Liner Notes: Episode 6: Congolese Divas

Aired live April 8, 2015, and available here online

Tonight, for the first time on this show, I present to you women’s stories in their own voices. I’ve waited so long because I honestly have very few songs by Congolese women. Ironically, I was prompted to learn Lingala a few years ago because I was listening to so much Congolese music by men, and I wanted to make sure they weren’t saying anything bad about women!

M'Pongo Love

M’Pongo Love: Congolese moyembi, Congolese diva!

Now, if you know Congolese music, you might be surprised that I keep referencing OK Jazz as my favorite band. Its leader, Franco, is said to have had a bad track record when it comes to positive images of women. But, to give him some credit, I have more than 250 OK Jazz songs, and there are a fair number that speak about scandalous men (need I say Mario??) as well as women.

Or maybe my Lingala isn’t good enough for me to understand!

Congolese music superstar M'Bilia Bel

Congolese music superstar M’Bilia Bel

So why are women so underrepresented in Congolese popular music? I have no hard answers for you, but from what I’ve gleaned from the songs in my collection, the life of a moyembi (singer) was difficult. These men sing about how they make little money, how they return home from gigs to find their women in the arms of other men—hmm, curiously, their own love affairs on the road don’t bother them—and, as Tabu Ley Rochereau sings in “Hortense,” the singer’s life is like that of a soldier, always going here, going there, and leaving loved ones behind. I can only imagine it must have been harder for women, who would have spent their lives on the road, in nightclubs, unmarried…and surrounded by those men.

But some made it and became stars, such as M’bilia Bel, who started as a backup singer and dancer and moved into the spotlight alongside Tabu Ley. And they made [bad French accent] beautiful music together in more ways than one, through lyrics, vocals, and a daughter. Tabu Ley, by the way, already had a wife and several children…oh, the hard life of a musicien!

M'Bilia Bel with Tabu Ley Rochereau

M’Bilia Bel with Tabu Ley Rochereau

First up is a song by M’bilia called “La Beauté d’une Femme” (a woman’s beauty). And it’s a figurative slap in the face to her rival.

This next song [“Ndaya”] also speaks to rivals, by the sweet-voiced singer, M’Pongo Love. She was apparently only about 20 years old when this song was recorded.

And now, I have to bring my men of OK Jazz into the mix, but this next song, “Layille,” features a duet with Franco and a real-life woman for once!—Jolie Detta.

Jolie Detta with OK Jazz

Jolie Detta with OK Jazz


Now we return to M’bilia Bel with one of my absolute favorites by her, “Nakeyi Nairobi”—I’m going to Nairobi to help my friend Duni, she says.

Yondo Sister with Soukous Stars

Yondo Sister with Soukous Stars

As my music collection grows, I hope to stumble across some other female vocalists such as Abeti and Tshala Muana to add to my favorites playlist. But for now I have a backlog of over 200 songs (of course, by men!) that I need to listen to.

For more fun facts about the other songs in this episode, listen here online.

Episode 6 Tracks:

La Beauté d’une Femme – M’Bilia Bel
Ndaya – M’Pongo Love
Cadence Mudanda – M’Bilia Bel with Tabu Ley Rochereau
Layille – OK Jazz feat. Jolie Detta
Nakeyi Nairobi – M’Bilia Bel
Ede – M’Pongo Love
Yamba Ngai – M’Bilia Bel
Monama Elima – M’Pongo Love
Dunia – Soukous Stars feat. Yondo Sister

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