Atongo Zimba’s new studio album marks both a return to and reworking of some old songs the troubadour used to sing in Fra Fra and play in the countryside, streets and market stalls in his native Ghana and a new step forward in his collaborative efforts experimenting with international musicians. His characteristic willingness to jam with local musicians and soak up musical styles is clearly audible on his new musical collaboration. It is a more reflective record then his previous Savannah Breeze release – showing his mellower side, in an unplugged setting. The overall tone of the album adheres more closely to the rural roots of his Fra Fra tribal tradition that has more in common with the griot music of the Sahel than the highlife and more hybrid pop sounds of the tropical coast of Ghana.
This time Atongo’s main music partner has been his friend, the Dutch guitarist and producer Niels Brouwer whom he met in a club in the Westerpark district of Amsterdam in 2000, where Hippo Records is located. That evening Atongo joined in with his koliko as it is also known, and they hit it off so well, a plan was conceived to do an album together. Some seven years later that plan has become a reality. Niels himself explains: “ I knew that Atongo wanted to find the right blend where he could still do his own thing without changing his part or the music around it. So we were looking for people who could add influences, other sounds than the traditional African sound.”
Those people include Niels on various acoustic guitars, his wife Monica Akihary of Indonesian descent from the Moluccan Islands who adds soulful backing vocals, the Curacaoan bass player Eric Calmes, South African horn and sax man Sean Bergin, Surinamese Hindustani tabla player Sandip Batticharya , Dutch percussionist Bart Fermie and two of his old Ghanaian sidemen guitarist Kweku Mensah and percussionist Alex Bapulah. The album is an acoustic stew of strings and percussion instruments, - spiced with subtle bursts of flute and sax.
Brouwer as producer brought in tablas on a couple of tracks for different tone colour and the fact their sound blended well with the delicate tones of the koliko, Atongo’s signature calabash two-stringed lute. Atongo played koliko throughout and shekere on selected songs, called siyagle, in his native Fra Fra.
While listening to the final mix, settling in a sofa downstairs in the living room of the two storey house in Amsterdam North where Niels lives and works, Atongo explains: “This is very acoustic music, it’s with the acoustic sound of the Sahel. But the idea of also putting the Indian tabla, and other colours give it an Arabic, even Northern African feel, since it’s the same kind of groovy. We try to make it fit into the groove so when you listen you can feel a little bit Indian inside, a little bit European and a little bit African inside. I think it’s a very good idea that we got and for us we are happy and I hope the audience will enjoy.”
For the musician and producer Niels Brouwer the emphasis has been to create varying tone colours and moods around the sound of the koliko which is traditionally tuned to one key, not to show off musical virtuosity but express feelings through the creation of a groove.
Niels – “the only reason we made this record is because we feel we make good music together.” Atongo – “I see this as the dream we have been thinking about so many times, and it’s now come true, so I know we are able to make even better things because now we start to understand ourselves better and when we start to see what we can do to make the music better it makes people feel better.”