OK, here’s the story. This year has been hell on wheels for my nervous system what with running around the world (four countries and counting), the Mueller report, the impeachment proceedings, the rise of neo-Nazism in what was formerly East Germany, Brexit, the Yellow Vests in France and forty million other things that give me a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. In my usual fashion I’ve met all these bumps in the road with my upper lip stiff and my hand firmly on the steering wheel, but jeez, it takes it out of a girl to have this crap flying at you non-stop.
I didn’t realize how heavy the toll of being alive had become until I sat down the other evening with the unshakeable intent to make myself happy. Obviously watching MSNBC wasn’t going to trip that trigger. Eating a lot of chocolate has deleterious side effects that spring to attention when I look at my middle in the mirror, so that’s out. Meditation has its rewards but I can’t do it for more than half an hour without falling asleep — and that’s not the kind of happy I was after. So I decided to douse myself in music and let all the garbage of modern life go by the by for a while. But what kind of music?
After scanning my music folders I saw the one titled SOUKOUS and decided to give it a closer look. It’s been ages since I’ve listened to soukous — I have a lot of it because I love it, but it’s not something I’ve listened to much in the past couple years. My focus has been on working through my Early Baroque collection on the lookout for hidden gems. Anyhoo, in I dove into the Soukous folder and picked something out at random. As soon as the music started, I felt a lump form in my throat. Why? Because the music is pure joy, unmitigated happiness, unalloyed enjoyment of living. That’s why. The music made me recognize that I’d been stiff upper lipping it for the majority of the year in this crap world we live in at the moment. So I sat quietly and let the music soak into me. What a delight.
Most of you will be thinking to yourselves, “Soukous???” Allow me to explain. Soukous is actually a thing, I’m not just making it up. Here’s the skinny from the Wikipedia page on it (here):
In the 1950s and 1960s, some artists who had performed in the bands of Franco Luambo and Grand Kalle formed their own groups. Tabu Ley Rochereau and Dr. Nico Kasanda formed African Fiesta and transformed their music further by fusing Congolese folk music with soul music, as well as Caribbean and Latin beats and instrumentation. They were joined by Papa Wemba and Sam Mangwana, and classics like Afrika Mokili Mobimba made them one of Africa’s most prominent bands. Congolese “rumba” eventually evolved into soukous. Tabu Ley Rochereau and Dr Nico Kasanda are considered the pioneers of modern soukous. Other greats of this period include Koffi Olomide, Tshala Muana and Wenge Musica.
While the rumba influenced bands such as Lipua-Lipua, Veve, TP OK Jazz and Bella Bella, younger Congolese musicians looked for ways to reduce that influence and play a faster paced soukous inspired by rock n roll. A group of students called Zaiko Langa Langa came together in 1969 around founding vocalist Papa Wemba. Pepe Kalle, a protégé of Grand Kalle, created the band Empire Bakuba together with Papy Tex and they too became popular.
East Africa in the 1970s
Soukous now spread across Africa and became an influence on virtually all the styles of modern African popular music including highlife, palm-wine music, taarab and makossa. As political conditions in Zaire, as the Democratic Republic of Congo was known then, deteriorated in the 1970s, some groups made their way to Tanzania and Kenya. By the mid-seventies, several Congolese groups were playing soukous at Kenyan night clubs. The lively cavacha, a dance craze that swept East and Central Africa during the seventies, was popularized through recordings of bands such as Zaiko Langa Langa and Orchestra Shama Shama, influencing Kenyan musicians. This rhythm, played on the snare drum or hi-hat, quickly became a hallmark of the Congolese sound in Nairobi and is frequently used by many of the regional bands. Several of Nairobi’s renowned Swahili rumba bands formed around Tanzanian groups like Simba Wanyika and their offshoots, Les Wanyika and Super Wanyika Stars.
In the late 1970s Virgin records produced LPs from the Tanzanian-Congolese Orchestra Makassy and the Kenya-based Super Mazembe. One of the tracks from this album was the Swahili song Shauri Yako (“it’s your problem”), which became a hit in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Les Mangelepa was another influential Congolese group that moved to Kenya and became extremely popular throughout East Africa. About this same time, the Nairobi-based Congolese vocalist Samba Mapangala and his band Orchestra Virunga, released the LP Malako, which became one of the pioneering releases of the newly emerging world music scene in Europe. The musical style of the East Africa-based Congolese bands gradually incorporated new elements, including Kenyan benga music, and spawned what is sometimes called the “Swahili sound” or “Congolese sound”.
1980s and the Paris scene
Soukous became popular in London and Paris in the 1980s. A few more musicians left Kinshasa to work around central and east Africa before settling in either the UK or France. The basic line-up for a soukous band included three or four guitars, bass guitar, drums, brass, vocals, and some of them having over 20 musicians. Lyrics were often in Lingala and occasionally in French. In the late 1980s and 1990s, Parisian studios were used by many soukous stars, and the music became heavily reliant on synthesizers and other electronic instruments. Some artists continued to record for the Congolese market, but others abandoned the demands of the Kinshasa public and set out to pursue new audiences. Some, like Paris-based Papa Wemba maintained two bands, Viva La Musica for soukous, and a group including French session players for international pop.
Kanda Bongo Man, another Paris-based artist, pioneered fast, short tracks suitable for play on dance floors everywhere and popularly known as kwassa kwassa after the dance moves popularized by his and other artists’ music videos. This music appealed to Africans and to new audiences as well. Artists like Diblo Dibala, Jeannot Bel Musumbu, Mbilia Bel, Yondo Sister, Tinderwet, Loketo, Rigo Star, Madilu System, Soukous Stars and veterans like Pepe Kalle and Koffi Olomide followed suit. Soon Paris became home to talented studio musicians who recorded for the African and Caribbean markets and filled out bands for occasional tours.
In the 1980s, the fast tempo zouk style popularized by the French Antilles band Kassav’ became popular across much of Paris and French Africa. In the 1980s and early 1990s, a fast-paced style of soukous known as kwassa kwassa, named after a popular dance, was popular. Today, soukous mixes the kwasa kwasa with zouk and Congolese rumba. A style called ndombolo, also named after a dance, is currently popular.
I came by my exposure to soukous honestly through a gig as a consultant in West Africa for a few months. I’d never heard it before and when it came on the local TV station where I was I immediately jumped on the soukous bandwagon. It’s infectious music that brings you up with its vibe. Unlike Western dance music where the beat pummels you to death and all the rest of the musical elements get buried under the thumping, soukous blends light-hearted melody, gossamer guitar riffs and a steady supporting beat into something that makes your emotions dance even if your feet stay planted on the ground. It was just the ticket for my project of making myself feel better. Trump’s tweets, Bill Barr’s hog-jowl face and his velvet mendacity, Louie Gohmert’s impersonation of Archie Bunker — it all went away for a while as I let the voices and the instruments lift my spirits into a state that by right shouldn’t be so rare in my experience. The world has a lot of wonderful stuff to offer. What a crying shame it gets buried by all the cultural detritus that washes over us continually in our present state of affairs.
So if you’re not familiar with soukous, I recommend it as a powerful antidote to the vagaries visited upon us by daily life in our lamentable epoch. You don’t even need to understand the lyrics. I do understand the songs in French (the official language of the Congo) but I don’t understand a word of Lingala or any of the other more than 40 languages spoken in the country. It doesn’t matter. In fact, you’re probably better off not understanding the lyrics, just as you’re better off not understanding the libretti in Grand Opera of the Romantic period. It will only make your eyes roll back in your head because it’s over-the-top sop. Just enjoy the melody and don’t worry your pretty little head about the words. 🙂
Your ship has come in on YouTube with regard to the availability of a wide range of soukous tracks to listen to. All you need do is search “soukous” to bring up an embarrassment of riches. Here are some of my favorite artists with links to some of their tracks on YouTube.
Aurlus Mabélé (1953- , Brazzaville) (Wikipedia page here)
Il est né en 1953 à Brazzaville dans le quartier de Poto-Poto en République du Congo. Il s’appelle en réalité Aurélien Miatsonama.
En 1974, ensemble avec ses pairs tels que Jean Baron, Pedro Wapechkado et Mav Cacharel, il fonde le groupe Les Ndimbola Lokole.
Parti se perfectionner en Europe, il fonde, en 1986, avec Diblo Dibala et Mav Cacharel, le groupe Loketo. Il crée alors le soukous dont il sera proclamé « roi », d’où le slogan « c’est Aurlus Mabele le nouveau roi du soukous ».
En 25 ans de carrière, il aura vendu plus de 10 millions d’albums dans le monde et il aura contribué à faire connaître le soukous hors des limites du continent africain1.
[He was born in 1953 in Brazzaville in the district of Poto-Poto in the Republic of Congo. His real name is Aurélien Miatsonama. In 1974, with associates such as Jean Baron, Pedro Wapechkado and Mav Cacharel, he founded the group Les Ndimbola Lokole. After leaving to develop his skills in Europe, he founded the group Loketo in 1986 with Diblo Dibala and Mav Cacharel. He created the soukous genre of which he was subsequently proclaimed “the king”, from which came the slogan, “Aurlus Mabele is the new king of soukous.” In 25 years of musical activity he has sold more than 10 million albums worldwide and made soukous famous outside the African continent.]
Mabele is one of the superstars of the genre. His music has a seductive sense of drive to it and the vocal lines and guitar riffs are elaborate. Wonderful stuff!
Bopol Mansiamina (1949- , Leopoldville) (Wikipedia page here)
Bopol contributed to much of the best Congolese soukous music made during its 1980s and 90s heyday. His best work may be that from the early 1980s. “Manuela” is recognized among his outstanding tracks.
Much of his music is recognized as being highly danceable, although somewhat repetitive. Some of his songs – such as “Pitie, Je Veux La Reconciliation”, “Samedi Soir”, “Bety Bety” – were common staples on many 1980s dance floors around the world.
On his solo recordings, he consistently surrounded himself with stellar musicians. The guitar interplay between Bopol and his frequent collaborator, Syran Mbenza, has been described as “legendary.”
Mansiamina has a lovely, smooth tenor voice which gives his music a softer sense than other soukous greats. He also shows much greater variation in his songs than other classics of the genre. From a musical standpoint it’s all very interesting in addition to making your ears happy.
Bozi Boziana (1952- , Bolobo) (Wikipedia page here)
Mbenzu Ngamboni Boskill (born 1952), better known as Bozi Boziana, is a Congolese guitarist and singer. He has been in several major soukous bands, including Bamboula de Papa Noel, Minzoto Sangela, Zaiko Langa Langa, Isifi Lokole, Yoka Lokole, Langa Langa Stars and Choc Stars, and founded his own band, Orchestre Anti-Choc, which is considered among the most influential of the genre.
… il est fier d’appartenir à sa tribu qu’il exalte par des morceaux des paroles en langue bobangi, sa langue maternelle. Dans Sisina, il évoque entre autres ses souvenirs d’enfance, la nostalgie de son pays d’origine, le Pays des Bobangi, il implore le secours de ses ancêtres et invite ses frères banunu et tous les autres habitants de Bolobo, Lukolela, Bongende, Ntsangasi, Makotimpoko, etc…à lui prêter mains fortes, à s’unir à lui.
[… he is proud of belonging to his tribe, which he honors in some pieces using the Bobangi language, his native tongue. In “Sisina” he evoques among other things memories of his childhood, his nostalgia for his native country (the Bobangi Territory), he asks for the help of his ancestors and invites his Banunu brothers and other inhabitants of Bolobo, Lukolela, Bongende, Ntsangasi, Makotimpoko, etc. to join forces and unite with him.]
(From: mbokamusika.com, webpage here)
This artist is one of the few soukous greats who evokes for me thoughts of other music genres in Africa, especially South Africa and the music of groups like The Mahotella Queens. As with Mansamina the voice line is primary, not traded off with the instrumental sounds (including in his group’s case electronic instruments) as an equal partner. Don’t ask me why it seems to me that I understand what he’s singing about even though I don’t understand a single word of the lyrics. Sometimes it’s better just to let things be a mystery. 🙂
Diblo Dibala (1954- , Kisangali) (Wikipedia page here)
Diblo Dibala (born 9 August 1954), often known simply as Diblo, is a Congolese soukous musician, known as “Machine Gun” for his speed and skill on the guitar.
He was born in 1954 in Kisangani. He moved to Kinshasa as a child, and aged 15 won a talent competition which led to him playing guitar in Franco’s TPOK band. Dibala remained with the group for only a short period, going on to play with Vox Africa, Orchestra Bella Mambo and Bella Bella, in which band he first played with Kanda Bongo Man.
In 1979, he moved to Brussels, and in 1981 he joined Kanda Bongo Man’s band in Paris. Their first album, Iyole (1981), was a success. Diblo became a sought after session guitarist, working with Pepe Kalle and many other soukous musicians.
In the mid-1980s, he formed his own band, Loketo (meaning ‘hips’), with singers Aurlus Mabele and Mav Cacharel. A few years later, that band broke up, and in 1990 he formed a new group, Matchatcha, which is still active after a number of personnel changes.
As you can see, Diabala has worked with Mabele, which makes it unsurprising that his music bears significant similarity to Mabele’s. It’s energetic, compelling, and the guitar work is fantastic, he’s one of the best without a doubt.
Gadji Celi (1961- , Cote d’Ivoire) (Wikipedia page in French here)
Saint-Joseph Gadji Celi est un footballeurivoirien né le 1er mai 1961.
Il s’est reconverti avec succès dans la musique, après une première chanson dédiée à l’équipe nationale, Caire 86. Il est l’ex Président de l’UNARTCI (Union nationale des artistes de Côte d’Ivoire.) et P.C.A du Bureau ivoirien du droit d’auteur (BURIDA) de 2009 à 2011.
[Saint-Joseph Gadji Celi is a soccer player from Cote d’Ivoire born May 1, 1961. … He switched to music with success after releasing a song dedicated to the national team, Caire 86. He is past president of UNARTCI (National Artists Union of Cote d’Ivoire) and P.C.A … from 2009 to 2011.]
That’s right, he was a soccer star who then took up a career in music with great success. His approach to music is different from the Congolese version — the prominence of guitar work is much reduced and there’s usually a background group singing, most often of the female persuasion. It’s nice music and I like it, but despite its classification as soukous I find it a very different beast from the likes of the Congolese variety. It reminds me a lot of Puerto Rican and Cuban salsa. Much of what he sings is in French so if you’re francophone you’re in luck.
Kanda Bongo Man (1955- , Inongo) (Wikipedia page here)
Kanda Bongo Man (born Bongo Kanda; 1955) is a Congolese soukous musician.
Kanda Bongo Man was born in Inongo, Democratic Republic of the Congo. He became the singer for Orchestra Belle Mambo in 1973, developing a sound influenced by Tabu Ley. His solo career only started to take off after moving to Paris in 1979, where his music started to incorporate elements of then-vibrant zouk music popularized by Kassav (originating in the French West Indies). His first solo albums, Iyole in 1981 and Djessy in 1982, were hits.
He is known for the structural changes he implemented to soukous music. The previous approach was to sing several verses and have one guitar solo at the end of the song. Kanda Bongo Man revolutionized soukous by encouraging guitar solos after every verse and even sometimes at the beginning of the song. His form of soukous gave birth to the kwassa kwassa dance rhythm where the hips move back and forth while the hands move to follow the hips.
Like many African rumba and soukous musicians before him, Kanda Bongo Man also had an entourage of musicians. Many of Kanda’s musicians later moved on to start their own solo careers. Most notable of these was Diblo Dibala. Known as “Machine Gun”, Diblo Dibala was a vital part of Kanda Bongo Man’s lineup on several albums, playing guitar on both Kwasa Kwasa and Amour Fou.
Kanda Bongo Man was the first soukous artist I ever heard, so he occupies a special place in my affections. His music is pure dance music, the vocal lines are rhythmic more than melodic and the instrumental parts are equal to or superior in importance to the vocal line. This is classic soukous done by one of the greats of the genre.
Ngouma Lokito (? -, Lumumbashi)
Born in Lumumbashi, Congo (RDC) his parents named him Shungu Omba. He was later nicknamed and called, Ngouma Lokito, (Power Of The Bass). Ngouma started to play the bass guitar in 1977, with a local group called “Ndjili” until 1980. … This time he was given another nickname of “Professor.”
Very athletic music, with tons of stuff going on all at once — vocal calls and very busy guitar riffs, it’s kind of like a big shot of caffeine in your ears. I like the raw power of his music, although it’s not by any means sophisticated in the same way as the music of some other artists in the list. But hey, it takes all kinds, right?
That’s the list. If you dip into it I think you’ll find that you’ve added a fantastic tool to your arsenal for staving off the doldrums. Enjoy!