by Susan Budig
The man seems made for music, starting at the tender age of 5,
Rodino, as he is now known, first performed in a local Baptist church in his
homeland of Zaire. Eventually, he and his brother joined a musical group, Agito.
During high school, along with his Uncle Bodjos they formed a band called Igazi
and played in the Lac Tamba and Mbandaka areas. After high school, Rodino went
to a big city, and joined a band.
But there was an obstacle in front of him. Because his father, Jacque Ngando,
composer, musician, and choir director, who was also a strict Baptist, had
forbidden Rodino from performing, “the band got tired of me practicing with
them, but not performing, so they replaced me with someone else.” Rodino chose to respect his father. As Rodino tells it, “My family didn’t
want me to do this music. I grew up in a really conservative Baptist family.
That’s the problem. My father didn’t like that dancing. But growing up, I liked
to dance. It’s in my blood. It was a big, big, big problem. But I had to respect
my father.” Mixed into Rodino’s need to be respectful was his compelling
desire to create music and dance. This put him at odds with his father as well
as his own principles.
After a jaunt through Europe, Rodino went west. “I love traveling,” he
says, but, “I didn’t know the language, I spoke only French.” Enroute to
Minnesota, while in Chicago, “I missed the connecting flight after
immigration. All the signs were in English. That was a little scary.” But
with the help of some friendly airline employees, Rodino managed to get to
Minneapolis. He studied political science for two years at Normandale Community
College, finishing his B.A. at the University of Minnesota.
In 1988, after joining a local Presbyterian Church choir, he was involved in a
life threatening motorcycle accident. Rodino spent a year recovering from the
injuries. “I spent four days in a coma and two months in rehabilitation, then
a year at home in my apartment…so for two years, I didn’t contact my family, I
didn’t want them to worry about the accident. My mom would have freaked out.
But, at that time, there were political problems in Zaire and the mail was
sporadic. So I used that as my excuse for not writing.”
Rodino filled this time of solitude and relative inactivity with lots of
reflective soul searching. “Lying in bed for a year, watching videos and
music, I felt I had to do something that I loved to do, that I felt free to do.
So I started writing songs, putting music together. But I knew I could not do
this without my father’s approval. I was here, they were there, I could do what
I wanted, be a big star, but I couldn’t follow that dream with respect to the
way I was raised. I needed my father’s approval. And if my father said, ‘no’ I
wouldn’t do it.” Rodino confides.
Respect is something Rodino saw as a big cultural change when he immigrated
to the US from Zaire in 1987. “Culture-wise, everything is different. How
people live, especially how families live. It’s different how people raise their
kids. People misuse their freedoms; they take advantage of their freedom,”
However, Rodino seeks to retain the values he grew up with. His music pays
respect to the traditional sounds of his homeland. Rather than abandon the
established tone of Congo, Rodino has incorporated it into his music, creating
his own sound.
In Rodino’s Congo band, Top Muzica, there are 36 musicians, men from their
60s to as young as 12 years old. They only use percussive instruments and
vocals. Their clothing is animal skins covering the lower half of their bodies
and symbolic painting from their waists to their faces. This helps to give the
audience the full flavor of the experience of hearing the original music. “The
singing (of the Congo band) is more traditional, as our ancestor used to do it,”
The US version of Top Muzica, with fewer members, still uses traditional and
contemporary music in their repertoire. Their clothing is of a more present-day
theme, though still pulling threads from their homeland.
It was an emotional scene in Localite de Ntondo zone de Bikoro, in the Republic
of Congo when Rodino returned to talk to his father. “He didn’t think I could
write my music in the traditional ways of movement and meaning, and in keeping
with traditional melody and the rhythm. I called him when I first practiced with
my band back home. When my father came and saw me practice with these people. He
couldn’t believe it…how I organized it. He was so excited because I kept
traditional inside my band, but then he heard it. He was crying when he saw all
that I had going on.”
Testing out the waters, Rodino formed Ameza, along with two friends. After
the band’s break-up a year later, he began singing with the bands Shalita and
Miller. During this time, Rodino also helped Zairian performers such as General
Defao, Soukous Star, Tabu Ley, and Pepe Kale with their entrances into the
United States. He also had the opportunity to perform with Kanda Bongo Man and
it was at this time that Rodin Rodino’s stage name was created.
Now, armed with musical experience, knowledge, and zeal and sealed with the
crucial blessing of his father, Rodino has officially gone international,
performing with his band worldwide. With the release of his debut CD, Ram
Memoire, Rodino hopes to share his view of African music with others.
Another dimension of Rodino’s music, beyond the time-honored rhythms and strong
use of percussive instruments, is the traditional dance. “I can say in
Africa, the Zairian are the only ones who provide this kind of dance through the
whole of Africa. We dance with the hip a lot.” Rodino expounds on the impact of
Zairian dance. “Cubans dance a lot with the hip and Cuban music comes from
Congo. So you see we are really related, and if you listen to the guitar player
from South America they also have the same kind of rhythm in the guitar. As we
say, rumba, we call this rumba and soukous.” Rodino explains.
Rodino’s band, here in the United States, uses Rodino’s original songs with
traditional music. And every African band has, says Rodino, its own rhythm, it’s
own dance. Congo hosts a music awards festival every year and it is there that a
contest to chose the best dance of the various band is held. “At the end of
the year there is a contest of the best dance, the crowd chooses the best
dancing. The dance that Top Muzica is dancing these past couple years …I’m sure
that by the end of this (2004) year, there will be a new dance.”
Additional articles about Rodino:
– Budig, Susan. Sunday, April 18 2004. World Music
Rodin Rodino, Music from the Congo