MOKILI ETUMBA (CD9401 Umwe Records, London 081.694.8030)

Some things just go beyond categories. What does "folk music" mean anyway? Folks without electricity? Well, forget about synths and samples and check out the raw energy of Classic Swede Swede, their raggedy vocals and distorted harmonica, Luba xylophone and bass guitar atop lokole, congas, drums and a bit of simple programmation. These cats are hipper than thou, and come at thee with a gut-wrenching intensity. The best groups in Africa always spring from modernized folk traditions. Classic Swede Swede come from the Mongo people but draw inspiration from the diverse tribal rhythms of Central Africa. They revived a scandalous dance called the "Sundama" (which means "bend over"). It was quickly banned from television. It suggests Zaiko Langa Langa unplugged, if you can imagine such a thing.

MONDO RY (Jimmy's Production JP 014)

Zairean guitarist Diblo is well-known as the creator of the sharp biting sound of Kanda Bongo Man, but since 1988 he has been touring with his own group Loketo (Lingala for "move your hips"). In 1987 they blew the lid off the Kennel Club in San Francisco in the most explosive concert of the year. Loketo now has several albums out (two on Shanachie, the American label), and various members of Loketo have solo albums, notably vocalists Arlus Mabélé and Jean Baron. From the scorched fuzz tone opening riffs of MONDO RY, the pace never slackens, driven relentlessly by Mack Mackaire's trap drums and Komba Bellow on congas (in concert they alternate to spell each other). Ronald Rubinel adds grace notes -- twittering birds and prancing synth leads -- on keyboards, but also provides an important continuo which many of the Zairean guitar bands lack. They work out on "S. P. Diblo," a funky instrumental track quite different from anything else coming out of Zaire. Each of the members of Loketo contributes material to their albums so it is always varied, and the two gorgeous dancers add another dimension to their stage show.

DERNIERE MEMOIRE (Voix d'Afrique 013)

This German release will gladden the hearts of soukous fans. Nico & his brother Mwamba Dechaud were the pioneering guitarists in Joseph Kabaselle's African Jazz that fused Cuban rumba onto indigenous African music. The opening cut on this album (recorded in Benin sometime between 1983 and Nico's death in 1985), "Africa Mokili Mobimba," was a hit in the late 50s for African Jazz (& a hit more recently for Tshala Muana). Throughout the album Nico is in top form, showing the divine inspiration that made him the "God of the Guitar" for a generation of Zairean, and now Western, fans. He soars on the opening cut and the other remake: "Bougie ya motema," which he wrote for his later band African Fiesta Sukisa in 1967. Empompo played sax in Tiers Monde with Sam Mangwana and joined Bopol backing Mpongo Love, but the Nico guitar magic sparkles throughout this album and will make it a perennial favourite.

EAST OF AFRICA (Dakar Sound)

If you want to explore the roots of Soukous, there's a great compilation CD of mid-1960s Congolese pop singles on Dakar Sound called EAST OF AFRICA. Though the title implies the Indian Ocean or Madagascar, it's a reference to the fact that bands often licensed their hits to small labels in other countries to get out of unfavourable tight contracts with their own labels. These singles were issued by Melodica in Nairobi, and document the two main streams of popular Congolese music that prefigured Soukous. First there was African Jazz, Joseph Kabaselle's band that played amplified rumba music. After independence the key members, singer Rochereau and lead guitarist Docteur Nico, split to form African Fiesta. At the same time a new sound, rooted in folk instruments such as likembe (or thumb piano) evolved with OK Jazz and Le Negro Band being the main exponents. Nico and his various groupings, including Orchestre Rock-a-Mambo, were on the Ngoma label. OK Jazz, Vedette Jazz, and others made their albums at the Loningisa studio, also in Kinshasa. Both styles of music -- as well as a couple of novelty numbers showing the influence of West African highlife -- are included on EAST OF AFRICA. Among these African Team's "Madou Whiskey Soda" is priceless. You don't have to choose between the styles, but the African Fiesta tracks are smoother, and more cha-cha based; the Negro Band tracks have a lot of rawness and wonderfully squeaky soprano sax solos by Empompo Loway. From African Jazz there's a forerunner of "Twist & Shout" called "Tika Kutupende kolo." One of my favourite ballads, Nico's "Mamu wa mpoy," on which he plays Hawaiian slide guitar is included: it's the first time it's been on CD and alone is reason enough to buy this collection.


RetroAfric scores big with a collection of rare tracks by "Fan Fan," one of Africa's leading guitarists. After cutting his teeth with OK Jazz in Zaire, he traveled to Zambia and Tanzania, where he joined forces with Remy Ongala in Orchestre Makassy before moving to Kenya, and founding Somo Somo. Many hits flowed from these groupings, and there's over an hour of them on this up-tempo collection with catchy melodies, dancing hi-hat cymbals, brassy punctuation, and long, stinging guitar jams. Fan Fan exported the complex jangling lead guitar sound of Franco to East Africa, and in it we find the roots of the pan-African pop sound.

[Note: See the Kenya/Tanzania section for the reissue of the Orchestre Makassy sessions on CD]

HELLO HELLO (Stern's STCD 1065 1995)

Someone heard my prayers! The elders of rumba-rock have forsworn the Paris disco sound of drum machines and synthesizer washes and have gone back to erecting monumental soukous. The line-up for this recording is phenomenal. The Four Stars, with the intermeshing guitars of Syran and Bopol and the sweet harmonies of Wuta Mayi and Nyboma, augment the front line of Fan Fan on lead guitar and guest vocals from Sam Mangwana and Youlou Mabiala. Esby Bambi on sax shows that nobody needs cheesy synth fills, and the redoubtable Komba Bellow on drums keeps the beat ticking. The root of soukous is the French "secouer", meaning to shake. This line-up does it -- to the foundations.


One night, after a gig, in 2000, I was chatting with Dally Kimoko and I asked him if the music of Franco had died with him. Franco (1938-89) was the giant of twentieth-century African music and affected the music profoundly, not more so than among guitarists of the next generation including Dally, Lokassa and Syran. I think it will live, he told me.

But Congolese music has evolved and the music of Franco is more likely to appeal to people with a broad interest in the history of African music. Like Fela's music, Franco's songs were personal and topical and generally don't lend themselves to reinterpretation. Franco recorded over 150 albums and there was a time when the Franco section was the largest in any well-stocked international music store.

While there haven't been too many exciting new releases from Congo of late, there are always interesting reissues and I am glad I decided to pick up the remastered CD version of Franco and OK Jazz ORIGINALITÉ. As the very first recordings of this legendary dynasty in Congolese music, these are very important, but the four added tracks and cleaned-up sound make this RetroAfric release a real joy.

Most of the tracks are simple three-minute rumbas or cha-chas with Franco on acoustic guitar, backed by acoustic bass, congas and light percussion, and the great Jean-Serge Essous on reeds. Franco was just a teenager and, at that time, smaller than his guitar! When he goes electric you can hear the influence of Johnny Bokelo & his older brother Dewayon. There's also a merengue and a bolero.

One of my all-time favourite ballads, Vicky Longomba's "Ah bolingo pasi!" is included as a bonus track. More than a historic artifact, this is living breathing music that conveys the excitement of super-talented young Congolese hipsters of the '50s facing the future in their first encounter with recording.


To this classic (ORIGINALITÉ), we can add two new albums in the dwindling Franco section that cover the forty-year career of the Congolese Colossus. Manteca's THE VERY BEST OF FRANCO THE RUMBA GIANT OF ZAIRE packs 75+ minutes, starting from the quavery early rumba signature tune of the band "On entre OK, on sort KO" ("You come in fine, you leave knocked out") that features the reed and horns up front as solo instruments.

The fourth track, "Luvumba Ndoki" is ascribed to tradition. It has an alarmed monologue in the middle and then a percussion break. This scarce song, which has not been anthologized before, caused Franco to be detained for criticizing Mobutu's henchmen for a public execution they carried out after his CIA-backed coup in 1965. It wasn't the only time Franco was jailed but he left town for six months and later (to cover his ass) wrote a campaign praise song for the despot. "Koun Koue! Edo Aboyi Ngai" turns into a James Brown funk-style jam but also demonstrates the emergence of Franco's mature style.

The central part of this compilation has the big guns: "Kinsiona," "Azda" and "Liberté" from the early seventies. "Kinsiona," also adapted from folklore, was the lament for his brother Bavon Marie-Marie who died tragically after a fight with Franco over a girl. "Azda" is an extended plug for a VW dealership in Kinshasa! (If you think that's odd I can offer you a short set of four Congolese rumbas praising different brands of soap.) "Liberté" from 1975 just hovers in the air with various parts of the band -- drums and horns -- threatening to explode any second. It finally boils over and works out for over nine minutes. "Naligaka Ya Yo Te" reminds us of Franco's skill on the acoustic guitar with a simple accompaniment. (It made me wish they'd included "Boma l'heure.") Inexorably we move into the period of soukous when drum programs and naff synths ruled the dancefloor. Sadly Franco checked out at this point, his final song being a fervent plea to watch out for AIDS.


THE ROUGH GUIDE TO FRANCO was put together by Graeme Ewens who authored the highly readable biography of Franco that appeared in 1994. He takes a different tack from the Manteca set and also comes up with a fascinating retrospective glimpse into this prolific figure. Ewens choices are, well, choice. He opens with "Merengue" from 1956, a not unpleasant surprise. "Aya la Mode" has no tune, just a CFG chord progression as Franco goes off into abstract solos while the lyrics name-check ladies in one of his fan clubs.

One of my personal faves, "Finga Mama Munu" by Mujos has a funny talking intro and wild sax by Verckys (the Lee Perry of Zaire), but then we get to the one song that can be said to be the definitive OK Jazz track: "Infidelité Mado," written by Celi Bittshu. It's a song about lost love and when Franco died it was all any fan wanted to hear. Recorded in 1971 it shows the double pronged lead that Franco perfected. For contrast, and also to keep the mellow mood a bit longer, Ewens opts for the folkloric "Likambo ya ngana" which features Camille Feruzi on accordion. The heart of Ewens' selection is very different from the Manteca set: instead of going for one of the big B52 bombers like "Fabrice" or "Liyanzi Ekoti ngai na motema" (better known as "Muzi"), he gives us a history lesson. Sam Mangwana's first recording with OK Jazz (after he defected from Rochereau's camp), "Où est le sérieux," shows Franco gloating in the background. We jump forward to 1980 and "Tailleu,r" a political satire that has the juggernaut intensity of Franco's not-so-subtle message. "Kinshasa Mboka ya Makambo" is another uncharacteristic song. It's a talking blues that was recorded from a television broadcast where Franco walks down from the bleachers playing his blue Gibson guitar, addressing the camera to deny accusations that he smuggled marijuana into Europe. I could have done without "Mario" -- yes it's an important piece of the story: pop music as soap opera, but it's 14 minutes long, dated and boring, especially with the repeated drum pattern and fake horns. "Chacun pour soi" is also from this weak late period, but does have great guitar, and this album also closes with "Attention na SIDA." If you don't have 45 Franco LPs and 36 CDs, as I do, then you probably need these compilations to fill in some gaps in your collection. I think SONO disc is up for sale, so you may have to wait for the new owners to start reissuing this material, but it only gets better with age.

20ème ANNIVERSAIRE (Suave 6942160, 6942161)

This is a reissue of two Sonodisc CDs which came out in 1989, that were a reissue of the double album that came out in 1976 to celebrate the first two decades of OK Jazz. The LPs (AFRICAN 360 082/3) were compiled from singles of the early 70s. Franco had just been given the Order of the Leopard or some such mark of distinction from Mobutu, OK Jazz was annually hailed as the Top band in Africa by the BBC as well as national and continental polls, it had just absorbed key members of rival Tabu Ley's band, and was about to reabsorb Les Grands Maquisards, one of the younger rival bands, into the ranks (because they couldn't afford equipment to gig on their own). Suave is a company that briefly owned Sonodisc and so apparently has or had rights to the music, but in the fine Sono tradition they have done nothing to improve the listening experience. There are no liner notes and they just scanned Sono's limited CD reissue artwork for their reissue -- it even has the AFRICAN slug in the lower left corner. (The AFRICAN LPs, which of course sound better, had band photos which I will reproduce & add the names I know: you can see Sam Mangwana, who is on this album in the background of one track, in the lower right picture.)

Franco had finally attained the big sound that would be his trademark for the next two decades. His own guitar is light and prominent. Lead guitarist is Michelino. But Franco made sure no one got name-checked in his songs as he didn't want anyone establishing a cult and leaving with name recognition, so when Michelino launches into a solo one of the singers will say, "Ahhh, guitar..." leading you to assume it's Franco himself. Michelino does get name-checked in one number, I guess things were too hot to restrain the urge. After the singers introduce the tune Franco unleashes different parts of the group until you have a tsunami of sound. The rhythm guitarist was Simaro, and Decca (not Jessica Mitford, Decca Mpudi) played bass. In addition there was another mi-solo and even other lead guitarists who jammed on these tracks. Among the singers in the mid-seventies can be numbered Josky (from 1973), Wuta-Mayi (from 74), Pepe Ndombe (from 76), and Checain. According to Graeme Ewens, Prince Youlou Mabiala left the band in 1972 and Michel Boyibanda quit in 1975, however I believe they were both around for the 20th anniversary show, which was broadcast on Zairean television. That show (available on DVD from Atoll distribution, Paris) is a gem. The sound is not as good as on the albums but you get to see the band in action. It's a big band, with three saxes, three trumpets and a trombonist, drums and congas, five guitarists and half a dozen singers. They are all pretty clean-cut apart from Michelino who sports a big afro. Someone's girlfriend worked overtime to create their outfits: matching silver lamé blouses, with flounced sleeves and black bell-bottom floor-length trousers. Franco has a blue shirt to distinguish him, but he keeps to the back of the stage, next to his vieux copain Pandy on the congas. Dessouin on traps is the only other original member in the line-up, though Simaro had been around since 1960. There are six sax players to choose from for the 75 gig: Isaac Musikewa, Albino Kalombo, Dele Pedro, Lunama Mbemba, Rondot & Empompo Loway. I think that's Empompo, Pedro & Isaac in the photo. The band uniforms and anonymity of personnel ensured Franco stayed in control & he alone was identified with the OK Jazz brand name.

The repertoire is ten-minute songs, the classic "two-sides-of-a-single" format perfected in the Congo. We start with the majestic "Liberté" & go into another Franco composition: "Matata ya muasi na mobali ekoki kosila te." When this starts percolating mid-way you have to imagine the whole band swaying in unison, the horn players alternately raising their instruments and then their fists. Uta-Mayi purrs "L'orchestra suave..." as the horns go into their one-two punch (saxes play one ascending bar and the trumpets overlap with a different phrase). This stuff is seriously dreamy: it taps into those endorphin brain-waves that make you feel good. The songs fade at 8 or 9 minutes and you feel like it could on indefinitely. Side 2 of volume 1 starts with Pepe Ndombe Opetum, who sounds like his old boss Rochereau doing the beautiful "Voyage na Bandundu." Ndombe and Empompo had defected in 1973 to create a new band Afrizam but after Sam and Dizzy left Afrizam to create Les Grands Maquisards, Franco snapped them up. "Kamikaze" by Youlou and "Nzete Elobakate" by Boyibanda are both in the video & round out the first set. It's superfluous to say they are hits in my universe. The second disc goes on in the same vein. Franco brought a third guitar to the mi-solo conception of African Jazz, to just riff on the chord, arpeggio-fashion. When he starts his two-pronged counterpoint it's sublime. Josky's "Seli-ja" and Michelino's "Salima" on this set are also featured on the TV show, though neither was released as a single. The whole album is 90 minutes long, it creates a state of mind where time stands still as you are subsumed into the OK Jazz sound and that's a good place to be for a spell.

MEGAMIX VOL.1 (Syllart SYL 83100)

Two long dance mixes, "Nairobi Night" and "Lagos Night," constitute the undoubted dance smash of 1990, confirming the position of Kinshasa as the Motown of the '90s. Each song is a medley of popular songs from the '70s: one set of Nigerian and one of Kenyan, but all done in a soukous style by a group that comes from Congo and Zaire via Paris. Among several guitarists on the album are Lokassa ya Mbongo, the guiding force, whose credits include L'Afrisa of Rochereau and Sam Mangwana's African All Stars. His "Marie José" was one of the best cuts on the ground-breaking HEARTBEAT SOUKOUS compilation in 1987. Dally Kimoko was the guitarist in Nyboma's group Les Kamales, after a brief stint in African All Stars he most recently toured with Kanda Bongo Man. Shimita is a singer from the nouvelle generation, creator of the dance "Zaïko mania." Zitany Neil, "the elastic man," scored a hit with his album MARCORY GASOIL (with Four Stars backing). Ngouma Shunga on bass comes from Lipua-Lipua and Anti-Choc Stars, then the Four Stars. The Lagos side is a medley of seven hits by Prince Nico Mbarga and is a welcome shot in the arm of highlife, which has been languishing of late.

POUVOIR (JPS production on Sono)

Congolese singer Madilu System has a new album out (early 90s) called POUVOIR and it's the first soukous album I've been able to get into in a long time. Yes, it's Paris produced, which means it comes with all the baggage that entails: drum-machine programmes, tight leather pants, small cups of strong coffee and smelly cigarettes, but Madilu, who is now called "His Majesty" in deference, no doubt, to his great corpulence (Young Doctor Chris commented that he's starting to look like a hippo) has a wonderful clear voice that floats, well, majestically, over the music. Madilu used to front the most popular band in Africa, Franco's All-powerful O.K. Jazz. It's been over a decade since the death of Franco but none of the groups that came out of that great machine have fared well.

Fortunately there is no great loyalty to groups among musicians in Africa: they go where the gigs are, so singers will pop up in different bands or guitarists will tour with whoever has a solid booking. On this outing Madilu is backed by Soukous Stars who are currently in California recording an album, hoping to make Soukous as popular in the US as it is in Europe. It will be an uphill battle for them because the audience here is more resistant to non-English music and is much more driven by whim and marketing ploys such as music videos.

Madilu kicks off with his strongest track, a very earthy jam on vocals and percussion with the guitar acting almost like a cowbell, just keeping a two-tone beat until things come to a boil. It reminds me of a cassette single put out by Les Atalaku de Langa-Langa a few years ago called MADESU, on which Madilu made a guest appearance. The Atalaku or "animators" are the "shouters": the guys who are there to lend class to an act by posing in their leather trenchcoats, flounced silk shirts and Boeing 757 haircuts. When they are finally moved to dance they usually shout: catch phrases or just the names of the band members. Fanning the ego is a sure way to elicit a memorable solo.

The second track tries to recapture the feel of a slowly building OK Jazz jam, and it's quite convincing with the distinct plaint of Madilu up front and the other instruments doing their part without creating a slavish imitation. For a change there is vocal harmonizing here that is quite reminiscent of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Though that style of music is no longer popular in South Africa (it caught on in the USA thanks to GRACELAND), it's an unusual influence and an interesting departure in Congolese pop. I'm glad no one tried to copy the unique talon-plucking guitar runs of Franco on this, a mistake that OK Jazz made trying to carry on after Franco's death with a copycat guitarist.

Franco's legacy still towers over African music but Dally Kimoko, Syran Mbenza, and Lokassa ya Mbongo have emerged as distinct voices on their own respective guitars.

The Soukous Stars' rhythm guitarist, Shiko Mawatu, wrote two of the songs for Madilu's album and also gets to play lead on them, trading places with Lokassa ya Mbongo whom he replaced in Rochereau's Afrisa International some years ago.

The second half of the album is more predictable (the last two tracks recorded incredibly in Kinshasa) but it's very encouraging to see some of the big names of Soukous trying new ideas and looking for a new direction for this wonderful evolving sound.

TATA MASAMBA (RC1990 1996)

After the cross-genre success of Africando -- a summit of African vocalists with New York salsa musicians -- more exposure is coming to African musicians who are exploring the fertile ground of Latin music, which ultimately springs from the same fount. Congolese-born Ricardo Lemvo is based in Los Angeles and his hybrid of soukous and salsa keeps the power of both musics in their purest forms. There are no synth fills here, just the raw energy that can pack a dance-floor, and they've never disappointed me on the many occasions I've seen them. Augmenting Makina Loca's sound for their debut recording are top African singers, Sam Mangwana and Nyboma, Les Quatres Etoiles' guitarists Syran and Bopol, and members of Afrisa International: Huit Kilos on guitar, and vocalists Wawali, Dodo, and Djeffard. Moving comfortably between soukous and salsa seems so natural and invigorates both forms. Sam Mangwana adds Portuguese lyrics to "Minha Querida," a song that demonstrates the fine laid-back African rumba style that has been popular for forty years. The set closes with a cool version of Beny More's classic "Yiri Yiri Bon."

THE VERY BEST OF 2001 (BMAS Production BMP002)

Sam Mangwana, "the carrier pigeon of soukous," might also be called "the Beny More of Africa" for his power and influence. He toured the USA in 2000 with both Syran Mbenza and Papa Noel on guitars. I read they played a stunning acoustic set at WOMAD in England, so things are looking good for Congolese music now that the discoid hegemony of Paris has been diminished. Sam's latest album is called THE VERY BEST OF 2001 so naturally I assumed it was a live recording from his tour. Other than the track listing there's no info on the outside of the CD so I was surprised to find it's a reissue of material recorded twenty years ago. Still I am not complaining, since all this rare material is new to CD. "Afrique-Antilles" from 1981 opens the set, with one of the greatest line-ups in all African music: Syran on lead guitar, Pablo Lubadika on rhythm and double-tracked on bass, Domingo Salsero on congas and drum kit, and Roger and Manga on brass. This track is of great importance for making the connection between Antillean and African music. Ryco Jazz had spent four years in Martinique in the late sixties and the roots of zouk also bore fruit in West and Central Africa. This souped-up beguine style is at the heart of the African All Stars tracks laid down in Lagos and Abidjan in the late seventies. There's a two-to-the-bar bass drum bonk, the bass guitar is picked finger style rather than plucked with the thumb, and instead of the old two-part song with a slow intro and then a fast seben, the music starts at a sustained tempo and doesn't waver. This style was apparently copped from listening to James Brown's extended single "There was a Time." But the band sat listening to the first tapes wondering if it was any good. (According to Dizzy Mandjeku, interviewed for Chris Stapleton and Chris May's book AFRICAN ROCK.)

Next to his cover of Groupe d'Olivera's "Maria Tebbo," Sam's greatest song is "Canta Moçambique," recorded in 1983 with Dizzy Mandjeku on guitar and Empompo Loway on sax. The lyrics (in Portuguese) are a paean to FRELIMO and the ongoing struggle that embroiled Mozambique from the revolution in 1964 to Independence in 1975. Again the laid-back groove belies the urgency of the message. (This group became Tiers Monde and released a few albums in the 80s. Empompo died in 1985 I believe.) The second half of this CD is drawn from those sessions and ends with "Marabenta" another cut from the CANTA MOÇAMBIQUE set. All in all this is one of the most satisfying Sam Mangwana albums, right up there with MARIA TEBBO and GEORGETTE ECKINS. It's self-published so it might be hard to find, but worth the effort.

RUMBA MUSIC (Celluloid 66928-2)

After a disappointing domestic release (ALADJI) a couple of years ago, and a drum-machine-backed greatest hits medley (MEGAMIX), Sam Mangwana returns to form with a fine album that, once again however, coasts on his past successes. While touring with Les Quatre Etoiles and former members of his 1980s super group, the Africa All Stars, Mangwana has polished his repertoire so his unmistakable voice soars over classics of the Zairean songbook, in the way that Sinatra coasted above the Nelson Riddle orchestra. Included here are two classics: Tino Barosa's 1961 hit "Jamais Kolonga," and the much-recorded "Afrika Mokili Mobimba" from the same era (redone in a salsa style). In addition to revisiting four of his own classics, Mangwana adds a couple of new songs; though one in Portuguese, "Minha Angola," is overly sentimental. The other seven songs are classics of the genre: slow rumba start with a brisk seben and a double-tempo jam for the "B" side.

Congolese section (including Live Shows) continues.