In 1979, Zexie Manatsa, the Green Arrows’ mercurial bassist and lead singer, married his longtime girlfriend, Stella, at Zimbabwe’s Rufaro Stadium. The ceremony was joyous, and the resulting celebration featured wild dancing, lots of (presumably great) music, and, almost certainly, the copious consumption of wha wha — that’s “beer” in Shona. In many ways it was a normal wedding. Except for one thing: Roughly sixty-thousand people were in attendance.
Such was the local popularity of the Green Arrows in the mid- to late-1970s. According to Samy Ben Redjeb’s superb liner notes, the Arrows dominated the hearts, minds and hips of an entire generation of young Zimbabweans. The five-member, three-guitar band released the first-ever LP by a Zimbabwean group, 1976’s Chipo Chiroorwa. The previous year, one of its singles went gold — also a first in the country’s history. Another one of the Green Arrows’ singles, an absurdly catchy call-and-response number called “Musango Mune Hangaiwa,” hit the top of the charts in Zimbabwe and stayed put for seventeen weeks.
And yet, I had never heard of them before, and it’s likely that, unless you’re a super-devoted Afro-pop fan or lived in Zimbabwe in the ’70s, neither have you. Which is why this album is so exciting — its twenty songs are consistently amusing, exciting, revelatory, even joyous. It’s also certainly the most tuneful, pop-friendly African music I’ve ever heard. Most of the songs are honest-to-gosh verse-chorus-verse pop songs, rather than the extended polyrhythmic groove tracks you’re probably used to; believe it or not, although the album’s first song, “Mwana Waenda,” clocks in at a mere three minutes and nineteen seconds, it’s the longest one on the record. This was initially off-putting — I mean, I really like extended polyrhythmic groove tracks — and I feared that the album’s compilers had wimped out and truncated the songs for a Western audience. I’m reasonably sure that isn’t the case. The Arrows just play short because they’re a pop band at heart, simple as that.
Like all pop bands, the Green Arrows’ stock-in-trade is its danceable, hurry-up exuberance. The varied and massively appealing guitar riffs are on some songs twinkly and ethereal and perfectly arranged, like constellations; on others, they slide lugubriously across the rhythm section, fueled (almost certainly) by copious consumption of wha wha, as well as the wah-wah pedal that the Arrows’ producer, West Nkosi, brought back with him from South Africa in 1974. And that aforementioned rhythm section — the subtle, lean drumming of Raphael Mboweni over top Zexie’s subtle, zexual bass work — is always worth attending.
Like its title suggests, the sound quality of 4-Track Recording Session ain’t always the best. Most of the songs were recorded on just two centrally located microphones. But since this music is so universal in its appeal, anyone with at least one good ear will be able to hear it loud and clear.
Alula Records Web site