The James Brown of Africa

Atongo Zimba brings a slice of Ghana to Rishon Lezion's Spring Festival.

atongo zimba 88 298 (photo credit: )
atongo zimba 88 298
(photo credit: )
In less than two weeks, Atongo Zimba will set hips shaking and toes tapping at the Seventh Annual International Spring Festival in Rishon Lezion. The Ghanaian Zimba is world renowned for his Afro funky jazz. "Music is something spiritual. It picks you up. When you listen to the different instruments, you only need to feel the rhythm and soul. You don't need to know the meaning of the words. I love Indian music. I don't fully understand it but I enjoy it spiritually," Zimba tells The Jerusalem Post during a telephone interview. Zimba and his eight piece band will take the stage in Rishon Lezion on April 1 with their mix of African ballads, funky jazz and rap. It's their first trip to the Middle East. "I know the history of Israel but I don't know the country. It's my first trip to the region," Zimba says. "I have no problem coming to Israel. Actually, we look forward to our shows there. Music is entertainment and it's nice to keep people happy. If everybody was afraid to play in Israel then who would be there? We have to keep people happy." Zimba and his band are among 130 artists from 10 countries taking part in the Spring Festival. Zimba's life history is familiar in world music files: He was born on the savannahs of northern Ghana in 1967; his grandfather taught him how to build and play the molo (a two-stringed calabash guitar which he still makes himself); as a teenager he hit the touring circuit and busked his way through much of Africa; his unique voice lured audiences and fellow musicians alike including Fela Kuti, the Nigerian band leader who invented the afro-beat, who eventually took Zimba under his wing and helped launch his career. After touring Africa for a few years, Zimba instigated an international collaboration with the Swiss drummer Gabriel Schildknecht. The result was the Afro jazz album "Allah Mongode," which then prompted a live tour around Switzerland in 1996. Further international partnerships came about and Atongo has toured widely in Switzerland, Germany, Spain and the Netherlands. Since 2003, Zimba has been based in London, England where he first made a name for himself as a street musician. That same year, Zimba composed and performed the music for the award winning "Elmina's Kitchen" at the National Theater. His hyped 2005 album, Savannah Breeze (modern Afro fusion music), was produced by Britain's David Yowell. "If you put your energy into your music people will follow it," says Zimba, who also has a home in Ghana. "Those wanting to make it in music must make sure this is what they want to do and put all their energy in it. People will respect it and you'll be able to survive on it." Zimba's songs are rooted in tradition, and deal with everyday life in the countryside of Ghana's Bolgatanga region. He sings in Frafra - his native language - mixed with Pidgin English and other West African dialects like Haussa, Ga, and Twi. Zimba is not against collaboration and notes that "nobody can change your music. You can add different elements into your music...that enables people to touch it. I don't just create traditional music. If you want to touch the world, you have to do something different. I always like to create my own rhythms." BBC has called him the James Brown of Africa. A Ghanaian journalist wrote that his voice distinctive voice "cleaves through the air like a sparrow." "As an artist I cannot describe my music, audiences must judge me, I cannot judge myself," he says. "I play Afro funky jazz. I can't say if it's good or not, you just have to come and hear it." Atongo Zimba and his band will play April 1 at the Heichal Hatarbut in Rishon Lezion. The Spring Festival takes place March 30-April 8. For a full program and tickets, call (03) 948-8688.