13 September 2010

Congo-Kinshasa: Land of Rhumba And Soukous


Nairobi — Mention of the word Congo immediately evokes two contrasting emotions - war and revelry.

For Congo, the name shared by two neighbouring countries, is synonymous with music, especially the growth and development of the rhumba beat that has kept the continent entertained for decades.

At the same time, the Democratic Republic of Congo and its smaller neighbour across the river, Congo-Brazzaville, have known civil strife, military coups and immense blood-letting -- a kind of rhythm of death and destruction.

But this same destructive force has failed to stifle or silence the beautiful lyrics and enchanting, sharp guitar lines that continue to throb in the two capitals of Kinshasa and Brazzaville.

The two countries are actually one in spirit and kinship, enjoying a shared tradition of music. After all, it is only the colonial powers that separated the communities of the two territories.The bigger Congo was colonised by the Belgians, the smaller one by the French. But both ended up being Francophone.

A positive legacy of the Belgians that still lives on is Congolese music. The Belgians not only introduced modern music instruments, they also encouraged the Congolese from early on in their school days to play and enjoy music unimpeded.

As musicologists have always pointed out, the Belgians were only building on a rich tradition of ethnic music, where the drum was the most dominant instrument.Even with the bloody aftermath of the independence struggle that culminated in the assassination in January 1961 of popular Congolese political leader Patrice Lumumba -- himself the subject of many a sentimental recording by top singers -- Kinshasa and Brazzaville have continued to throb with rhythm and dance.

One can't talk of Congo's rich music culture without acknowledging the role of the common language that straddles the Congo River, Lingala.

It is the language that has seen the composition of some of the best music on the continent.

Contemporary Congolese music is simply referred to as Lingala, because the lyrics are in that language. It has its origins in the early and mid-1950s.

The base was and has always been Kinshasa, generally acknowledged as the mecca of African music.In the early 1950s, names such as Wendo Kolossy, Tino Baroza, Jhimmy (quite often, Lingala music stars were popularly known by just one name), Paul Dewayon and Joseph Kabaselleh (Grand Kalle), dominated the music scene, having set up the very first modern bands on the continent.

The early music had a heavy Cuban influence and a slower beat, as popularised by groups like the Rock a Mambo band.

Next were big names such as the solo guitar wizard "Dr" Nico Kasanda, Roger Izeidi and Dechaud, all of whom performed with Grand Kalle in the legendary African Jazz Band.Notably, Kabaselleh will be remembered for composing the famous song Independence Cha Cha, which was released when DR Congo attained independence from the Belgians on June 30, 1960.

In releasing the song after a trip to Brussels, he teamed up with others in the African Jazz band, such as Vicky Longomba, Brazzos, Pierrot and "Dr" Kasanda.

But the real explosion of Congolese music occurred with the arrival of a lanky youth, then only 17, who amazed the older musicians with his artistic mastery of his instrument, the guitar, in the mid 1950s.

He was none other than Franco Luambo Luanzo Makiadi, who for three decades was to dominate the music scene like a colossus.

Franco perfected solo guitar-playing, but he was also a great band leader, composer and arranger who became the symbol of Congolese music until his death in a Belgian hospital in October 1989.

Mobutu Sese Seko held a state funeral for Franco. Four days of national mourning were also announced.

Franco recorded probably the highest number of albums among the Congolese musicians, keeping fans in East, Central and West Africa constantly on the dance floor.

Still, he had a compatriot and arch-rival, Tabu Ley Rochereau. While Franco was down-to-earth and looked into traditional Congo for inspiration, Tabu Ley was urbane and suave.

Unlike Franco, he didn't play any instrument. He was famed for his alluring alto voice that graced many a hit, one of the earliest and most notable being the commercial jingle, Savon Omo, extolling the virtues of the then new washing soap.His fame spread across East and Central Africa.

There were many other tunes from the two men, locked in an enduring rivalry that propelled Congolese music forward.

But the closing act between the two greats was a big reconciliation that yielded a great collaboration album, Lisanga ya Banganga, in the mid 1980s. It was a rallying cry for unity of Congolese musicians.

Some of the leading Congolese singers like Mpongo Love, Mbilia Bel and Faya Tess were products of either Franco's or Tabu Ley's tutelage. There was also Abeti Maskini, who will be remembered as a pioneer woman musician.

Of the two men, Franco was the more social and more willing mentor of up-and-coming musicians.

He even reached across the river in search of talent, yielding the exciting Prince Youlou Mabiala, who suffered a stroke a few years ago and is recuperating in Paris. Mabiala is married to Franco's daughter.

Others who made their way up the musical ladder include the Kinshasa-born Angolan Sam Mangwana and would-be Congolese greats Madilu System and Ndombe Opetum.

With such a solid base, the road was paved for the emergence of singers like Papa Wemba and the Zaiko Langa Langa band. And to take the mantle from them were the Wenge Musicas, bringing to the fore the rivalry between JB Mpiana and Werra Son.

Other notable artistes included composer and choreographer Koffi Olomide. The latest twist to the Congolese music story is the emergence of a new breed that mimics the sophistication of the American hip-hop culture.

The protagonists include Ferre Gola and Fally Ipupa. There has been an interest in leaning towards the rhumba beat now as opposed to the fast-paced "Soukous" beat, which was popular in the 1990s.

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