Paul Mbenna and the Okapi Guitar Band
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Paul Mbenna and the Okapi Guitar Band


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This band has not uploaded any videos




"Excellent, African-pop music that combines a progressive sort of jazzy reggae/island pop with lots of shimmering guitars, clean melodies, dancing counterpoint and rock solid beats.. .Outstanding!" - Bryan Baker, GAJOOB magazine

"Swinging grooves"

"...West and Central African urban guitar-based styles ... lovely swinging grooves ... intriguing moments that pulse and stimulate ... deserves to be more widely heard..." - Diaspora World Beat issue 8, Spring 2001

"Five stars"

It's a pleasant change in these days when so much music is just ear-candy, so to speak, to hear a band not only playing fine music, but saying something with meaning that needs to be said. The political situation in Zimbabwe has been appalling for years, with a white colonialist regime having been replaced by a corrupt black dictatorship. In Australia things are not so wonderful either, as our freedoms are eroded under the mask of counter-terrorism and refugee panics, and our government is fond of pandering to white racism. So the band has a go at some of the 'heroes' of our time, like John Howard and comrade Mugabe.

Musically, though out of Sydney NSW, this album could equally well have been made in Zimbabwe. The sounds are very authentically African, melodically mellow, featuring mbira prominent in the mix. Listening to this, you're transported to a township bar in Zimbabwe, grooving along and dancing with the crowd. This is very danceable music, and I can't imagine this band playing in all-seated venues.

Using guitar sounds that range from the picked patterns of afrobeat to the sweep of vintage tremolo, and production techniques borrowed from jazz and techno, the band sing songs about SIEVX, Iraq and the ongoing disaster of Mugabe's Zimbabwe. Where else will you hear John Howard outed for what he really is ("My client")? Or a hymn of praise to the mighty termite? -


You have to admire these guys for their sheer tenacity and total dedication to their chosen musical form – for 20 years these two Sydney-based guitarists (Bernhard Huber and John Laidler) have been quietly persisting with their DIY brand of African-styled grooves, charting their circuitous progress with various independent CDs and cassettes. Within the parameters of layered guitar-focused music, they have combined Western rock sensibilities, politically-aware lyrics and a home-grown inventiveness while remaining always true to an authentic East African sound.

Which brings us to album number nine – a live studio album of favourite originals and African pop covers. This is an excellent slice of music that deserves to be on every party turntable. Whereas the previous release (Haram Homebrew) was essentially Bernhard and John and lots of overdubs, here the sound is definitely alive: immediate, vibrant, punchy and tight. The new line-up of Chris Bright on drums and Sigi Huber on bass keeps the vibe driving and bubbling, while the twin guitars of Huber and Laidler shimmer, sparkle and percolate over the top. The vocal harmonies on the African covers are particularly strong, sailing rhythmically over the other intricately woven layers and lifting the energy of the music even higher.

The style of material, including the originals, is pretty much straight-ahead African pop except the cover of Paul Kelly’s “From Little Things”, their third recording of this song and definitely the punchiest. Musically though it still fits with the rest of the album and doesn’t interrupt the overall flow.

This album sits right alongside any recordings from Zimbabwe, Tanzania and the like, in musicianship and energy. It is clearly a celebration of the joyous spirit of this musical style and the culture that originally produced it. It is a great testament to the hard yards the Okapis have put in, and as a friend commented: “This time they’ve really nailed it!”

I defy you not to dance! - review by Bradfield Dumpleton 2009 -

"An album of extended, slow grooves"

The Okapi Guitars are the tenaciously independent duo of John Laidler and Bernhard Huber. Armed with their assortment of guitars and a home studio (the Ratshed), the pair have released 3 cassettes and 6 CDs since forming in 1994. Their music is characteristically fuelled by the full spectrum of African guitar pop, but the result is often a soup of many flavours that’s not easily genrefied.

“Haram Homebrew” has an obviously topical (Iraq, land rights, global monopolies etc) and decidedly brooding undercurrent – not exactly what I'’d call African pop but that's musically where the Okapies lay their foundations for each track. This is an album of extended, slow grooves, a loose hybrid of afro & island beats, fat horns, Middle Eastern meets western r&b and a few rock sensibilities. Overall the effect is a downbeat simmer but very listenable, with catchy arrangements & simple structures that allow for looped phrases and intermittent riffs to meander freely. Lyrically the boys are clearly outspoken & defiant about their politics, and much of this disc is obviously a response to the Iraq situation.

Standouts for me include:
‘Repent’ - swampy blues growlin’ groove, a slow percolation of multilayered guitar sounds that weave all over each other, setting the tone for the sonic landscapes that follow.
‘ English Scar’ - a hypnotic comment on the Guantanamo Bay incarcerations, with densely-layered rhythm tictocs and a dark brooding mood driven by an insistent chorus.
‘Theme From The Hornet of Osama’ - prowling instrumental track with some beautifully-haunting trombone sailing over the dunes, a hot windblast of synthesised Middle Eastern string sounds & some fairly abstract percussion samples shuddering through.
In ‘Saudi Cadillac’ the boys get swampy again, a kind of funky camel-walk groove a la Joe Strummer, which warps out when some middle-eastern flutes come sailing through bolstered by the Return of the Middle Eastern Synth Strings.

‘Three Nations’ offers cool relief from the hot density of some other tracks, with its dreamy interplay between acoustic and clean electric sounds, trickling and bubbling around. Likewise ‘Witness’, which opens with an almost frontporch summerjam jangle buoyed by a sitar drone, before kicking into more brooding vocals and brain-entrainment chorus. There’s even an odd nod to the Doors’ “The End” (in the middle) and a nice percussive trail out (at the end).

As a discerning Rusty, I found the cover of Neil Young’s ‘Ohio’ a tad too twee and poppy, doesn’t do justice to the original’s bleak passion, and the adaptation of some verses to reference Sth Africa seemed at odds with the rest of the song. Musically it’s a bit cluttered, but the inclusion of banjo is interesting - the track may have even worked better as an original instrumental piece.

‘Tourist’ sets out briefly as a reggae-tinged Senegambian jazz stroll, with some Santana-esque guitar overdrive before abruptly turning a corner - then kicks into a horn-driven afrofunk reminiscent of the Clash’s “Rock The Casbah” phase, and with the same defiance against conformity.

‘From Little Things’, the famous Kev Carmody / Paul Kelly land rights tale, is a slow jam version with a loose kind of island / reggae hybrid feel, some slightly Dub-ish moments and fat horn arrangements cutting through.

‘Sleep’ is an acoustic rock ode to lack thereof, and quietly chunkachunks along as pedal steel and slide guitar float like ghosts between verses

Some songs suffer from the DIY approach – too many sounds happening in the mix at once, or the playing strays from relaxed to sloppy and the momentum stumbles a little too obviously. But if you can forgive these idiosyncrasies as just yeasty floaties in the Okapies homebrew, there’s some very astute and subtle musical layers going on, a flair for arrangement and some very catchy choruses.

Bradfield Dumpleton 2007


Major CD releases:

Choko Choko (1998; re-released 2005)
Senor Goat (1999)
Westie (2000)
Blue Kigara (2002)
Radio Free Zimbabwe (2004)
Haram Homebrew (2007)
Live@CutSnake (2008)
Plenty (2011)

Other releases:

"Sick" a song from the "Blue Kigara" CD was included on "Copy Me, Remix Me" compilation from Creative Commons
Cover version of Lou Reed's "Vicious" included on the tribute CD "After Dark" (2003) from Wampus Multimedia.

Limited edition CD of Latin songs "Los Grandes Exitos del Conjunto Okapi" released 2004.

"Kizungu", from the 1996 album "Salty Banana" was featured in the Australian motion picture "Dance Me To My Song" (1998).

(Most CDs available at CDBaby



Paul Mbenna, aka Mister Paul, was a chart-topping pop star before he left Tanzania for Australia in 2007. The song for which he is best known, throughout East Africa, is called "Zuwena".

Sung in Swahili and set to his homeland's distinctive bongo flava rhythm, its tale of tragedy-struck love rode the airwaves of Burundi, Congo, Kenya, Uganda and Mozambique to widespread acclaim.

Now resident in Sydney, he has teamed up with the Okapi Guitar Band to create a live show direct from the nightclubs of Dar Es Salaam.

The Okapi Guitar Band is Australia's longest surviving Afropop group, described by Stani Goma (3PBS-FM) as 'an amazing group', 'proving that music has no frontiers' for their deep knowledge of African guitar band styles. Their repertoire ranges from Zimbabwean chimurenga to Kenyan classics, and from Tuareg desert blues to West African hi-life and afrobeat.

African music with an Australian accent!

"Our approach to African music parallels the adoption of American blues by British beat groups in the 1960s. We think African musical styles are eminently applicable to modern Australian life and strive to develop a local version of these styles."

Since 2007, using the name Okapi Guitars, the band includes Chris Bright (drums, vocals), Sigi Huber (bass guitar, vocals), Bernhard Huber (guitar, vocals) and John Laidler (guitar, vocals).

In 2011 the band celebrated it's 25th anniversary.

"... Chris Bright on drums and Sigi Huber on bass keep the vibe driving and bubbling, while the twin guitars of Huber and Laidler shimmer, sparkle and percolate over the top. The vocal harmonies on the African covers are particularly strong, sailing rhythmically over the other intricately woven layers and lifting the energy of the music even higher."