Journeying back with explosive Jeff Mulenga

WE CONTINUE with one of our themes of celebrating Zambia’s unsung musical heroes. In the 2000s, I met a man who was one of my childhood heroes at Lusaka’s Fairview Hotel where there were weekend live musical performances.
Jeff Mulenga had for all intents and purposes gone into oblivion since releasing an absolute Zambian music classic album titled Journey to Kasama, credited to Jeff and the Explosives in 1976. He remerged on the Zambian musical scene with the reissue album from Mondo Music titled Sounds of Zambia Volume 2 in 2000, which featured the hit single Journey to Kasama. He was back in demand at live performances where people demanded this one song in extended form. I once joined on stage to perform this song with him as a backup singer.
Very little has been written or documented about this brilliant man. In the times I sat and talked to him, I gathered very little about where he was born or his background. In fact, there was little time for that as he was extremely passionate about music. It turned out that his major music influence was the soul funk legend James Brown, who he saw perform in Zambia in 1971.
The imprint on Jeff was immense. He modelled his singing, his dance moves, his energy, on James Brown. But unknown to him was the fact that he had created an entirely unique form of soul blues with the sprinkle of pop. It was Zambian soul blues. Jeff and the Explosives are often mischaracterised as pure Zamrock. As a matter of fact, Zamrock is also mis-described as merely rock with a Zambian feel. It also had music forms from the R‘n’B family. It is an understandable mistake because the album Journey to Kasama came out at the peak of the Zamrock era that was rock driven but the music on the album is more R‘n’B, soul, some funk sprinkled with pop.
The other musical group with a sound coming closest to Jeff and the Explosives were the Tinkles of Luanshya. Jeff and the Explosives dispensed with the fuzzy, wawa and other distortion effects common in Zambian music and then employed an electric but smoother soulful sound.
Many thanks to the rebirth of Zamrock on the international musical scene started by Rikki Illilonga and Now Again Records, a lot of Zambian old vinyl records are finding themselves on YouTube. Journey to Kasama, the album, is on YouTube. The album opens with I Have Got to Move technically a soul blues song akin to the sound of the soul acts of the sixties.
The second song on the album is the hit Journey to Kasama, with a pop soul song that perhaps is closest to the Zamrock sound of the era. In this song, we hear his James Brown inspired screams for the first time. The song is followed by another soul blues track Since You’ve Been Gone. The fourth song, Push it Higher, another soul song is an absolute ignored masterpiece. The sexual innuendo in this sweet energy song about teaching a girl how to fly an airplane with the measured screams is the work of legends. The album is ascendancy from then on with the fifth song Playing With Fire, a Zamrockish track. Then we get Zambian with the first song delivered in chiBemba Mwenda Na Chilekwa, another Zamrockish track with clear jazz funk influences. The similar is employed in another song sung in chiBemba or technically iChaushi, a language in the Bemba family.
We go back to the soul feel in the eighth song Stick Where You Are. The album ends with I Wanna Love You, which is the funkiest track on the album, right out of the James Brown and the Flames catalogue.
Although Journey to Kasama is Jeff Mulenga’s only known release, it is an absolute classic deserving of being part of text material for teaching the history of Zambian music. It is painful that Zambia is a country that forgets its heroes and has no desire to use our history to build the future. If there are relatives of Jeff Mulenga who will read this, I wish to let them know that he was an absolutely talented man whose contribution to music and to Zambian music will never be forgotten.
Jeff Mulenga and the Explosives, thank you, thank you very much.

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