Time to do the soukous

Rumba Lingala from Congo is poised to make Unesco's Intangible Cultural Heritage list

(Photos: John Clewley)

Congolese rumba, sometimes called rumba Lingala or rumba Congolais, is likely to join khon, a Thai masked dance drama, khaen music of Laos, chapei dang veng of Cambodia, Cuban son and Dominican bachata on Unesco's Intangible Cultural Heritage list. In August this year, the two countries from the Congo Basin, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and the Republic of the Congo (ROC), announced a joint bid to add Congolese rumba to the list.

The authorities in Kinshasa, the capital of DRC, and Brazzaville, the capital of ROC, which sit opposite each other at the mouth of the Congo River set aside their differences to make the bid. DRC culture minister Catherine Kathungu Furaha said that rumba "has been part of our identity, descendants of Africa and all of us, throughout the ages".

Congolese rumba is without doubt the most influential popular genre of dance music in Africa. After the release of Joseph Kabasele's anti-colonial anthem Independence Cha Cha in 1960 (when both Congos gained independence), the genre developed and spread across sub-Saharan Africa to Southern Africa (Zimbabwe, Zambia), East Africa (Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania), and West Africa where it was often called Lingala music (after Lingala, the lingua franca of the Congo Basin).

I have written about this magnificent dance music many times in the past, but a quick recap of the genre's history seems in order for those who have never burst into a spontaneous idiot dance upon hearing Franco's orchestra TKOP Jazz (bands are called orchestras in many parts of the continent) in full flight.

The genre developed in the 1930s and 1940s as local Congolese musicians emulated the sound of Cuban son music that was being played on radios and imported on vinyl. Although the Congolese called the music rumba, the music they were hearing and liked to play was the Cuban son, which developed in Cuba in the 19th century.

It sounded so familiar to the Congolese and musicians soon started to write their own lyrics in Lingala; they also enthusiastically took to the guitar.

Papa Wendo, who toured Europe and the USA in the 1940s and 1950s, was the first rumba star and by the 1950s big bands had bass guitar, drums, percussion (conga drums), up to four electric guitars and hot brass. Franco, perhaps Africa's most famous musician, a guitar prodigy as a child, added what is called the "mi solo" guitar (weaving between lead and rhythm guitars).

In the 1960s, new acts like Franco's great rival Tabu Key Rochereau and guitarist Nico added touches from the Caribbean, Latin music and US soul music, further developing the genre and raising the dance tempo. Dance crazes emerged like the soukous, which means to shake and as this newer, more exciting style was exported, it began to influence highlife (West Africa), palm-wine music, makossa (Cameroon), taarab (Tanzania and Zanzibar), and chimerenga and jit (Zimbawe). The political uncertainty and repression during the rule of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in then Zaire led to an exodus of Congolese stars to Europe (Paris and Brussels) and other parts of Africa, especially East Africa.

Some of the East African soukous bands like Orchestra Les Mangelepa are still going strong with their classic 1960s/1970s sound (see a review of the Last Man Standing album in a previous column). The Tanzanian-based Zairean exiles like Remy Ongala went on to enjoy stellar international careers. Indeed, I met some Congolese musicians when I was living in Tokyo who had formed Vundumuna, a band that played a residency at the Piga Piga Club. The Dar-e-Salam-based band Kilimanjaro Connection Band played two residencies in Bangkok in the 1990s.

I have only seen one of the two giants (Franco and Rochereau) perform live with a huge orchestra. I saw Tabu Lay Rochereau and Afrisa International in London in 1989. To the classic 60s line-up, Rochereau had added an "animateur" (a kind of MC who winds everyone up), female singers and very hot, James Brown-style brass.

Rochereau and Franco were rivals; one of my Congolese friends told me that the ladies liked Rochereau because of his sweet voice while the guys liked Franco for his brilliant guitar, hard-edged voice and social commentary. My friend told me that he listened to Franco "to get the news".

Many musicians and dancers who learned their craft with the big orchestras left to create their own bands and as the golden era of the 1970s soukous years faded new youth bands like Zaiko Langa Langa emerged, leaner and stripped-down (as with Thai luk thung and molam, keyboards replaced brass during this period). New stars like Papa Wemba, Madilu System and Sam Mangwana emerged and new dance crazes also followed quickly, too.

And while synthesisers and drum machines were incorporated, the connection to rumba always remained, in the intertwining guitars, the tight vocal harmonies and the high hat/snare drum pulse that always remains at the root of the music.

Typically, a classic Congo rumba song begins with a slow, often simple solo guitar intro with vocal harmonies. The lead singer joins in a call-and-response and after this slow, seductive introduction the (four) guitars kick in and the rhythm is doubled or tripled in what is called the seben section. This is the point at which the audience erupts into spontaneous dancing, the women singers in the chorus of the orchestra hitch up their sarongs and begin to dance. There is, in my view, nothing quite like a Congolese band in full Congo rumba mode.


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

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