Aired live February 24, 2016, and available here online
Tonight I’m taking us way back to the 1950s and even the 40s—the earliest days of recorded Congolese popular music. It’s quite different from most of what I’ve played so far. Back then, musicians were still closely imitating Cuban music, and some songs were even sung in Spanish. The songs are also quite short—most under four minutes. And, unlike my favorite tunes from the 70s, there are many songs about love as opposed to lamentations.
A plethora of recordings exist from the 50s, and I own very few because I prefer the music styles that evolved later. If you’ve listened to my earlier episodes, you’ll know that OK Jazz is my favorite band, and I don’t even like many of their songs from that time. But recently, I found a compilation of 50s music, and four musicians kept grabbing my ears: Léon Bukasa, Camille Feruzi, Manuel D’Oliveira, and Adou Elenga.
Coincidentally, I next found a song from the 80s that memorializes all of these men, in addition to Wendo Kolosoy. If you’re a fan of Wendo, you won’t hear his music tonight because it’s not really my flavor, but I had to mention him because of his significance to the history of Congolese popular music.
He was one of the first superstars, such that this whole era of music I’m showcasing tonight became known as tango ya ba Wendo—“Wendo’s time.” And you can hear this referenced in songs even into recent times. Which is incredible, considering that at Wendo’s peak of stardom, he stopped performing in response to the Mobutu-led coup, which occurred just weeks after the country’s independence from Belgium in 1960. And he didn’t perform again until the 90s, after Mobutu was finally ousted.
As you listen to the songs tonight, keep in mind that in the 1940s and 50s, both Congos were under colonial domination: by France to the north and by Belgium to the south. And on the eve of independence for both countries, their popular music scene was already going strong, with band lineups constantly changing. In fact, most of the musicians you’ll hear tonight performed with each other at some point, including in OK Jazz.
First up is a song that I fell in love with the first time I listened to it, a few years ago. It’s one of my favorites by far from the 50s. The mighty Joseph Kabasele with “Parafifi.”
So there you heard the suave voice of Kabasele, also known as Grand Kalle. And along with it, the lovely guitar work of Nico Kassanda, who was only thirteen years old. The title he later chose for himself—docteur (doctor)—is much deserved. Next up is a song by African Jazz, the band Kabasele and Nico later formed. And the song is “Lea.”
Next up is Camille Feruzi, known for his use of the accordion. When I first heard this song, a line in particular jumped out and got a chuckle out of me: “Okoki kozua mobali lokola ngai te.” If you don’t speak Lingala, you’ll hear the meaning after this song, “Lingale.”
So, what did he say? To borrow from Lou Rawls—you’ll never find… Yes, he declares to Lingale that she won’t find another man like him! And moving right along, of course I can’t seem to make an episode without including OK Jazz, so they’re next! Franco and the fellas actually got their start in the 50s, so it’s only appropriate. OK Jazz with “Mabe Nde Kolimwa.”
Next up are a two songs by Adou Elenga. When I listened to his “Tebo” for the first time, I couldn’t help but wonder if it was the inspiration for Sam Mangwana’s “Maria Tebbo,” which I played on Episode 3, and lo and behold, it was! Following that will be “Ata Ndele,” which was banned by the Belgian colonial authorities. They probably felt threatened by what it seemed to imply—to borrow from Sam Cooke: a change gon’ come.
For more fun facts about the other songs in this episode, listen here online.
Episode 11 Tracks:
Parafifi – Joseph Kabasele
Lea – African Jazz
Coco – Tino Baroza
Lingale – Camille Feruzi
Mabe Nde Kolimwa – OK Jazz
Merengue – OK Jazz
Tebo – Adou Elenga
Ata Ndele – Adou Elenga
Basi Banso Tapale – Manuel D’Oliveira
Mama Aboti Biso – Manuel D’Oliveira
Elongi ya Cherie – Manuel D’Oliveira
Kenga Mwangandu – Léon Bukasa
Mantare Mwasi Kitoko – Léon Bukasa
Bolingo Na Biso Na Yo Esila Te – Léon Bukasa