Issa Juma & Super Wanyika Stars: World Defeats the Grandfathers

This new release on the specialist African music label Sterns is subtitled ‘Swinging Swahili Rumba 1982-1986’ and that’s just what it is. Vocalist and band leader Issa Juma died in the 1990s but together with various different line-ups of his Wanyika Stars he was at the forefront of a style of East African rumba related to the more familiar music from the Congo but with some subtle differences. Less heavy on drums that its Congolese counterpart, Swahili rumba is driven by its bass lines and by the sweet interplay of the lead and rhythm guitars. On top of this comes Juma’s superb lead baritone vocal. Juma was born in Tanzania but his brand of music achieved its greatest success after his move to Kenya, where for many years the Wanyika bands were a sensation, especially in the nightclubs of Nairobi.

This collection has just nine tracks, but each one is around eight or nine minutes, and it contains both hits and rarities. It also comes with detailed liner notes on Issa Juma’s career and on the Swahili rumba style, while the original Swahili lyrics for each of the songs are printed next to their English translations. Despite the tracks being recorded over five different sessions, and with different musicians involved in each session, the entire album hangs together very well and this music is still as exciting to listen to as it must have been at the time of its heyday in the early 80s. In fact, the album is a little world music gem, and as the notes rightly say, Issa Juma was “a brilliant vocalist and band-leader, an innovative and accomplished musician: today he is sadly missed.”

The African continent is rich with so many different styles of music and Sterns must be congratulated for making available such a large number of important recordings over the years.  Last year’s release of Francophonic Vol.2 – a double album retrospective of the great Congolese musician Franco – was one of their very best. Before the release of the new Issa Juma album I hadn’t even known of his music but am very glad to be able to put that right with this worthy addition to the Sterns catalogue. Oh yes, and the album’s title comes from lines in the song ‘Maria’: “This world is big, don’t just follow people. It defeated our grandfathers…”

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