First off, Rumba 'Round Africa is pretty tremendous musically, full of simple but catchy African rhumba variants recorded in the '60s and featuring endlessly inventive guitarist Jerry Malekani. Secondly, Gary Stewart's excellent liner notes describe another little-known phase in the odyssey of how Congolese music derived from Cuban rhumba rhythms became a pan-African sound. Ry-Co Jazz spent much of the late '50s and early '60s playing throughout West Africa with a home base in Senegal, but the story doesn't stop there. The eye-opener is that the group spent four years in the French Antilles starting in 1968, recording a lot with early zouk producer Henri Debs and thus sowing influential seeds among a musical generation that grew up to play zouk (Kassav'/Peter Gabriel keyboard player Jean-Claude Naimro even played on a Ry-Co Jazz LP then). Zouk, of course, came to have an enormous influence on West African music in the late '80s, so that circle of music influences across the Middle Passage remains unbroken. The fact that Malekani went on to become Manu Dibango's guitar player for 20 years (he could still be now, actually) after Ry-Co Jazz split up in 1972 merely rates as a footnote in this context.
Back at Rumba 'Round Africa, many songs do sound similar but subtle little rhythmic touches, appealing vocal harmonies, and, above all, Malekani's entrancing melodic lines never let the music go stale. "Bana Ry-Co" hooks in immediately, the guitar in full flight, while "Mambo Ry-Co" starts more skeletal, with sax honks and percussion behind the guitar before the vocal enters. There are fragments of "Tequila" in the feel of the riff; Malekani goes off and the whole Afro-Cuban musical connection really comes through loud and clearly. "Ry-Co Band" is tunefully low-key with a sax providing harmonies and "Give Me Bombolo" is pretty catchy on all fronts. The energetic "Mambe" brings home how convincing the percussive undertow is -- the conga of Mbilia Casino isn't flashy but damn, it lays one helluva groove in company with Freedy N'Kounkou's maracas. And the excellent "My Zainatu" is a reminder that Panda Gracia's bass anchor role is not to be overlooked. "Twist With the Docteur" brings in rockabilly licks and a little Link Wray/Duane Eddy action from Malekani. That sounds like pure novelty (Afro-rockabilly? Or rhumbabilly -- hey, that's not half-bad) and it is fun, but there's some substance to it musically, and OK Jazz veteran Jean-Serge Essous' clarinet on "Baby Technical" is another different touch. The final four tracks shift to the Caribbean stint with Essous in the band, and the more uptempo and loose tunes reflect the freshness of new influences. The sound is louder, the soloing longer and more flamboyant, the vocals less precise and not so much the focal point. "Marie Jose" finds Essous playing against the florid organ of Chico Gelman, who does goes on with his solos here and over the drum kit drive of "Si I Bop Di I Don." Ry-Co Jazz hasn't figured too prominently as international fans have discovered the history of African pop music. The group's fascinating story and low-key music on Rumba 'Round Africa make a great case, which is as it should be. It marks a transitional stage and may not overwhelm you, but it is light, inventive, and eminently enjoyable to listen to.