Old sound fighting back as the fast beat loses lustre in Congo

Dennis Okeyo | NATION
Ferre Gola (left) with promoter Jules Nsana arrive at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport when he came to perform in Kenya last December. Ferre Gola and Fally Ipupa are leading the revival of old school rhumba in DR Congo.

What you need to know:

  • Koffi Olomide proteges take Brazzaville and Kinshasa by storm as rhumba sound rings out loudly once again

There is a revolution of sorts going on in Congolese music. It’s anchored mainly in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but it’s reverberating across the river in Congo Brazzaville as well.

No, it is not a new musical sound, rather it is a nostalgic venture; a blast from the past, if you wish. It’s a return to the sound and style that largely defined Congolese music from the 1950s.

We are talking about Congolese rhumba, pioneered by such greats as Antoine Wendo Kolosoyi, Jhimmy, Joseph Kabasele (Grand Kalle Jeff), and Charles Mwamba, among others.

The sound was perfected by the superb generation of Dr Nico wa Kasanda, Dechaud, Tabu Ley and the grandmaster, Luambo Luanzo Makiadi, who was popularly known as Franco.

Fighting back

Rhumba then took a back seat, replaced by the fast-paced, boisterous ndombolo and kiwanzenza, the hallmark of the third generation Congolose musicians. But rhumba is fighting back. We are, once again, being treated to the music of talented artistes who can actually sing.

It’s the return of the golden era that saw mere radio jingles turned into great songs like Savon Omo, which was actually about Tabu Ley (Paschal Rochereau’s fascination with a revolutionary new detergent. The song Astral was about a bathing soap while Franco’s Azda was in praise of the dealership of German Volkswagen beetle.

The return of rhumba threatens the livelihood of the loud young men who made careers as chanters or animators, popularly known in Lingala as Atalaku.

Leading the new rhumba revolution is versatile composer, lyricist and band leader, Koffi Olomide. The flamboyant 54-year-old musician, who has a string of nicknames including Mopao and Sarkozy, has churned out numerous hits in his long career.

Even at the height of the Atalaku innovation, Koffi continued to record rhumba songs.

The new rhumba has a definite Koffi stamp on the sound, with some of the best proponents being his own protégés.

The brightest stars of Congolese music today are, no doubt, Fally Ipupa and Ferre Gola.

Both have similar singing styles. Fally, who did great songs with Koffi, including Ko ko ko and Nouvel Recru, has gone further to create his own sound. His collaboration with G-Unit’s Olivia in the song Chaise Electrique has the American girl doing her hip hop, with some singing in Lingala by Fally.

His Associe song also has a good feel and it’s not surprising that Fally is getting invitations to perform in some revered venues abroad, especially in France, and is winning awards.

Promising protégé

Ferre Gola, formerly with Werra Son’s Wenge Musica Maison, Mere did his Vita Imana, a tribute to Vita and Imana, two top Congolese soccer teams. Both Vita and Imana are based in Kinshasa and have a fanatical following. He was having a go at embracing both of them.

Another promising Koffi protégé is Buoro Mpela, who teams up with his brother, Alain. They have recorded some beautiful rhumba sounds.

Of course, the Wenge clan has always excelled at rhumba sounds. Before the split of the original Wenge Musica in the late 1997, which many fans still regret to this day, the group recorded a string of hits.

But JB Mpiana, as the leader of Wenge Musica BCBG, is generally recognised as one of the best crooners in Lingala. His arch rival, Werra Son, Ngiama Makanda, is not to be left behind. One of the best tunes from his Wenge Musica Maison Mere is Solala Bien. He has a string of other hits.

As veteran radio broadcaster Fred Obachi Machoka said recently: “Most Lingala music fans now prefer to listen to mid-tempo rhumba ballads.”

Among the newcomers on the Congolese music scene is beautiful songbird Barbara Kanam. The singing sensation from Katanga, who extends her appeal in the region with her mastery of the lingua franca of Eastern Africa, Kiswahili, has an outstanding song, Shardin d’amour.