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Lungu Lungu: Siko on the Rise

A fee weeks ago I had the chance to meet a living encyclopedia, Florent Mazzolini, a French journalist who shies away from being called a musicologist, but who in fact is an inexhaustible source of information about many African musical genres, especially from the 1950s until the 1980s. We discovered our mutual passion for Congolese rumba, talked about Angolan semba and discussed highlife, which was the reason for his trip to Ghana. Ultimately he introduced me to a band called Super Mama Djombo.

Besides sounding great and having an awesome name, what struck me was that the band is from Guinea Bissau, a small Portuguese-speaking country squeezed between Senegal and Guinea-Conakry on the Western tip of Africa. I have a soft spot for Lusophone African music, and have always been wondering about Bissau's music. I was amazed to discover Bissau had a golden age for music in the years following its independence in 1974.

I was more familiar with Guinea Bissau's tormented history, extremely fragile economy, coups and more recently its increasingly important role as a cocaine hub between South America and Europe. Unsurprisingly, since the early 1980s most of Bissau's musical talent has fled the country, leaving a musical vacuum for much of the 1990s.

But coincidentally, a couple of weeks after meeting Florent, as I wondered what had become of music in Guinea-Bissau, I came across a video by an interesting artist, Patche di Rima, whose story says a lot about Guinea Bissau's strong will to reinvent itself.

Patche di Rima started out emceeing a rap festival in Bissau in the early 2000s, entertaining crowds in between acts with his freestyle rhymes. What caught the public's attention was not just his ability to rhyme—Patche was the first at that time to incorporate elements of ngombé, a typically Bissau-Guinean genre born out of the fusion of several local folk traditions, into his work. Because ngombé is in fact similar to zouk or kizomba, Patche's sound was quite palatable to a wider audience beyond Bissau, and he gradually forged a name for himself in Portugal and other Portuguese speaking countries, as well as in France and across Europe among Lusophone populations.

While Patche rode the zouk/kizomba wave, he relentlessly pushed local genres and other budding artists. In 2006, he released the Guinée no Coração (Guinea at heart) compilation, which showcased Bissau's new generation of talent. Patche's success has allowed him to open up his own production structure in Bissau, Guiguy Records, which has given him the freedom to develop his own sound and feature more and more up and coming artists.

Keep in mind that Guinea-Bissau is a small, socially and economically ravaged country, where there hasn't been much room for a music industry to emerge. In this context, Patche's efforts are fundamental, and it cannot be stressed how important it has been to build musical infrastructure in Bissau. There are other Bissau-Guinean artists, most of them scattered across Europe. But very few, if any, have put this much effort into rebuilding music culture at home.

Download: Patche Di Rima f. Saturnino Gibels, "Siko New Style"

Patche just finished his second album, Rendez-Vous de Siko, in which he focuses on a new genre he calls siko. The siko is a typically Bissau-Guinean percussion, a flat, square drum, ubiquitous at any popular gathering, from funerals to football matches. Patche incorporates the sound of the siko into a hybrid sound which draws as much from local folklore as it does from other popular African dance genres, such as coupé décalé from Côte d'Ivoire or kuduro from Angola. The result is a potent beat that can appeal to a wide audience, as it draws from such diverse influences, yet it is distinctly Bissau-Guinean.

The song featured above is simply called "Siko new Style", an introduction to siko featuring Patche's longtime friend and singer Saturnino Gibels. It reminds me of coupé décalé, but it has a distinctly Lusophone sound. And clocking in at 140 BPM, it is ready to be mixed with kuduro or coupé décalé: a sure shot for any of my sets.

Patche shows a taste for Western music, an open ear to other African genres, and deep local roots, a nice balance I see all too rarely in my endless quest for new sounds coming from Africa. It seems he's finding an audience—when we spoke he had just landed in Germany for a show in Hamburg and some scouting in Berlin. I admire his strength and cannot laud his efforts to give Guinea-Bissau its place on today's musical map enough. E karga paí!

Lungu Lungu: Siko on the Rise