Bel, Bel…

M’Bilia Bel - Belissimo
M’Bilia Bel – Belissimo
M’Bilia Bel

Belissimo (Sterns AfricaTCD1098, 2004)

M’Bilia first came to prominence in the 1970s as vocal sidekick and wife of the top Zaïrean [Congolese] singer Tabu Ley. Her soft-touch vocal style, which skips and trips over the smooth rumba/soukous rhythm, was in superb counterpoint to Ley’s. She made a string of albums both with Ley and solo, backed by L’Afrisa International. Of these, Boya Ye (also released in the UK & US by Sterns) is possibly the most popular, though it’s run a close second by her final Ley-related release, Phénomène.

Belissimo finds M’Bilia teamed with another name to contend with from those heady 80s days of soukous – the guitarist, band leader, writer and arranger Souzy Kasseya. For this reviewer’s money Kasseya was behind some of the finest grooving soukous of the period, including the huge hit (released on
Earthworks 12” in the UK) ‘Le téléphone sonne.’His super-fine languorous guitar
style oils the wheels of this fabulously fluid sound and the tumbling notes
cascading effortlessly from his fingers drive the band which builds a solid base
for Bel’s vocalizing.

The set starts gently with the Kasseya-penned (he writes/co-writes 8 out of
the 10 cuts here) ‘Lovango’, this tune builds into a powerful sébène
(faster-paced section) which shows that M’Bilia’s voice has lost none of its
subtlety and potency. A cool version of Lutumba ‘le poet’ Simaro’s ‘Bombole
Motema’ follows and she’s into her stride.

Most of the album sits comfortably around the mid-pace zone, M’Bilia & Souzy have obviously decided not to pull any punches on their adoring fans around the world. High spots include the typically Kasseya song, based on aMmutuashi rhythm from eastern Congo, ‘Eeeeeh Djo’. Sweat breaks out on the brow as the mi-solo picks its way through the sinuous beats and the real sound of the central African pop powerhouse comes to the fore.

Elsewhere, ballads like the title track, complete with 60s-style flute accompaniment, ‘My Life’ and the very zouk-flavored ‘Sentimental Night’ reveal one of M’Bilia’s staples, the sort of close-dancing shuffle we’ve always associated with her many album releases.

Bel is on form here, as is her accomplice, and the band, who include guitarist Dally Kimoko, percussionist Koumba Bellow and a guest vocal appearance from Malian diva Kandia Kouyate (on ‘Droit à l’amour’), cook nicely from start to finish.

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