, a homesick dance tune whose traditional ngoma drums and tuneful clarinet melodies sway like a palm in the wind.