All that Sunshine: Re-Introducing Sunburst

Strut Records is re-issuing music from the great Tanzanian rock band, Sunburst.
By    May 6, 2016


Peter Holslin can’t avoid pointing out the similarities between this cover and Sublime.

Sunburst is a really good band name — let’s make that clear right away. When many have turned to tropical sounds amidst a turbulent economy and political rancor, it surprises me that American bands and beatmakers haven’t embraced that name. But the original Sunburst wears it well. Formed in 1970 in the Tanzanian coastal city of Dar es Salaam, they were a funky outfit with a polyglot approach in the vein of the “Zamrock” bands from neighboring Zambia. Starting off as a James Brown and Santana cover band, they came to develop an approach all their own called “Kitoto Sound” before disbanding six years later.

The band emerged at a time when Tanzania was in the middle of a program of socialist and agricultural reforms under the leadership of president Julius Nyerere. Formerly under colonial control by the British, the country gained its independence in 1961, and under an idea called “ujamaa” (which translated to family or socialism), Nyerere – the “Father of the Nation” – nationalized many of the country’s industries and resettled thousands of people into collectivist “villages.” In the late 60s as guitarists like Buddy Guy thrilled young Tanzanian audiences, the government also tried to ban soul music and dancing, as well as bell-bottoms and miniskirts. But that didn’t stop Sunburst, who established a residency at a beachside hotel, cut a full-length LP, Ave Africa, and scored memorable jams like “Enzi Za Utumwani” (“Slavery Days”), which balance hypnotic rhythm and heartfelt guitar solos with lyrics about the legacy of colonialism.

This year Sunburst are being re-introduced (or just plain introduced) to North American and European audiences in the form of a reissue package from Strut Records. The collection (due out on June 24) compiles all of their recordings, including their only full-length LP, Ave Africa. “Simba Anguruma” is a fine example of their sound: It finds the band dishing out fuzzy guitar licks, trippy organ flourishes and a jazzy horn solo over a clave rhythm accented by agogo bells and apito whistles. It’s a dense groove with a fusion approach, reflecting the fact that all of the members of the band hailed from different African countries and were influenced by a range of languages and styles.

There’s no shortage these days of 60s-70s African funk/rock/disco/Afrobeat etc. reissues, and while it’s always great to hear more music from these early post-colonial years on the continent, it’s a shame that more American record stores aren’t filling up with releases from artists who are capturing the current zeitgeist in countries like Tanzania. Still it’s worthwhile looking back. That dense and dizzying groove from “Simba Anguruma” really sucks you in, and for those four and a half minutes, it’s like you’ve been transported, your mind liberated, blissfully transcending the burdens of Internet overstimulation and Donald Drumpf.

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