Roots of rumba Congolais

Congo Revolution is a wonderful compilation of early pop music from the region

Franco, born Luambo Makiadi, features on the cover. Congo Revolution

Soul Jazz Records' recent compilation on the early years of Congolese popular music, Congo Revolution - Revolutionary And Evolutionary Sounds From The Two Congos 1955-62, is a must have for fans of African popular music.

This compilation covers the irresistible rise of popular music in the "Two Congos", the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC, formerly known as Zaire and a former colony of Belgium) and the Republic of the Congo (formerly known as French Congo), during the years that led to independence in 1960. The music created became known as rumba Congolais and it went on to become the most influential pan-African genre of the past 60 years.

Sitting opposite each other on the mouth of the Congo River, Kinshasa (formally known as Leopoldville) in the DRC and Brazzaville in the RC are where the new music was created. Compiler Mwana Mafuta writes that Kinshasa is "where so much of the music takes shape", while Brazzaville has the "best nightclubs, the money and the joie de vivre". These differences, Mafuta suggests, are the result of differing colonial histories; he also notes nearly all the orchestras (what bands are called in the Congo) that dominated from the late 1940s to the mid-1980s originated in Kinshasa.

The music revolution was based on a new hybrid sound that mixed Latin (mainly Cuban), Caribbean (such as calypso, which was also being assimilated into highlife music in Ghana at the same time) and elements from jazz and swing. The African roots came from the more than 300 different ethnic groups in the Congo region, in the form of percussion, vocal styles and the ikembe, or thumb piano, which influenced the way Congolese musicians plucked the guitar.

In the liner notes, Mafuta traces the journey of slaves from the Congo region to transit in Cuba, where many kept their musical and religious customs alive through secret societies, known as Cabildos, which would create the "bedrock for what became known as Afro-Cuban or Latin music".

With the global dance craze for rumba and cha cha cha in the 1950s, the music was popularised through gramophones and vinyl records and HMV decided to license popular Latin titles and released them across sub-Saharan tropical Africa, under the GV (Gramophone Victor) label; and so hundreds of Latin songs and tunes ended up in West and Central Africa (you can also hear them percolating away in Thai country music or in Sudanese mambo). Initially, musicians covered songs but soon began to sing Latin-style tunes in local languages like lingala.

Latin music also had a big influence on development of West African popular music like mbalax in Senegal and the early orchestras in Mali.

The 21 tracks on the CD version of the compilation (it's also available in download and vinyl formats) feature the future stars of the genre: Franco (Luambo Makiadi), Grand Kalle (Joseph Kabasele) and Dr Nico. The "rumba pulse" drives much of the music on the album, even on Franco's stab at calypso on Tokeyi Kobina Calypso. And the smooth sounds of African Jazz, the pioneering band led by Joseph Kabasele, contrasts with the hard-edged groove of Franco's O.K. Jazz. These two orchestras defined the two major styles of Congolese rumba in the years that followed.

Kabasele founded the first locally-owned record label and made the first overseas recordings in 1960 by a Congolese band. The songs recorded in Brussels included one of the continent's most popular political songs, Independence Cha Cha Cha, a monster hit when it was released. On the compilation are several other tracks from the Brussels session: Vive Patrice Lumumba pays tribute to first prime minister of the new republic, who was later assassinated, and Ngonga Ebeti Independence.

Other seminal bands represented here showcase their talents, which includes a delightful track from the Beguen band Yo Me Moera and several dance-floor fillers from Rock-A-Mambo, all of which have a Caribbean "feel" to their music. Cheri Nini is their standout song.

The detailed liner notes are illustrated throughout with fascinating photos of bustling nightlife on both sides of the Congo River by photographer Jean Depara, who was Franco's photographer from the 1960s until the great musician's death in 1989. The cover photo of the album shows a portrait of Franco from the late 1950s by Depara when he was enjoying his rise to fame.

Franco was a street musician, a child prodigy who garnered the nickname, the "sorcerer of the guitar". Depara's photos show hopeful revellers, mixed race couples, bands in action and dancers. Here also are the smartly dressed evolues who would later morph into the fashion-designer-label-crazy Kinshasa sapeurs in the 1970s and Billys, locals dues who adopted the style of US cowboys. Revue Noir, a French magazine on African art and photography, collaborated with Soul Jazz to reproduce these stunning black and white images, and you can find more of his Kinshasa nightlife photos on the magazine's website.

This is an important album, a great introduction to the early sounds of one of Africa's most potent popular musics. Highly recommended.

Sadly, World Beat notes the passing of documentary filmmaker Jeremy Mare, who died in April. His work, particularly his ground-breaking Beats Of The Heart TV series, which included a film on Thai music, Two Faces Of Thailand, took viewers on a global journey to discover many genres of music that are often overlooked by mainstream music press coverage. More on his work in later columns. More information on the album and Depara's photos at soundsoftheuniverse.com/sjr/ and revuenoire.com/en/edition/depara-kinshasa.


John Clewley can be contacted at clewley.john@gmail.com.

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