LIBERIA: Take A Look Outside - Kapingbdi
Liberia's only funk-rock band dazzle on this album which remained hidden away for decades
During the course of Danny and I searching for a studio album from each country, Liberia began to achieve a reputation between the two of us for being something of a maverick, for being musically unusual. Granted, we’re no experts, and we’re skewed by our small sample sizes, but several of the albums we found from the West African state were unusual or musically challenging to say the least, with the wonderfully wacky stylings of outsider artist Congress-woman Malinda Jackson Parker and the hard-hitting, potently lyrical yet musically harsh rap of Italian-Liberian musician Karima 2G coming to define, for us at least, the music of a nation that seemed to be dancing to the beat of its own rhythm. While most of Liberia’s neighbours appeared to similar (yet distinct) musical traditions, a lot of the music we found from Liberia was vastly different. Liberia of course has a unique history that separates it from its neighbours, with its roots lying in white Americans encouraging freed black people to settle in Africa instead of staying in America, and despite opposition from abolitionist movements, many did go to settle in what became known as Liberia. This Americo-Liberian tradition is firmly seen in Jackson Parker’s work. Her music is broadly Western in its sound, and she speaks with a particular type of American accent associated with Liberia. Karima 2G performs rap music which is popular with the younger generation across the globe, and her lyrics speak powerfully about the experience of being a black woman in Italy. It is with Kapingbdi where we are able to hear a bit of the traditional music of the country, artfully combined with elements of rock, jazz, and funk.
“Take a Look Outside is a phenomenal exercise in musical creativity that manages to bridge the gap between American funk and rock music with modern African styles like afrobeat, as well as the traditional beginnings of all of those genres, whose roots lie in Africa.”
However, the story does not begin in Liberia. The name ‘Kapingbdi’ means ‘born in the night’, and it comes from the language spoken by the Mende people, most of whom live in the world’s roundest nation Sierra Leone, where bandleader Kojo Samuels was born. He received the nickname from his Latin teacher, whom he would often meet to debate and study after school when the sun had gone down. Then, in his teens, the family moved to Liberia, where he studied music. After years of travelling across the USA and Germany he formed Kapingbdi, where they released three albums of Afro-funk rock for the independent label Trikont. The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed that ‘the lost album’ is one of the phrases on the album art, and that is because Take a Look Outside was never released until recently. Recorded in Detroit, the band had a four-week break before the resumption of the tour. Samuels returned to Liberia, while his band members stayed in the USA. He returned to find his band had disbanded – four had acquired green cards and wished to reside in the United States, and one had been detained on drugs charges (there is a happy ending here, he did apparently pop up nine years later as an employee of a chicken wing kiosk). Bereft, he took the tapes of the album and locked them away in a vault in Germany, and it remained hidden away until a German record label named Sonorama that specialises in this kind of musical archaeology, found the master tapes and Samuels himself (still living and performing with his band in Liberia) and released the album in full in 2019, with Samuels assisting with the production and restoration of the record.
Kapingbdi was formed out of a desire to return to Liberia’s indigenous music. Samuels was unimpressed by the fact that all the music on Liberian radios was American, and nothing reflected the cultural origins of the country. While Take a Look Outside has a clear American influence, it nonetheless has a clear basis in the African music that was taking the rest of the continent by storm at the time. Ghanaian highlife and Nigerian afrobeat are as much inspirations for this album as funk or jazz are, and the resulting fusion is something that sounds undeniably African at its heart. This can be found on the opening track – not only is it called Africa-I-Deh, it even starts with an undeniably African drum beat that defines the song, despite the wonderfully jazzy saxophone and piano that is playing alongside it. This continues in Take a Look Outside, where the guitar riffs and drumbeats combine to create an enticing and danceable atmosphere, aided by energetic vocals and a smooth sax solo. On Don’t Mess with the Music, we are treated to some funk rock that is reminiscent of the likes of James Brown and Jimi Hendrix. Though guitarist Joseph Kieh Blamo does not solo wildly like the latter, there’s definitely something of the organised chaos of a track like Voodoo Child (Slight Return) on these songs, with many of his riffs growing around variations on the same theme.
Though the album has a strong rock and funk feel, there are songs that lean more towards the traditional folk feel that Samuels was keen on capturing. Yakundé is one such track, beginning with another dense and rich drumbeat, as well as a choir, before building up to the first verse where the song is released from crescendo, and we hear the vocals, which are not in English but in Mande and Twi, a Ghanaian language. This is only song on the album not to feature any English, and it allows us a small peek back behind the American influence on the album and on Liberia and the wider region. Though there is still guitar and bass, with the bass being particularly adventurous and melodic on this track, Samuels steals the show with a truly superb flute solo – not something I get to say often! Another such track that gives a sense of the traditional music of Liberia is Matumba, a song that features just drums and vocals in English as well as Mande, as well as intensely political lyrics around the pernicious pervasiveness of corruption in Liberia and the willingness of many to turn a blind eye. This shows Samuels’ desire to explore as many musical avenues as possible; to leave no stone unturned, there are even songs like African Locomotion that have a complicated sound that can perhaps only be described as free jazz meets afrobeat.
Take a Look Outside is a phenomenal exercise in musical creativity that manages to bridge the gap between American funk and rock music with contemporary African styles like afrobeat, as well as the traditional beginnings of all of those genres, whose roots lie in Africa. As such, it sounds very modern and fresh, definitely benefiting from the up-to-date production, but more than that, the very music itself is vital and indispensable. The musicians were all on top of their game, and each song is a well-crafted marvel, and above all, it is supremely enjoyable. Songs like Take a Look Outside and Don’t Mess with the Music would stand up with the great funk rock classics of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and the band is firing on all cylinders on the rest of the tracks too. It makes me wonder what would have become of the band had they been able to continue performing and recording albums. We can never know, but what we do know for sure is that this ‘lost album’ shows a band at the very heights of their musical abilities.