Real World Sessions: Remmy Ongala & Super Matimila, 17 August 1991

The late Remmy Ongala is one of Tanzania's most popular cultural icons. As the leader of Orchestre Super Matimila, he toured internationally, bringing his unique 'bongo beat' to many countries and carrying strong social and political messages through his songs. He was a key artist in the early years of Real World Records, recording at the studio on several occasions and featuring on the bill of many WOMAD festivals and tours. In 1991, he was paired up with pop/rock producer Rupert Hine at the first Real World Recording Week to record his second album for the label, Mambo.

Ongala, originally from Kindu near the Tanzanian border, in what was the Belgian Congo at the time, was part of the soukous scene (also known as Congolese rumba). In 1978 he travelled to Dar es Salaam where he joined Orchestra Makassy. Later with his own band, Orchestre Super Matimila (named after the businessman who owned the band’s instruments), he helped to transmit the soukous style to the Tanzanian musical subculture often called Ubongo, the Swahili word for brain. This in turn contributed to the development of Tanzanian hip-hop, particularly in the city of Dar es Salaam during the 1990s.

Remmy Ongala & Rupert Hine in Tanzania. Photo credit: Stephen W Tayler.
 

For Rupert Hine (Suzanne Vega, Stevie Nicks, Tina Turner), recording the album Mambo was his second encounter with the formidable Tanzanian musician, the first having been during the production of One World, One Voice— a globe-trotting BBC documentary intended to raise awareness of environmental issues. The documentary took its name from the Remmy Ongala song which formed the basis of an hour long, continuous piece of music, featuring contributions from artists such as Peter Gabriel, Sting, Suzanne Vega, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Geoffrey Oryema and Clannad.

“Our visit to Tanzania was where we saw Remmy and Orchestre Super Matimila in action for the first time. I remember asking the question, ‘What are we going to be recording?’ and getting the reply, ‘A band which could be anything between fifteen to forty people.’ I said, ‘Hang on, slow down— forty people???’”

Typically, a gig with Remmy and his band could go on for twelve hours, non-stop. “The players, like a relay race, just swap over. So, literally the drummer keeps drumming, and another guys slides in from the side and takes up the sticks. They don’t even stop in-between numbers, because the songs go on for so long. It was really quite fantastic to observe— all an important part of understanding what the Orchestre Super Matimila really was.”

“They had a lot of incredibly long jams that would start on five guitar riffs all just intertwining and inter-developing. The youngest guy on the One World, One Voice recording was fourteen, and one of the trumpet players was in his eighties— a huge age range.”

Cosmas Thomas Chidumule sings lead vocals during the session for Remmy Ongala & Orchestre Super Matimila's album Mambo. Photo credit: Andy Caitlin.

And The Beat Goes On: A profile of Remmy Ongala

Remmy Ongala was Tanzania's most famous musician and originator of the bongo beat.

 

When, in August 1991, Peter Gabriel and Real World hosted the first of several Recording Weeks and invited Remmy to take part, Hine seemed like the obvious choice to produce the album, given their previous collaboration. There was a very ambitious schedule in place for Recording Week ’91. Real World hoped to record an album each day, and then to bring together some of the performers from across the world who were on site for some collaborative writing sessions. On the evening of Saturday 17th August, it was the turn of Remmy Ongala & Orchestre Super Matimila to occupy The Big Room, accompanied by a live audience.

Session Notes

Recorded on 17 August, 1991 in The Big Room, Real World Studios with a live audience on the Studer A820 to 24-track tape


Producer Rupert Hine


Recording Engineers Stuart Bruce, Richard Blair and Chris Lawson, assisted by Carlton Blake


Mix Engineer Stephen W Tayler, assisted by Richard Chappell


Musicians Remmy Ongala: vocals, lead and rhythm guitars; Cosmas Thomas Chidumule: lead and backing vocals; Batii Osenga Ipopolipo: guitar and backing vocals; Ayas Ayas Hassani: rhythm guitar; Shemboza Shekungu-Mkiva: rhythm guitar and backing vocals; Mussa Hamisi Magomba: bass guitar; Yusuph Iddi Subwa: drum.

Track sheet for the Mambo recording session.

“The whole idea was to try and record them as naturally as possible,” Rupert remembers. “That’s why we had the live audience. Because the band was so used to playing in front of people, the notion of doing it without an audience would have baffled them. ‘Why on earth would we do that?'”

The session had only one technical hitch, which was linked to the band’s penchant for lengthy performances. “We ran out of tape… mid song!” Hine said, laughing. “But apart from that, it was just about following the band… whatever direction they headed in. We never had much idea what would happen each time they started a song, but that’s something I’ve always enjoyed as a producer— the spontaneity of live performance.”

Stephen W Tayler (Kate Bush, Suzanne Vega, Stevie Nicks), who worked alongside Hine on the One World, One Voice project, mixed the album in The Big Room a few days after it was recorded. “Although the album was recorded live with an audience, the objective wasn’t really to create a ‘live album’ as such. The audience was really there to create an energy that would give us a great performance.”

Again, the length of the songs presented a challenge during the mixing. “These were really long performances. Obviously, to make a CD you are restricted to eighty minutes. Most of the tracks fade out because they went on for such a long time. It might seem like a bit of a cop out to have them fade out, but it was really the only thing that could be done in order to have a good variety of songs on the album.”

“As a segue between the songs I used some ambient field recordings I made in Dar es Salaam during the One World, One Voice project. You hear that between the tracks, giving a sense of continuity.”

Remmy Ongala performing a live concert in The Big Room during Real World Recording Week 1991. Photo credit: Andy Caitlin.
 

The album’s title, Mambo, is a Swahili word that roughly translates as the French ‘affaires’, or as ‘things’, ‘concerns’ or ‘observations’. The word covers a whole range of meanings and moods from personal to political, tremendous to trivial. Remmy calls the songs on this album ‘songs for the people’, and each one seems to express a different mambo that people might discuss on the street corners of Tanzania.

Throughout the Recording Week, Remmy Ongala and the various members of Orchestre Super Matimila collaborated with fellow participants, and most notably a session with American gospel band The Holmes Brothers in The Rehearsal Room, excerpts from which feature in the 1991 documentary A Real World Recorded.

Watch

The entire 1991 recording session for Mambo was filmed. For the first time, you can now watch a selection of four songs from the performance on our YouTube channel:

  1. One World
  2. I Want To Go Home
  3. Inchi Yetu (Our Country)
  4. What Can I Say? (Niseme Nini)

Watch on YouTube

'I Want To Go Back Home' recorded in the Big Room at Real World Studios

The inaugural Ongala Music Festival takes place in Dar es Saalam this week. Curated by his daughter Aziza, the festival aims to provide a platform for artists across Africa and beyond, whilst promoting and showcasing local talent— enabling both to come together.

Find out more about the festival

Featured Release

  • Mambo

    Remmy Ongala & Orchestre Super Matimila

    Released 02 March 1992

    This album features Remmy Ongala and the band in sparkling form at the 1991 Real World Recording Week. Intricate four-part guitar patterns interlock with bubbling bass lines, while the rhythm shifts seamlessly from a gentle lope to a galloping rhumba.

By Oran Mullan

Main image: Orchestre Super Matimila recording in The Big Room during Real World Recording Week 1991. Photo credit: Pete Williams.

Published on Fri, 24 August 18

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