"It's a jungle out there," we who have never seen a jungle like to say of the chaos and coldheartedness of our increasingly uncivil civilization.
But that is not at all what a jungle is about, according to Congolese musician Samba Ngo, who had the advantage of growing up in one. To him, the jungle means life.
His most eloquent proof of that is in his joyous, beguiling music: Ngo and his five bandmates' cross-rhythms mesh like the roots and vines of the forest floor, complex beyond comprehension, yet forming an organic whole; his guitar solos prowl through the sonic thicket with the fierce grace of a panther, unique and yet also unmistakably a part of that whole.
Not surprisingly, Ngo's performances can inspire awe and a fundament-thumping sense of immediacy in his listeners, which is why his annual stops at the San Juan Capistrano Regional Library--where he and the Ngoma Players appear Saturday--have consistently been among the county's best concerts.
Ngo, who now lives in Santa Cruz, was recently signed by eclectic instrumentalist Alison Brown's Compass Records label--which will release Ngo's "Metamorphosis" album later this month. He has two albums in the works.
The acoustic one will feature him coaxing music from a phalanx of bottles--32-ounce juice bottles make a good bass, he advises; on the other, he hopes to capture his band's live fire.
Though Western influences abound in his music--from funk to free jazz to Fillmore-worthy improv excursions--his music remains deeply African, rooted in the jungle.
"I was taught by missionaries in my village," Ngo, 48, said, in French-accented English, "and I was fortunate because they had us spend as much time in the forest as in the classroom.
"You learn there that everything has a place; everything effects everything else. That teaches you to pay attention, to have respect. . . . The jungle teaches you what you need to know," he said. "When you live in something so powerful, you learn how much you need it and need each other, how you have to cooperate to live."
Growing up in the village of Dibulu in Zaire (then called the Belgian Congo, now, for the moment at least, the Democratic Republic of the Congo), Ngo never saw an electric guitar; his village had no electricity.
Feeling Racism, Turning to Music
It was considered a magnificent occurrence when an automobile passed through town. Nearly everything the people had came from the jungle. Ngo's father was the village herb doctor, who also used music to heal.
Ngo first learned music from his father and grew up playing congas and thumb piano with village musicians. On the rare occasions when he could listen to the radio, he was moved by the guitar-propelled Afro-Cuban-inspired soukous music played by Zairian music legends Franco, Dr. Nico and Tabu Ley Rochereau (who moved to Anaheim a few years ago).
He didn't see a guitar until he was 15, in the mid-1960s, when Zaire's political turmoil became particularly unpleasant and Ngo moved to Brazzaville, the major city in the neighboring Republic of Congo.
By then he was winning contests with his singing and was soon drafted into the band Echo Noire. A minister with a hi-fi introduced him to new music, including the Beatles, Ray Charles, Wes Montgomery, Louis Armstrong and the Golden Gate Quartet gospel group.
While Ngo was still a teen, Echo Noire relocated to Paris, which remained Ngo's base until 1985, as he passed through bands African Rhythms and M'Bamina.
Life in Paris proved to be spiritually challenging, causing him to seek more meaning in his music.
"I left the Congo too young, and it hadn't been explained to me how a Western country could be," he said. "The racism, the feeling of being trapped in a black body, was too much for me.
"No one was honest about their racism," he said. "You would trust them, and then it would come out how they felt, and it was killing my spirit.
"Music was the only place I had to turn. Something I learned from my father is that you use music to break the mind," he said. "By that I mean that usually your mind puts a wall up between itself and everything else, and it makes you a prisoner. Because we cannot control the mind, we have to use something that the mind itself cannot control.
Grieving for the Homeland From Afar
"African music uses the monotone--the groove, like James Brown uses here--to break that," Ngo said. "In general, the black folk musics of Africa have the monotone, because when you give monotony to the mind, the mind is not going to deal with that. That is not its function.
"I'm sure everyone has experienced a time when you are writing or singing or dancing and you go, 'Ah, today I had good inspiration,' because you weren't thinking, you just were. You were inside the thing you were doing. That is where you are meant to be, and that is what music is the medicine for."