MOKILI ETUMBA (CD9401 Umwe Records, London 081.694.8030)

Some things just go beyond categories. What does "folk music" mean anyway? Folks without electricity? Well, forget about synths and samples and check out the raw energy of Classic Swede Swede, their raggedy vocals and distorted harmonica, Luba xylophone and bass guitar atop lokole, congas, drums and a bit of simple programmation. These cats are hipper than thou, and come at thee with a gut-wrenching intensity. The best groups in Africa always spring from modernized folk traditions. Classic Swede Swede come from the Mongo people but draw inspiration from the diverse tribal rhythms of Central Africa. They revived a scandalous dance called the "Sundama" (which means "bend over"). It was quickly banned from television. It suggests Zaiko Langa Langa unplugged, if you can imagine such a thing.

MONDO RY (Jimmy's Production JP 014)

Zairean guitarist Diblo is well-known as the creator of the sharp biting sound of Kanda Bongo Man, but since 1988 he has been touring with his own group Loketo (Lingala for "move your hips"). In 1987 they blew the lid off the Kennel Club in San Francisco in the most explosive concert of the year. Loketo now has several albums out (two on Shanachie, the American label), and various members of Loketo have solo albums, notably vocalists Arlus Mabélé and Jean Baron. From the scorched fuzz tone opening riffs of MONDO RY, the pace never slackens, driven relentlessly by Mack Mackaire's trap drums and Komba Bellow on congas (in concert they alternate to spell each other). Ronald Rubinel adds grace notes -- twittering birds and prancing synth leads -- on keyboards, but also provides an important continuo which many of the Zairean guitar bands lack. They work out on "S. P. Diblo," a funky instrumental track quite different from anything else coming out of Zaire. Each of the members of Loketo contributes material to their albums so it is always varied, and the two gorgeous dancers add another dimension to their stage show.

DERNIERE MEMOIRE (Voix d'Afrique 013)

This German release will gladden the hearts of soukous fans. Nico & his brother Mwamba Dechaud were the pioneering guitarists in Joseph Kabaselle's African Jazz that fused Cuban rumba onto indigenous African music. The opening cut on this album (recorded in Benin sometime between 1983 and Nico's death in 1985), "Africa Mokili Mobimba," was a hit in the late 50s for African Jazz (& a hit more recently for Tshala Muana). Throughout the album Nico is in top form, showing the divine inspiration that made him the "God of the Guitar" for a generation of Zairean, and now Western, fans. He soars on the opening cut and the other remake: "Bougie ya motema," which he wrote for his later band African Fiesta Sukisa in 1967. Empompo played sax in Tiers Monde with Sam Mangwana and joined Bopol backing Mpongo Love, but the Nico guitar magic sparkles throughout this album and will make it a perennial favourite.

EAST OF AFRICA (Dakar Sound)

If you want to explore the roots of Soukous, there's a great compilation CD of mid-1960s Congolese pop singles on Dakar Sound called EAST OF AFRICA. Though the title implies the Indian Ocean or Madagascar, it's a reference to the fact that bands often licensed their hits to small labels in other countries to get out of unfavourable tight contracts with their own labels. These singles were issued by Melodica in Nairobi, and document the two main streams of popular Congolese music that prefigured Soukous. First there was African Jazz, Joseph Kabaselle's band that played amplified rumba music. After independence the key members, singer Rochereau and lead guitarist Docteur Nico, split to form African Fiesta. At the same time a new sound, rooted in folk instruments such as likembe (or thumb piano) evolved with OK Jazz and Le Negro Band being the main exponents. Nico and his various groupings, including Orchestre Rock-a-Mambo, were on the Ngoma label. OK Jazz, Vedette Jazz, and others made their albums at the Loningisa studio, also in Kinshasa. Both styles of music -- as well as a couple of novelty numbers showing the influence of West African highlife -- are included on EAST OF AFRICA. Among these African Team's "Madou Whiskey Soda" is priceless. You don't have to choose between the styles, but the African Fiesta tracks are smoother, and more cha-cha based; the Negro Band tracks have a lot of rawness and wonderfully squeaky soprano sax solos by Empompo Loway. From African Jazz there's a forerunner of "Twist & Shout" called "Tika Kutupende kolo." One of my favourite ballads, Nico's "Mamu wa mpoy," on which he plays Hawaiian slide guitar is included: it's the first time it's been on CD and alone is reason enough to buy this collection.


RetroAfric scores big with a collection of rare tracks by "Fan Fan," one of Africa's leading guitarists. After cutting his teeth with OK Jazz in Zaire, he traveled to Zambia and Tanzania, where he joined forces with Remy Ongala in Orchestre Makassy before moving to Kenya, and founding Somo Somo. Many hits flowed from these groupings, and there's over an hour of them on this up-tempo collection with catchy melodies, dancing hi-hat cymbals, brassy punctuation, and long, stinging guitar jams. Fan Fan exported the complex jangling lead guitar sound of Franco to East Africa, and in it we find the roots of the pan-African pop sound.

[Note: See the Kenya/Tanzania section for the reissue of the Orchestre Makassy sessions on CD]

HELLO HELLO (Stern's STCD 1065 1995)

Someone heard my prayers! The elders of rumba-rock have forsworn the Paris disco sound of drum machines and synthesizer washes and have gone back to erecting monumental soukous. The line-up for this recording is phenomenal. The Four Stars, with the intermeshing guitars of Syran and Bopol and the sweet harmonies of Wuta Mayi and Nyboma, augment the front line of Fan Fan on lead guitar and guest vocals from Sam Mangwana and Youlou Mabiala. Esby Bambi on sax shows that nobody needs cheesy synth fills, and the redoubtable Komba Bellow on drums keeps the beat ticking. The root of soukous is the French "secouer", meaning to shake. This line-up does it -- to the foundations.


One night, after a gig, in 2000, I was chatting with Dally Kimoko and I asked him if the music of Franco had died with him. Franco (1938-89) was the giant of twentieth-century African music and affected the music profoundly, not more so than among guitarists of the next generation including Dally, Lokassa and Syran. I think it will live, he told me.

But Congolese music has evolved and the music of Franco is more likely to appeal to people with a broad interest in the history of African music. Like Fela's music, Franco's songs were personal and topical and generally don't lend themselves to reinterpretation. Franco recorded over 150 albums and there was a time when the Franco section was the largest in any well-stocked international music store.

While there haven't been too many exciting new releases from Congo of late, there are always interesting reissues and I am glad I decided to pick up the remastered CD version of Franco and OK Jazz ORIGINALITÉ. As the very first recordings of this legendary dynasty in Congolese music, these are very important, but the four added tracks and cleaned-up sound make this RetroAfric release a real joy.

Most of the tracks are simple three-minute rumbas or cha-chas with Franco on acoustic guitar, backed by acoustic bass, congas and light percussion, and the great Jean-Serge Essous on reeds. Franco was just a teenager and, at that time, smaller than his guitar! When he goes electric you can hear the influence of Johnny Bokelo & his older brother Dewayon. There's also a merengue and a bolero.

One of my all-time favourite ballads, Vicky Longomba's "Ah bolingo pasi!" is included as a bonus track. More than a historic artifact, this is living breathing music that conveys the excitement of super-talented young Congolese hipsters of the '50s facing the future in their first encounter with recording.


To this classic (ORIGINALITÉ), we can add two new albums in the dwindling Franco section that cover the forty-year career of the Congolese Colossus. Manteca's THE VERY BEST OF FRANCO THE RUMBA GIANT OF ZAIRE packs 75+ minutes, starting from the quavery early rumba signature tune of the band "On entre OK, on sort KO" ("You come in fine, you leave knocked out") that features the reed and horns up front as solo instruments.

The fourth track, "Luvumba Ndoki" is ascribed to tradition. It has an alarmed monologue in the middle and then a percussion break. This scarce song, which has not been anthologized before, caused Franco to be detained for criticizing Mobutu's henchmen for a public execution they carried out after his CIA-backed coup in 1965. It wasn't the only time Franco was jailed but he left town for six months and later (to cover his ass) wrote a campaign praise song for the despot. "Koun Koue! Edo Aboyi Ngai" turns into a James Brown funk-style jam but also demonstrates the emergence of Franco's mature style.

The central part of this compilation has the big guns: "Kinsiona," "Azda" and "Liberté" from the early seventies. "Kinsiona," also adapted from folklore, was the lament for his brother Bavon Marie-Marie who died tragically after a fight with Franco over a girl. "Azda" is an extended plug for a VW dealership in Kinshasa! (If you think that's odd I can offer you a short set of four Congolese rumbas praising different brands of soap.) "Liberté" from 1975 just hovers in the air with various parts of the band -- drums and horns -- threatening to explode any second. It finally boils over and works out for over nine minutes. "Naligaka Ya Yo Te" reminds us of Franco's skill on the acoustic guitar with a simple accompaniment. (It made me wish they'd included "Boma l'heure.") Inexorably we move into the period of soukous when drum programs and naff synths ruled the dancefloor. Sadly Franco checked out at this point, his final song being a fervent plea to watch out for AIDS.


THE ROUGH GUIDE TO FRANCO was put together by Graeme Ewens who authored the highly readable biography of Franco that appeared in 1994. He takes a different tack from the Manteca set and also comes up with a fascinating retrospective glimpse into this prolific figure. Ewens choices are, well, choice. He opens with "Merengue" from 1956, a not unpleasant surprise. "Aya la Mode" has no tune, just a CFG chord progression as Franco goes off into abstract solos while the lyrics name-check ladies in one of his fan clubs.

One of my personal faves, "Finga Mama Munu" by Mujos has a funny talking intro and wild sax by Verckys (the Lee Perry of Zaire), but then we get to the one song that can be said to be the definitive OK Jazz track: "Infidelité Mado," written by Celi Bittshu. It's a song about lost love and when Franco died it was all any fan wanted to hear. Recorded in 1971 it shows the double pronged lead that Franco perfected. For contrast, and also to keep the mellow mood a bit longer, Ewens opts for the folkloric "Likambo ya ngana" which features Camille Feruzi on accordion. The heart of Ewens' selection is very different from the Manteca set: instead of going for one of the big B52 bombers like "Fabrice" or "Liyanzi Ekoti ngai na motema" (better known as "Muzi"), he gives us a history lesson. Sam Mangwana's first recording with OK Jazz (after he defected from Rochereau's camp), "Où est le sérieux," shows Franco gloating in the background. We jump forward to 1980 and "Tailleu,r" a political satire that has the juggernaut intensity of Franco's not-so-subtle message. "Kinshasa Mboka ya Makambo" is another uncharacteristic song. It's a talking blues that was recorded from a television broadcast where Franco walks down from the bleachers playing his blue Gibson guitar, addressing the camera to deny accusations that he smuggled marijuana into Europe. I could have done without "Mario" -- yes it's an important piece of the story: pop music as soap opera, but it's 14 minutes long, dated and boring, especially with the repeated drum pattern and fake horns. "Chacun pour soi" is also from this weak late period, but does have great guitar, and this album also closes with "Attention na SIDA." If you don't have 45 Franco LPs and 36 CDs, as I do, then you probably need these compilations to fill in some gaps in your collection. I think SONO disc is up for sale, so you may have to wait for the new owners to start reissuing this material, but it only gets better with age.

20ème ANNIVERSAIRE (Suave 6942160, 6942161)

This is a reissue of two Sonodisc CDs which came out in 1989, that were a reissue of the double album that came out in 1976 to celebrate the first two decades of OK Jazz. The LPs (AFRICAN 360 082/3) were compiled from singles of the early 70s. Franco had just been given the Order of the Leopard or some such mark of distinction from Mobutu, OK Jazz was annually hailed as the Top band in Africa by the BBC as well as national and continental polls, it had just absorbed key members of rival Tabu Ley's band, and was about to reabsorb Les Grands Maquisards, one of the younger rival bands, into the ranks (because they couldn't afford equipment to gig on their own). Suave is a company that briefly owned Sonodisc and so apparently has or had rights to the music, but in the fine Sono tradition they have done nothing to improve the listening experience. There are no liner notes and they just scanned Sono's limited CD reissue artwork for their reissue -- it even has the AFRICAN slug in the lower left corner. (The AFRICAN LPs, which of course sound better, had band photos which I will reproduce & add the names I know: you can see Sam Mangwana, who is on this album in the background of one track, in the lower right picture.)

Franco had finally attained the big sound that would be his trademark for the next two decades. His own guitar is light and prominent. Lead guitarist is Michelino. But Franco made sure no one got name-checked in his songs as he didn't want anyone establishing a cult and leaving with name recognition, so when Michelino launches into a solo one of the singers will say, "Ahhh, guitar..." leading you to assume it's Franco himself. Michelino does get name-checked in one number, I guess things were too hot to restrain the urge. After the singers introduce the tune Franco unleashes different parts of the group until you have a tsunami of sound. The rhythm guitarist was Simaro, and Decca (not Jessica Mitford, Decca Mpudi) played bass. In addition there was another mi-solo and even other lead guitarists who jammed on these tracks. Among the singers in the mid-seventies can be numbered Josky (from 1973), Wuta-Mayi (from 74), Pepe Ndombe (from 76), and Checain. According to Graeme Ewens, Prince Youlou Mabiala left the band in 1972 and Michel Boyibanda quit in 1975, however I believe they were both around for the 20th anniversary show, which was broadcast on Zairean television. That show (available on DVD from Atoll distribution, Paris) is a gem. The sound is not as good as on the albums but you get to see the band in action. It's a big band, with three saxes, three trumpets and a trombonist, drums and congas, five guitarists and half a dozen singers. They are all pretty clean-cut apart from Michelino who sports a big afro. Someone's girlfriend worked overtime to create their outfits: matching silver lamé blouses, with flounced sleeves and black bell-bottom floor-length trousers. Franco has a blue shirt to distinguish him, but he keeps to the back of the stage, next to his vieux copain Pandy on the congas. Dessouin on traps is the only other original member in the line-up, though Simaro had been around since 1960. There are six sax players to choose from for the 75 gig: Isaac Musikewa, Albino Kalombo, Dele Pedro, Lunama Mbemba, Rondot & Empompo Loway. I think that's Empompo, Pedro & Isaac in the photo. The band uniforms and anonymity of personnel ensured Franco stayed in control & he alone was identified with the OK Jazz brand name.

The repertoire is ten-minute songs, the classic "two-sides-of-a-single" format perfected in the Congo. We start with the majestic "Liberté" & go into another Franco composition: "Matata ya muasi na mobali ekoki kosila te." When this starts percolating mid-way you have to imagine the whole band swaying in unison, the horn players alternately raising their instruments and then their fists. Uta-Mayi purrs "L'orchestra suave..." as the horns go into their one-two punch (saxes play one ascending bar and the trumpets overlap with a different phrase). This stuff is seriously dreamy: it taps into those endorphin brain-waves that make you feel good. The songs fade at 8 or 9 minutes and you feel like it could on indefinitely. Side 2 of volume 1 starts with Pepe Ndombe Opetum, who sounds like his old boss Rochereau doing the beautiful "Voyage na Bandundu." Ndombe and Empompo had defected in 1973 to create a new band Afrizam but after Sam and Dizzy left Afrizam to create Les Grands Maquisards, Franco snapped them up. "Kamikaze" by Youlou and "Nzete Elobakate" by Boyibanda are both in the video & round out the first set. It's superfluous to say they are hits in my universe. The second disc goes on in the same vein. Franco brought a third guitar to the mi-solo conception of African Jazz, to just riff on the chord, arpeggio-fashion. When he starts his two-pronged counterpoint it's sublime. Josky's "Seli-ja" and Michelino's "Salima" on this set are also featured on the TV show, though neither was released as a single. The whole album is 90 minutes long, it creates a state of mind where time stands still as you are subsumed into the OK Jazz sound and that's a good place to be for a spell.

MEGAMIX VOL.1 (Syllart SYL 83100)

Two long dance mixes, "Nairobi Night" and "Lagos Night," constitute the undoubted dance smash of 1990, confirming the position of Kinshasa as the Motown of the '90s. Each song is a medley of popular songs from the '70s: one set of Nigerian and one of Kenyan, but all done in a soukous style by a group that comes from Congo and Zaire via Paris. Among several guitarists on the album are Lokassa ya Mbongo, the guiding force, whose credits include L'Afrisa of Rochereau and Sam Mangwana's African All Stars. His "Marie José" was one of the best cuts on the ground-breaking HEARTBEAT SOUKOUS compilation in 1987. Dally Kimoko was the guitarist in Nyboma's group Les Kamales, after a brief stint in African All Stars he most recently toured with Kanda Bongo Man. Shimita is a singer from the nouvelle generation, creator of the dance "Zaïko mania." Zitany Neil, "the elastic man," scored a hit with his album MARCORY GASOIL (with Four Stars backing). Ngouma Shunga on bass comes from Lipua-Lipua and Anti-Choc Stars, then the Four Stars. The Lagos side is a medley of seven hits by Prince Nico Mbarga and is a welcome shot in the arm of highlife, which has been languishing of late.

POUVOIR (JPS production on Sono)

Congolese singer Madilu System has a new album out (early 90s) called POUVOIR and it's the first soukous album I've been able to get into in a long time. Yes, it's Paris produced, which means it comes with all the baggage that entails: drum-machine programmes, tight leather pants, small cups of strong coffee and smelly cigarettes, but Madilu, who is now called "His Majesty" in deference, no doubt, to his great corpulence (Young Doctor Chris commented that he's starting to look like a hippo) has a wonderful clear voice that floats, well, majestically, over the music. Madilu used to front the most popular band in Africa, Franco's All-powerful O.K. Jazz. It's been over a decade since the death of Franco but none of the groups that came out of that great machine have fared well.

Fortunately there is no great loyalty to groups among musicians in Africa: they go where the gigs are, so singers will pop up in different bands or guitarists will tour with whoever has a solid booking. On this outing Madilu is backed by Soukous Stars who are currently in California recording an album, hoping to make Soukous as popular in the US as it is in Europe. It will be an uphill battle for them because the audience here is more resistant to non-English music and is much more driven by whim and marketing ploys such as music videos.

Madilu kicks off with his strongest track, a very earthy jam on vocals and percussion with the guitar acting almost like a cowbell, just keeping a two-tone beat until things come to a boil. It reminds me of a cassette single put out by Les Atalaku de Langa-Langa a few years ago called MADESU, on which Madilu made a guest appearance. The Atalaku or "animators" are the "shouters": the guys who are there to lend class to an act by posing in their leather trenchcoats, flounced silk shirts and Boeing 757 haircuts. When they are finally moved to dance they usually shout: catch phrases or just the names of the band members. Fanning the ego is a sure way to elicit a memorable solo.

The second track tries to recapture the feel of a slowly building OK Jazz jam, and it's quite convincing with the distinct plaint of Madilu up front and the other instruments doing their part without creating a slavish imitation. For a change there is vocal harmonizing here that is quite reminiscent of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Though that style of music is no longer popular in South Africa (it caught on in the USA thanks to GRACELAND), it's an unusual influence and an interesting departure in Congolese pop. I'm glad no one tried to copy the unique talon-plucking guitar runs of Franco on this, a mistake that OK Jazz made trying to carry on after Franco's death with a copycat guitarist.

Franco's legacy still towers over African music but Dally Kimoko, Syran Mbenza, and Lokassa ya Mbongo have emerged as distinct voices on their own respective guitars.

The Soukous Stars' rhythm guitarist, Shiko Mawatu, wrote two of the songs for Madilu's album and also gets to play lead on them, trading places with Lokassa ya Mbongo whom he replaced in Rochereau's Afrisa International some years ago.

The second half of the album is more predictable (the last two tracks recorded incredibly in Kinshasa) but it's very encouraging to see some of the big names of Soukous trying new ideas and looking for a new direction for this wonderful evolving sound.

TATA MASAMBA (RC1990 1996)

After the cross-genre success of Africando -- a summit of African vocalists with New York salsa musicians -- more exposure is coming to African musicians who are exploring the fertile ground of Latin music, which ultimately springs from the same fount. Congolese-born Ricardo Lemvo is based in Los Angeles and his hybrid of soukous and salsa keeps the power of both musics in their purest forms. There are no synth fills here, just the raw energy that can pack a dance-floor, and they've never disappointed me on the many occasions I've seen them. Augmenting Makina Loca's sound for their debut recording are top African singers, Sam Mangwana and Nyboma, Les Quatres Etoiles' guitarists Syran and Bopol, and members of Afrisa International: Huit Kilos on guitar, and vocalists Wawali, Dodo, and Djeffard. Moving comfortably between soukous and salsa seems so natural and invigorates both forms. Sam Mangwana adds Portuguese lyrics to "Minha Querida," a song that demonstrates the fine laid-back African rumba style that has been popular for forty years. The set closes with a cool version of Beny More's classic "Yiri Yiri Bon."

THE VERY BEST OF 2001 (BMAS Production BMP002)

Sam Mangwana, "the carrier pigeon of soukous," might also be called "the Beny More of Africa" for his power and influence. He toured the USA in 2000 with both Syran Mbenza and Papa Noel on guitars. I read they played a stunning acoustic set at WOMAD in England, so things are looking good for Congolese music now that the discoid hegemony of Paris has been diminished. Sam's latest album is called THE VERY BEST OF 2001 so naturally I assumed it was a live recording from his tour. Other than the track listing there's no info on the outside of the CD so I was surprised to find it's a reissue of material recorded twenty years ago. Still I am not complaining, since all this rare material is new to CD. "Afrique-Antilles" from 1981 opens the set, with one of the greatest line-ups in all African music: Syran on lead guitar, Pablo Lubadika on rhythm and double-tracked on bass, Domingo Salsero on congas and drum kit, and Roger and Manga on brass. This track is of great importance for making the connection between Antillean and African music. Ryco Jazz had spent four years in Martinique in the late sixties and the roots of zouk also bore fruit in West and Central Africa. This souped-up beguine style is at the heart of the African All Stars tracks laid down in Lagos and Abidjan in the late seventies. There's a two-to-the-bar bass drum bonk, the bass guitar is picked finger style rather than plucked with the thumb, and instead of the old two-part song with a slow intro and then a fast seben, the music starts at a sustained tempo and doesn't waver. This style was apparently copped from listening to James Brown's extended single "There was a Time." But the band sat listening to the first tapes wondering if it was any good. (According to Dizzy Mandjeku, interviewed for Chris Stapleton and Chris May's book AFRICAN ROCK.)

Next to his cover of Groupe d'Olivera's "Maria Tebbo," Sam's greatest song is "Canta Moçambique," recorded in 1983 with Dizzy Mandjeku on guitar and Empompo Loway on sax. The lyrics (in Portuguese) are a paean to FRELIMO and the ongoing struggle that embroiled Mozambique from the revolution in 1964 to Independence in 1975. Again the laid-back groove belies the urgency of the message. (This group became Tiers Monde and released a few albums in the 80s. Empompo died in 1985 I believe.) The second half of this CD is drawn from those sessions and ends with "Marabenta" another cut from the CANTA MOÇAMBIQUE set. All in all this is one of the most satisfying Sam Mangwana albums, right up there with MARIA TEBBO and GEORGETTE ECKINS. It's self-published so it might be hard to find, but worth the effort.

RUMBA MUSIC (Celluloid 66928-2)

After a disappointing domestic release (ALADJI) a couple of years ago, and a drum-machine-backed greatest hits medley (MEGAMIX), Sam Mangwana returns to form with a fine album that, once again however, coasts on his past successes. While touring with Les Quatre Etoiles and former members of his 1980s super group, the Africa All Stars, Mangwana has polished his repertoire so his unmistakable voice soars over classics of the Zairean songbook, in the way that Sinatra coasted above the Nelson Riddle orchestra. Included here are two classics: Tino Barosa's 1961 hit "Jamais Kolonga," and the much-recorded "Afrika Mokili Mobimba" from the same era (redone in a salsa style). In addition to revisiting four of his own classics, Mangwana adds a couple of new songs; though one in Portuguese, "Minha Angola," is overly sentimental. The other seven songs are classics of the genre: slow rumba start with a brisk seben and a double-tempo jam for the "B" side.

BEL AMI (Stern's)

Papa Noel, currently reunited and touring with Sam Mangwana (from their Vox Africa days!), has a new release from Stern's call BEL AMI. It's actually a repackaging of most of his last two CDs: BON SAMARITAIN, recorded in Brazzaville in 1984 and HAUTE TENSION, recorded in Paris in 1994. Noel did most of the work himself by multi-tracking. For vocals he has Carlito Lassa and Wuta Mayi on the French session. The Stern's release provides a little more information on the earlier date: the great horn section is noted as "anonymous Congolese army band personnel." The sound is very much in the style of classic OK Jazz: seven minute trance-inducing workouts where (as my pal Zeca pointed out) time stands still. The guitar weaves in and out of the rhythm track with a rolling momentum. The arpeggiated runs of the mi-solo which flow so effortlessly from Papa Noel's hands come from a lifetime of practice.

As a teenager Noel backed Leon Bukasa and was drafted into the supreme team of Orchestre Rock-a-Mambo in 1960. After independence some members of the group, Noel and the two horn virtuosi Jean-Serge Essous and Nino Malapet, moved across the Congo river to Brazzaville and founded Les Bantous de la Capitale, a long-lived group that rivaled African Jazz and OK Jazz on the right bank. When Dr Nico left African Jazz to start his own band, Papa Noel was the only man capable of replacing him. His departure from Bantous required they find two guitarists to fill his shoes. But Noel was restless and enjoyed the challenge of new bands and different configurations. Finally he settled in as lead guitarist with Franco's OK Jazz and stayed for 17 years, until Franco's death in 1989, taking time off to record the BON SAMARITAIN album with OK Jazz bassist Makabi and drummer Pouéla Du Pool.

The debt to Franco is obvious in the sound of the band, though one wonders what Franco was doing with 18 sidemen when half a dozen can make as solid an album. The title track "Bel Ami" was called "Messager" on the Gefraco release. The first and last cuts of that album, "Selia Zozo" and "Sisi" have been omitted here, which is a pity as the entire album is worthy of reproducing. The HAUTE TENSION album was plagued with naff synthesizer and a programmed drum track. If you don't own BON SAMARITAIN (also known as Papa Noel NONO), get this and catch up with a classic.

BANA CONGO (Tumi Music)

After the successful teaming of Senegalese singers and New York salseros in Africando comes a long-overdue collaboration: Cuban son and Congolese rumba. Papa Noel & Papi Oviedo's BANA CONGO is a beautiful blend of two very sympathetic musical styles. Reminiscent of Ricardo Lemvo's work, but leaning more to the acoustic side, this set sways back and forth from Congolese songs to Cuban ballads with Noel on acoustic guitar and some guest singers from Africa, backed by a top-flight band of Cubans with acoustic bass, bongo, congas, bata, and to sweeten it all, real brass! One of the great Congolese rumberos, Papa Noel was born on Christmas Day, 1940 (hence the nick-name). From his youth he learned to play Cuban songs on the guitar, copied off his mother's 78s and the music heard on Radio Congo Belge. He was part of the first great wave of Congolese bands: African Jazz, Rock-a-Mambo, Les Bantous de la Capitale, & OK Jazz. In fact he played in all of them! Papi Oviedo is the son of Isaac Oviedo, from whom he learned the tres. The tres is smaller than a guitar and has three sets of double strings, sounding higher and more jangly than a traditional guitar. Oviedo has plyed his art with Chocolate, Chappotin, Abelardo Barroso and Orquesta Revé (for 15 years). While Congolese rumba gave way to soukous, complete with drum machines and wanky synthesizers, Cuban music also suffered a blow as the harsher timba sounds replaced the sweeter older styles. Both men, Noel & Oviedo, now sexagenarians, have kept faithful to the classic styles and this album is a wonderful fusion of two very close musical genres. They alternate between Lingala, French and Spanish lyrics till they all seem to blend. In fact Papa Noel's beautiful ballad of lost love, "Juliana," reminds me a lot of "Yolanda" by Pablo Milanes.

The clave beat, so crucial to son, is held down with rock solidity (something I often find lacking in Congolese outings) but the parallel between the "montuno" and the "seben," where the song kicks into high gear (in both son and rumba), has never been particularly remarked and the band of Cubans follow Noel into the break of "Juliana" with gusto (and a roll on the congas). There's a variety of vocalists including Nana and Baniel from OK Jazz on backing chorus; Cristina Garcia sings her own "Limpia mi son" and Andres Sosa Revé sings his "Combinación de Soneros." These two tracks brought to mind the classic Barbarito Torres album HAVANA CAFE that I played continuously throughout 1999 and 2000. Nyboma comes aboard with his unmistakable falsetto for another sad love song by Noel, "Molimo," and manages to sound even more tentative and on the verge of cracking than the composer does on "Juliana." Another of the Quatre Etoiles, and former compañero of Noel in OK Jazz, Wuta Mayi, steps up for "Mbongé" which indeed reminded me of sixties Franco from the "Bella Epoca" when he was under the Cuban spell.

In retrospect this teaming seems so obvious, but it was a long time coming. The protagonists have put together a minor masterpiece.

FOR IDOLES (Esperance CD 72424 1994)

In recent years the popular soukous formula from Zaire has grown increasingly tiresome as synthesizers replaced horns and programmation replaced live drummers, but it gets back to basics in this classic recording by the "Chief elder of the Rumba rock tribe." After touring with Peter Gabriel fronting a band of French wannabe rockstars, Wemba has reteamed with Viva La Musica for an album that is reflective without being retro. In songs like "Oldies are Goodies," Wemba demonstrates that with age comes wisdom. His near-falsetto soars over pealing guitar licks that reinvigorate Zairean dance music.


This two-disc set from Stern's chronicles the highlights and decline of Wemba from the time he launched Viva la Musica until his last sad efforts with a surrogate band. But it was a great ride.

Wemba was a teenage rocker who, inspired by Los Nickelos and other new wave bands, formed Zaiko Langa Langa in 1969 and started a new trend in Congolese music: a stripped-down guitar band with no horns and half a dozen front men, variously singers & those who just shouted encouragement while looking sharp. Until Wemba left in 1974 it was one of the most prolific and influential bands in Congolese history. He was also fashion-conscious and started fads like colored berets that could easily be mimicked by impoverished youth in Kinshasa. His next band Isife Lokole was the bomb. Some of their 45s (that were compiled on LP by P-Vine in Japan) stay in rotation on my deck. Then he started a splinter group called Yoka Lokole. The underpinning of both these groups was folklore and they even included a traditional slit log drum -- the "Lokole"-- that is used for "talking" and sending messages in the bush. But in 1976 the band dumped Wemba unceremoniously. He put together a new group and, taking the name from a Johnny Pacheco album, launched Viva la Musica. Seemingly sloppy, the long unraveling songs are quite tightly arranged with a slow build up to a gradual release of energy and then about 7 minutes of outro jam which is where the dancers go nuts and the singers ad lib over increasingly complex guitar runs, while the bass and drums pummel the beat in barely controlled chaos. Every now and then Wemba reins it in for a beautifully sung chorus in his high falsetto and the guitarist, Bongo Wende, showers sparkling notes over the procedings like millions of lights reflected from a glitter ball.

Since the tracks are generally about 8 minutes long, it was a wise move to make this a double CD, but you have to settle in for a long listen. Despite being pop, there is a lot of tradition in these songs. Apart from borrowing from folklore, Wemba was a choir boy and loves the minor descant he learned in the church hymnal. His mother was a professional mourner and he also echoes some of her drawn-out lamentations when he gets morose. There is no doubt that Wemba was one of the most important African artist in the 80s. That he was largely ignored in the West is of no consequence: his style opened the door for Loketo, Matchatcha and all the Clan Langa Langa offshoots. Even the older bands like Quatre Etoiles changed their style to acommodate the new sound.

On the first disc we start with the first big hit, "Mère Superieure," which is indeed a gem. The sonic quality is a bit rough on these first selections, particularly on my favourite from this disc, "Analengo," which sounds like the single was pressed out of round: there is a lot of wobble to it and the vocals are over-miked, but still the energy is there and it reminds me of when I was totally in love with the VLM sound. Here, for Stern's, Vincent Luttman has honed the music down from a huge collection, including out-takes and singles I never got to hear, to two hours. It's probably all the Wemba you need. Actually it is better en masse than any single album, though I still have my favourites: the badly recorded AU JAPON, the fragmentary soundtrack to LA VIE EST BELLE, the weirdly atypical acoustic SIKU YA MUNGU. But the good news is there's enough here I don't know to make it enjoyable even to a hard-core collector like myself.

The second disc starts with the downfall: his first record with Hector Zazou and the unmistakable 144-BMP bomp of a drum machine (the dreaded Doctor Rhythm) with some wobbly synth crap making like an autoharp in the background. Much as I loved Wemba and played him regularly on my radio show, I never thought of him having "hits" per se, but now listening to this disc I realise that his song "L'Esclave" is indeed one of the great hits of African music from the 1980s, and it's great to hear it again from some distance. First of all it's a song about slavery, something Africans don't discuss much in case they are accused of complicity. Second, it's a beautiful melody with the guitar perfectly complementing Wemba's scorching vocal. Soon after, Wemba was discovered by a wider audience via WOMAD and gradually his sound softened as synthesized strings and acoustic guitar were brought up in the mix. Conseqently his nineties' music is tame and now really does sound like disposable pop pap. The Gabriel connection (which is skipped over in this compilation) led to a lame album on RealWorld in which he covered Otis Redding's "Fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa": not a wise idea. Too many sycopha-pha-phants telling him he was the new Otis got to his head. Good as he may be, Wemba is not the new Otis. He is however an original and talented singer.


Graeme Ewens, who wrote the biography of Franco CONGO COLOSSUS, compiled this Rough Guide CD, and has included a wide spectrum of styles under the soubriquet of soukous. THE ROUGH GUIDE TO CONGOLESE SOUKOUS is anything but rough. It starts with a major bombshell: Sam Mangwana's incendiary duet with Franco on "Cooperation," a 1982 dance groove that signaled Sam's return to the fold (it's also known as "Odongo"). Sam had the nerve to walk out on OK Jazz and went to Abidjan to pursue a solo career. When he came back to Franco he was given star billing and a new car. The landmark opening cut fades at 10 and a half minutes so if this gets to you, you'll have to seek out the CD reissues. (Sonodisc with typical crassness split the original album up and put the four tracks on two different CDs; Popular African Music, the superb German label, also put out a Sam Mangwana LP called CANTA MOZAMBIQUE that included two out-takes from the same sessions, minus Franco.) Wherever you find it, this super-session is at the heart of Congolese music.

Koffi Olomide always has great backing bands, though he's considered a tyrant by many musicians who quickly leave him. I am not enamored of his deep reverb-laden voice (he talks more than sings and sounds like a diminutive Pepe Kalle) and the track here doesn't move me. Kanda Bongo Man, too, is better live than on record, but Ewens has included these lesser luminaries up front. K.B. Man also has stellar sidemen and many renowned Congolese guitarists, like Diblo Dibala and Rigo Star, came through his band. But the kwassa kwassa here on "Loi" sounds thin and very dated. Kanda himself started out with the legendary Orchestra Bella Bella which also nurtured Nyboma and Shaba Kahamba. They should be on this compilation, so should Lutchiana Mobulu, Felix Wazekwa, Madilu System, Josky & Ntesa Dalenist, or at the very least Quatres Etoiles, Loketo, Arlus Mabele, and a Bella Bella or Empire Bakuba track instead of two by Zaiko Langa Langa. In fact there could easily be another CD that takes a different tack from this one.

Compiler Ewens also has a record label -- RetroAfric -- and he leased two of his own tracks for the compilation: Ryco-Jazz's "Marie Jose" (I would rather have had the original "Merengue Scoobidoo" by Dr Nico that this is based on, or one of their recent dance smashes like "Desarmement") and an obscurity, Thu Zaina.

Deyess Mukangi is included in a lightweight entry. I guess you had to be there & see her perform in all her glamourosity. I can think of two other Congolese women singers that would have been stronger entries: Tshala Muana and M'Bilia Bel. The Pepe Kalle and Rigo Star duo gives new meaning to the term "generic soukous." It's not surprising that it's taken from an album called FORMULA ONE. But Ewens is being sneaky because right after that formulaic nonsense he throws the neglected gem by Thu Zaina at us: "Sanga Mbele Mbele." This is the type of music that broke away from the big horn ensembles and put the snare drum up front. You get the sense that hysteria is about to break out on the dancefloor when they get in gear.

Tabu Ley Rochereau is here at his slow-burning peak from 1980 (when everything was copacetic with M'bilia Bel) with the sweat-drenched "slow" track "Sarah" -- it's a timeless moment that defined a whole era of Congolese music, with the sweetly humming flanged guitars, the squeaky sax and the relaxed bass drum bomp casually clocking the beat.

Frenzy returns for the cut by Nouvelle Generation, "Ma Cherie." I actually got rid of this album when I was purging all the crappy synthesizer music from my collection, but, apart from the sound effects of a car crash at the end, it's a catchy number. The final track has crappy synth, bad rapping & formulaic guitar as if to demonstrate the sorry state that soukous arrived at in its development. If your shelves aren't saturated with soukous, this compilation has a few interesting tracks. It's by no means definitive or thorough, but it is characteristic, and a great way to get the party going.


You can't wear out CDs, but if you play them enough people will "borrow" them from you at parties and forget to return them. I has heartbroken when my copy of BITUMBA waltzed off. Then I found it on vinyl and was ecstatic. (More musical real estate!)

Once a member of the pre-soukous Zairean dance band Orchestre Bella Bella, Shaba Kahamba played bass guitar on tour with Kanda Bongo Man. Here, backed by Les Esprits Saints, a house band assembled by the great Antillean arranger Eddy Gustave, he shows that old-timers can still rock. No drum machines fake the tempo; the mix even includes acoustic guitar and good horn arrangements instead of the cheesy French synthesizer spread that's on so much African dance product. Uncredited horns are Eddy Gustav's department; the guest guitarists are Huit Kilos (ex-Rochereau, now with Ricardo Lemvo's Makina Loca), and Caien Madoka. The CD has only 6 tracks but has "party" writ large on it.


While I've been lamenting the dearth of anything new and exciting from Africa, there are always classic reissues, many of them of previously hard-to-find or even totally unknown artists. One such offering jumps into the CD player and refuses to budge. RETROAFRIC in their calm methodical manner have now notched up 15 titles in their series of classic African oldies. VINTAGE VERCKYS is a bulls-eye as well as a long-overdue tribute to a man I think of as the Lee Perry of Africa (in that he is unique, an important producer, and totally insane -- in the nicest sense).

Kiamungana Verckys' musical career started as a youth playing sax in a church fanfare band. Soon he discovered King Curtis and began honking out his own version of the gutbucket style of American soul and R&B saxophony. At 20 he was recruited to OK Jazz to play second sax to Isaac Musekiwa and soon became Franco's right-hand man. As the liner notes (unsigned, but probably by Graeme Ewens) say, "For the next few years he brought some raucous excitement to the OK Jazz repertoire with his modern interpretation of Kongo folklore rhythms and provided visual entertainment with his hippie clothing and frenetic dance routines." While Franco was away touring Europe, Verckys took the core of the band into the studio and cut several of his own sides. Franco demanded a percentage so Verckys went solo and set up his own Orchestre Vévé. The appeal of Vévé is in the sebene where you normally have an electric guitar solo, but now you get a sax improvisation. His popular cavacha dance was a direct precursor of soukous. Verckys was also a successful talent scout and producer and built an important label (You can often spot a Verckys band by the doubling of the name: Bella Bella, Lipua Lipua). Among his biggest successes were Empire Bakuba and Les Grand Maquisards and the next generation beginning with the Langa Langa clan. In that later sound, however, the saxophone was sadly eliminated.

Several of my favorite Verckys tracks are included here: "Baluti," "Mama Djele," and "Bilobela." Most of the others are new to me. Amazingly there's no "Mfumbwa," -- a Mombeta rhythm which was a huge hit in West Africa; also no "Nakomitunaka," an exquisite ballad which asks "Why are all the statues in the church white?" I guess they'll be on volume 2.

These tracks are undated but undoubtedly come from the late sixties and early seventies when Congolese music was in flood. Singers were trying to relate to James Brown through grunting and exhorting the musicians but English was an alien language to them while Johnny Halliday no longer seemed relevant. There's a restraint bordering on nervousness in the guitar mi-solo just hanging back behind the vocals waiting for the bridge to kick into high gear, over-miked acoustic bass, skittering percussion, close harmonies and Verckys' wild honking sax sounding like he's using a very frayed reed. But the overall sound is assured and relaxed. You can imagine the crowd grooving to this on a hot night at the Vis-à-Vis club, and most of the tracks follow the A-side B-side formula clocking in at ten minutes. The sound is raw in places, but the music has a sophistication for all its earnest innocence and speaks directly to the heart of the Congolese joie de vivre.

MARIE LOUISE (Label Bleu/Indigo)

My big love in the early 90s was soukous but as far as I can tell that is as dead as the dodo. Wendo Kolosoy's MARIE LOUISE is a loving flashback to the Congolese rumba roots of that once-dominant sound. Wendo Kolosoy was one of the fathers of modern Congolese rumba. His song "Marie Louise" was one of the first big hits on the Ngoma label back in 1948. Now over half a century later he has assembled a young band with an acoustic line-up that replicates the relaxed sound of the fifties: upright bass, congas, acoustic guitar, spoon on beer-bottle percussion. The whole thing is light and beautifully recorded. Wendo's voice is cracked and he yodels a bit but it's charming and very catchy. During the MASA Festival in Abidjan he recorded an album of new and old material. The solo guitar work of Vula Missy and mi-solo of Camerounian Zacharie Onana is exceptional. They opens with a memorial tribute to Pepe Kalle: it's very emotional and you sense Wendo is really singing to all those who have gone before, including Pepe Kalle's mentor Joseph Kabaselle ("Le grand Kalle") and members of African Jazz. (I played a favorite rumba by that band for Tabu Ley Rochereau once and he looked at me wistfully and said, "Ah, all of zem dead.") But Wendo is kicking and his band are in the groove, and it's fun spotting the quotes from old songs in the instrumentation and chorus. The album ends with an extended jam on the outro to "Maria Tebbo," a song that was a huge hit twenty years later for Sam Mangwana. One of the concert highlights of 2000 was hearing Sam do that same outro with his band, including Papa Noel and Syran Mbenza, at Ashkenaz, a small club in Berkeley. But Wendo proves yet again, the old roman maxim, "Ex Africa semper aliquid novii."

AMBA (World Village/ Harmonia Mundi)

Wendo Kolosoy (now confusingly referred to as Papa Wendo) was one of the first big stars of Congolese music with his hit "Marie Louise" in 1948. He retired from music during the Mobutu era (thirty years of slow disintegration in the country, brought to you by the CIA, leading to chaos). He returned in 1993 and now has started touring with a line-up that recalls the formations of his youth: two guitars, bass, congas, horns. As I am passionate about African Jazz, Rock-a-Mambo, African Fiesta and bands of that era, it's great to hear the sound is alive and thriving. Of course many bands like Soukous Stars and Soukous Vibration scored hits with updated versions of Congolese oldies, but they put them in a disco context, whereas they work best in the acoustic arena with trumpet and sax instead of synth. Wendo yodels and croaks a bit, but that's his style. Most of the songs are slow rumbas. There is a Swahili song in 6/8 time, but mostly the tempo is laid back. This doesn't prevent the band from rocking out, as they do on the opening cut and the title track "Amba." Another old-timer, Antoine Mundanda, pops in (by helicopter from the bush apparently) to accompany Wendo on thumb-piano for a spot of spontaneous improvisation. It seems to be a song about their years spent in the two capitals across the Congo river, Kinshasa and Brazzaville. (Lingala is a tantalizing language because there's enough French in it that you can sort of follow what they are saying.) "Marie-Marie" is another love song from the early days of Wendo's career. The band anatomize it carefully, adding great guitar and conga fills like extra voices. This version, at 6 and a half minutes, doubles the length from the early recording and also from a recording made with Dizzy Mandjeku in 1993. Wendo's band comprises younger musicians and some stalwarts of the scene who played with Bella Bella (guitarist Vula Missy), Afrisa of Rochereau (trumpeter Biolo Batilangandi), and even African Jazz (saxophonist Munange Joseph). The rhythm guitarist and backing singers were part of Wendo's original band, Victoria Kin. Victoria Bakolo Miziki are very accomplished and, like Guinea's Bembeya Jazz, are keeping a historic style alive while investing it with new vigour.

Congolese section (including Live Shows) continues.