Writing about music is like dancing about architecture

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Bert Kaempfert - A Swingin' Safari

There was a time when you could pick this record up in virtually any charity shop in Britain, and for all I know from everywhere else in the world! At one time I had four copies of it - I'm still not really sure why.

It's long held a strange fascination for me. Its clearly an example of exotica. I mean just look at the cover!
The picture on the front tells you all that you really need to know about the kind of music you are going to find inside. The pretty girl is dancing or swinging, she is happy, clearly because the music is happy. Around her are signifies of Africa (although I'd swear that its a rubber plant in the foreground). However, she's not really in Africa and, just as the music has only a spurious link to music from Africa (although more than you might think - more of that later), so too does the cover image make no attempt to make you think that the lady is anywhere other than a photographer's studio.
Compare this cover to another exotica classic, Les Baxter's Ritual of the Savage.

Although the couple are still in their evening clothes, they are surrounded by carved idols and seem to be genuinely in a lush, jungle-like landscape. In comparison the Kaempfert cover seems to be revelling in its knowing unreality. The woman swinging away knows she is in not in an exotic location, so do we and what's more none of us care!

Bert is also not trying to fool us with the music either. You won't find any bird calls, unusual percussion, 'hot' backing vocals, chants or indeed any of the other staples of exotica records. This is lightly swinging big band music that wouldn't be out of place anywhere in Europe and America in the late 50s and early 60s. It was very much in the style of Billy May, Nelson Riddle, Ray Coniff, James Last or Ted Heath. Of course it has Bert's signature arrangements but he's nowhere near as experimental as Les Baxter.

However, I defy anyone to listen to this record and not tap there foot or at the very least smile. For me its the playing of trumpeter Fred Moch. Beautifully restrained and lightly swinging, Moch is (uncredited) at the front of every song on this record and his happy tone, together with Bert's arrangements, give the whole record its upbeat and exuberant feel.

But its not just the arrangements that capture my attention. Its the songs as well. Lets start by looking at the ones that Bert didn't write.
First off we have That Happy Feeling by one of my obsessions Guy Warren. That's right, Guy Warren Ghanaian drummer extraordinaire! How did Bert get to hear Guy's song? In 1962 when this record was recorded Warren was leaving America in disgust over the lack of interest in his fusion of African and American jazz. It cannot be an exaggeration to say that more people must have heard Kaempfert's utterly European take on one of Warren's compositions than any of his other tracks. It completely lives up to its title. However, given Warren's passionate Afrocentrism he must have been somewhat dismayed by its adoption as an easy/exotic classic.

He did, however, return to it on his son's album. Perhaps this is more the way he imagined it?

The next cover is Similau. Similau is an old song, the earliest recorded version of which is by Peggy Lee in 1949 and quickly became a standard with versions by Artie Shaw, Jimmy Dorsey and Edmundo Ros amongst many others. Apparently it was based on a voodoo chant from the Caribbean. However, I suspect that it was Martin Denny's version from his 1957 hit Exotica that prompted its inclusion. Bert's version doesn't have the, frankly annoying, bird calls of Denny's instead replacing them with a rather lovely string section and some female wordless vocals. Moch's pure trumpet rounds off the song. Altogether lovely and about as far from a voodoo ritual as its possible to get.

Having made a slight detour to the Caribbean, Bert returns to Africa with the next track. Zambezi, written by South Africans Nico Carstens and Anton de Waal was another well covered track (it was even revived by the Piranhas as a kind of post punk novelty number). Using a jaunty flute section that is clearly intended to recall kwela penny whistles Bert's version of Zambezi is certainly not grey green or greasy and will have you dancing all the way through Southern Africa.

On the B-Side Bert continues to cover Southern African songs, this time Wimoweh and Skokiaan. The story of how Wimoweh became world famous is well known. Written by South African Solomon Linda Mbube, already a huge hit in South Africa, folk music collector Alan Lomax played it to Pete Seegar and the Weavers. Rather than copyrighting the song to its true author it was credited to the fictitious Paul Campbell. Not until the 1990s did Linda see any royalties from a song that had become a global smash hit.

Skokiaan is another song written by someone from Africa, this time from Zimbabwe. Originally recorded by the Cold Storage Band and written by August Musaruwa in 1951. Similarly to Mbube, after becoming a huge hit in South Africa, the record made its way to the United States but unlike that song it was played in its original form and became a hit there too. Covered by numerous people including Louis Armstrong and Bill Haley it was another well known song by the time Bert included it.

Although none of the songs sound particularly African, Bert's arrangements are just too European and easy, I think its interesting that he should chose so many songs that originated in Africa. It would have been easy for him to either use other exotica songs or to use only his own compositions. I suspect that by including songs written by Africans (both black and white) Bert was trying to give his record a degree of authenticity, to somehow include an element of the continent in his music (without actually making it sound at all African).

For his own compositions, Bert seems also to have tried to retain a (Southern) African feeling. The title track is clearly Bert's take on kwela. Although he didn't cover Tom Hark, A Swinging Safari obviously owes a lot the record that put kwela on the international map Make your own mind up.

And keeping with the Southern African theme another one of Bert's originals is called Afrikaan Beat. And wonderfully, just as he covered tracks from overseas, the rhythm of Afrikaan Beat has become a much sampled reggae rhythm. What goes around......

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