Papé Nziengui et son groupe Kadi Yombo
Awesome Tapes from Africa
Review by Bruce Miller
The Mtsogo and Punu forest-dwelling tribes of Gabon have practiced Bwiti, a religious practice involving psychedelic root bark ingestion, for hundreds of years or longer. And like many rituals around the planet, music plays a role. In the case of these Gabonese tribes, the mungongo (mouth bow) and ngombi (harp) play a central role in Bwiti ritual. As participants surrender to a psychoactive state, the ngombi can often be plucked at a manic pace, inducing hallucinations.
Ngombi master Papé Nziengui mixed ritual with commerce when he released Kadi Yombo in 1989. Here, on tracks such as “Ngonde,” furious harp and mouth bow accompany Nziengui’s lead vocal, which is answered by a female chorus. This is the vocal approach on much this album, and as such, represents aspects of Bwiti performance. “Ngonde” is representative of the second half of this LP, which focuses on the traditional instruments and vocals and comes as something of a surprise after the first half of this album.
Flip the vinyl over from side two to one and hear the ngomi engulfed by drum machines, electric bass throb, and synths, rendering the ceremonial as dance floor pulse. The blend works well, connecting straight to the club, which has its own rituals of surrender, drug use, and movement as interconnected slices of a collective experience. Tracks on side one tend to start with a short, warm-up conversation between ngombi and mungongo before being all but overwhelmed by studio additions.
However, allow this shift to settle in and realize it hasn’t so much altered the music as housed it in a gauze that pushed it from rural ritual to urban popularity. Nziengui was the first such artist to create such a record, which at the time was released on a cassette by the French Cultural Center. Furthermore, this was a radical move, as he might have been accused of diluting the sacred by purists. Whatever the case, Nziengui found the move liberating, something that allowed him to join hosts of international musicians as they gigged in Libreville. For those of us coming to this instrument, this ritual, or Gabonese music in general through ATFA’s re-issue, what we know about Bwiti or the ngomi may not matter, as the music flawlessly snakes its way through period production only to emerge delightfully, infectiously unscathed.