You may think you don’t know anything about Congolese music. But if you’ve ever tapped your foot to the irresistible beat of the rumba, you’ve experienced a national tradition.
Rumba originated in Cuba as a blend of African and Latin rhythms. The World Music Network, in its article, “The Music of Congo,” describes the Congolese rumba as “a musical form that hit a nerve throughout Africa and had a bigger cumulative effect on Western dance floors than any other African music,” and calls Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, “Africa’s undisputed musical heart.”
According to the article, a number of factors led to “the cross-border popularity” of Congolese music: “It was ‘non-tribal,’ using the interethnic trading language, Lingala. The guitar style was an amalgam of influences from Central and West Africa. Finally, postwar Belgian Congo was booming and traders were taking advantage of the commercial potential, including the sale of records. Early Congolese labels released a deluge of 78 rpm recordings, and in the early 1940s Radio Congo Belge started African music broadcasts.”
The 1950s and 1960s in Congo was the era of the big bands and big sound, with acoustic bass, percussion, brass, and multiple electric guitars. According to the Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, v. 1 Africa, “the lead guitar part in Congolese rumba recalls the blue-tinged guitar solos heard in bluegrass and rockabilly music of the 1950s.” Latin, Caribbean, folk, and soul music influences became increasingly important in this period, with Papa Wemba and Sam Mangwana well-known as band leaders and singers.
In 1960, Joseph Kabasele Tshamala (“le Grand Kalle”) and his group, Grand Kall et l’African Jazz (often referred to simply as African Jazz) released their iconic song, “Independence Cha Cha.” The song, which celebrated the country’s independence from Belgium, became the anthem of the newly named Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the rumba became its permanent musical heartbeat.
Congolese rumba eventually evolved into the faster-paced “soukous” (from the French word “secouer” — “to shake”), which is distinguished by syncopated rhythms and intricate contrasting guitar melodies and often features several vocalists. Soukous was popularized by Tabu Ley Rochereau, Koffi Olomide and the group Wenge Musica, among others.
The World Music Network credits 1970s student groups like Thu Zahina with starting “a new stream of pop music” when they began to use the Western rock-group format. “The new music was raw and energetic, with interactive guitars and almost no horns. It took elements from shanty-town music and wordplay, bringing an extra vitality to the music. It was the group Zako Langa Langa that led the way for the whole post-independence generation.
“Unlike other bands, Zako was not the personal property of one leader. It was a group of over 20 musicians. Other New Wave groups appeared in the 1970s, featuring a rough, sweaty feel while the singers compensated with honey-toned vocals.”
It was also during the ‘70s that “cavacha” dance music from bands such as Zaiko and Orchestra Shama Shama dominated in East and Central Africa. The online dictionary definitions.net describes cavacha as “a fast-paced rhythm created from the sound of a train, typically played on a drum kit, often with the snare drum or hi-hat”; it’s fun to note that in the DRC, the cavacha rhythm is referred as machini ya kauka, which, in Lingala, means literally, the engine of Kauka — Kauka is a Kinshasa neighborhood where the headquarters of the Office National des Transports, which operate ferries and trains, is located.
The website Musiques d’Afrique says that Congolese singer Samba Mapangala and his band Orchestra Virunga, named for the Virunga Mountains of the DRC, released their first album Malako Disco in 1982. It became an instant hit on the European music scene. Based today in the U.S. and still active in the music scene, Samba Mapangala used his celebrity star power to write and perform a song with video for a 2009 awareness campaign about the critically endangered mountain gorillas of Virunga National Park.
Musiques d’Afrique also notes that M’bilia Bel joined the group Afrisa during the mid-1980s, and went on to become one of Africa’s first female superstars. “More recently, Tshala Mwana has found fame as the queen of the ‘funk-folk rhythm known as ‘mutuashi.’”
Past meets future
According to Musiques d’Afrique, the most popular solo singer in Congolese music today is 40-year-old Fally Ipupa, who began singing with Koffi Olomide’s group Quartier Latin in 1999. Fally Ipupa says his vocal influences include Papa Wemba as well as Werrason and J.B. Mpiana (both from Congo-Kinshasa), while he credits Koffi for influencing his song lyrics. At the same time, North-American R&B and soul influences can be heard in his music.
In each generation of Congolese music, up-and-coming artists develop new musical styles from rumba’s roots. The Pan African Allstars website puts it succinctly: “Congo music, rumba, soukous, ndombolo, call it what you want, has been tops in African Music and influenced just about every African music style. From the ‘50s with professional bands with electric guitars, horns and percussion to ‘soukous’ in the ‘80s up to today’s ‘ndombolo,’ Congolese music, like African Music, is forever evolving.”
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‘Playing for change — singing for peace’
In February 2014, something memorable and even magical took place in a very unlikely place. The Amani Music Festival in Goma, DRC, shone a bright light on the important role that music and dance can play in creating harmony among neighbors.
A cycle of violence and peace has been the norm for the past 20 years in Goma, located on the Rwandan border. But “Amani” is the Swahili word for “peace.” And for the thousands of music lovers from DRC, Rwanda, and Burundi who attended the three-day event, the festival’s slogan, “Playing for change — singing for peace,” was proof that the future could be better.
The daily online news site, The Root, noted that the festival “amplified the voice and vision of a rising new generation, with a new approach to fighting for their future. For the young performers, organizers and supporters of the Amani Festival, achieving ‘peace’ meant achieving unity and reconciliation between the people of the Great Lakes region.”
Jean Claude “J.C.” Wenga, one of the festival’s primary organizers, put it this way: “What we can say about the future of Goma — not only Goma but the whole of DRC and the whole region — is that we have to be united and we are stronger together. If we keep working for unity and speaking the same language, we will build a peaceful society and write a new history together.”