Fally Ipupa and Ferré Gola are age mates and bearded celebrities whose meteoric rise to Congolese music scene may never have been imagined. Today, in Kinshasa, if they are not filling stadiums, they are attending sold-out shows at other events.
On July 28, as the Democratic Republic of Congo kicked off the 9th Games of La Francophonie, Fally Ipupa was the star, helping open the games. Not to be outdone, however, Ferré Gola was at the same 80,000-seater venue, the Stade des Martyrs where more than 3,000 athletes from 35 French-speaking countries had been gathering for sport. His performance at the closing ceremony was just as good as Fally Ipupa’s.
In spite of coming from the same background and similar rise to stardom, the two artistes haven’t been performing at the same functions. So the appearance at the French games may give a yardstick on how to measure their talent. Still, the difference is little, the entertainment galore.
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At the Games, for example, the audience included heads of state and heads of government from French-speaking countries. But a majority of their audience was the young who had flocked to the same stadium a month earlier, when 120,000 people turned out to cheer Ferré Gola. In Congolese estimates, this stadium is the largest and officials routinely say it sits 80,000, probably tens of thousands more when everyone is scattered across the playing pitch.
So in popularity terms, one can use the Martyrs stadium to measure the reach of their star. Once you fill this stadium, you join the long list of legends of Congolese music. Built in 1994, only 10 bands have played at the Stade des Martyrs. Sometimes that journey can be tragic. In late 2022, Fally Ipupa filled the stadium, with a concert that left 11 people dead after a stampede.
So how did these two stars emerge to reach the top?
Fally Ipupa was born 46 years ago, and named Faustin Nsimba Ipupa. He grew up in Bandal, the Kinshasa neighbourhood where the legendary group Wenge Musica originated in the mid-1980s. As a teenager, he dreamed of becoming a singer too. He began his adventure first in a choir, in a church in Bandal, then in an orchestra, New City, then in the other orchestra, Talent Latent (latent talent), a local orchestra. He developed his performances, worked on his vocal performance. But he has always said he wanted to be a dancer, more than a singer.
Which explains why he remained in the shadows until he met Koffi Olomide in late 1998.
Olomide, also known as Le Grand Mopao, was the head of the Quartier Latin, an orchestra. It seems that this meeting was a blessing for both sides. Kofi was facing a crisis after several singers deserted him to launch their own careers. So a young, slender, smiling man in Fally’s posture worked just fine. According to Fally, Kofi wasn’t immediately won over. But his doubts were diluted by Fally’s voice and ability to dance along his own tune. Kofi would recruit Fally, whom he nicknamed Anelka, in reference to Nicolas Anelka, the French former footballer whose transfer to Real Madrid in those years had been widely reported in the press as one of the most expensive.
“I'm always striving for perfection,” he often says. But he also admits: “Everything that has happened to me, I could never have imagined, even in my wildest dreams.”
For Fally Ipupa's number one rival, in the eyes of his fans, who call him “Les Golois,” Gola is considered popular for his vocal virtuosity. From his childhood neighbourhood of Ngiri Ngiri, south of Kinshasa, Gola, 47, was already rubbing shoulders with the music top dogs. He was seduced by the Wenge Musica orchestra. So it was only natural that he started going to Bandal, the neighbourhood next to Ngiri Ngiri. He joined a modest orchestra, Rumba des Jeunes.
And Ferré Gola, real name Hervé Gola Bataringe, played with his friends before he was discovered by Werrason (one of the leaders of Wenge Musica). He wasn’t really part of the big group, yet. He made sporadic appearances for Wenge Musica, but remained in the shadow of his mentor Werrason. His time came when the great Wenge Musica broke up at the end of 1997. JB Mpiana and Werrason formed two large Wenge blocs. Hervé Gola Bataringe took centre stage alongside Werrason and the public discovered Ferré Gola as conductor of Wenge Musica Maison Mère, formed by Werrason with his friends Adolphe Dominguez and Didier Massela.
That diverse origin between the two greats is rooted in Kinshasa where they literally ate the same food and rose to popularity by riding on the shoulders of the same fans.
Fally Ipupa quickly imitated his new boss, Kofi, by singing about love (like most Congolese singers, anyway). His voice seduced young women. Kofi Olomide, who knows a thing or two about romance, nicknamed him DiCaprio the Wonder, in reference to Leonardo DiCaprio, for his role in the film Titanic. From an artistic point of view, the new recruit succeeded in making us forget the spleen of Rambo (Kofi's other nickname). A series of musical duets followed. The various performances were all artistic successes. The child from Bandal, who had long coveted his “big brothers from Wenge,” became the bridgehead of Quartier Latin, a rival orchestra to the various Wenges.
But the romance came to an end in 2006, when Fally Ipupa began dreaming of a solo career. With the blessing of his mentor (Kofi Olomide), he prepared his first album, Droit chemin. It was the meteoric rise of Fally Ipupa who, over the years, became known as "the eagle", much to the chagrin of his former boss Koffi Olomide. The two men no longer have a good relationship.
Sometimes they picked on politics, just like the legendary Franco Makiadi. Ferré's first big event was when he was selected to sing the praises of the new Congolese currency, the Congolese Franc, in 1998. Zaire had once again become (Democratic Republic of…) Congo and Laurent Désiré Kabila had replaced Mobutu. The popular fervour of politics, the enthusiasm of new men in power carrying the hopes of an entire people, made this song a hit. It was a patriotic love song. The whole of the DRC and its diaspora in France, Belgium and Switzerland helped popularise it.
Ferré began his career with an orchestra that performed in Africa and Europe. But after 7 years with Werrason, Ferré Gola and his friends quit the Wenge orchestra and formed Le Marquis de Maison Mère. The youngsters made a big splash, but their success got the better of them. The group split up after producing just one album. Ferré Gola, already coveted by Koffi Olomide, gave in to the courtship of the Quartier Latin boss. He signed a contract but only stayed there for less than a year before he ventured into a solo career.
Albums came with dazzling success. The singer developed modern beats that he mixed with Rumba. Back home, Gola stood up to Fally Ipupa and became his fiercest competitor. Together with Fally, however, they form a formidable new generation of singers who are now overshadowing their elders such as Koffi Olomide, Werrason and JB Mpiana.
After a solo career spanning almost 17 years and 7 albums, l'Aigle has taken off. At 46, his fans, who call themselves “warriors”, are getting younger and younger. Fally is a fast learner, however. He speaks fluent French, which he says he learnt on the job. He can hold conversations in English, which he also says is a product of his eagerness to learn.
Yet he stands out for the purely Congolese style with Rumba sung in Lingala. Fally writes and sings in French and tries his hand at English and has collaborated with artistes as far as the US.
Which is why locals find it difficult to categorise his music. They call it a blend of Rumba, RnB and African pop. All these have combined to propel his Congolese music to hold its own against the African wave of English-speaking stars.
Over the years, the rising star of Congolese music has managed to attract English-speaking stars, collaborating with Nigerian star Wizkid, Tanzanian Diamond Platinumz and American star R Kelly. Fally has also collaborated with French-speaking stars such as Dadju, Naza, Ninho, Mokobe, M Pokora and Asalfo, legendary leader of the group Magic System, Booba, the legendary West Indian group Kassav, Princess Lover.
Fally who has been raised in Bandal in Kinshasa has become a global star, having played in the legendary Appolo Theater in New York, and is about to play in the Paris La Défense Arena. He has also played in several stadiums across Africa.