Artist Profiles: M’bilia Bel

 M'bilia Bel
M’bilia Bel

Soukous singer M’bilia Bel, known as the Queen of Congolese rumba, was born in 1959 and brought up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. M’bilia Bel became successful in the early 1980s when she recorded and toured with Tabu Ley Rochereau, and made her own solo albums.

The birth of her first child prompted her to take a break from performing, however, and after a last album with Tabu Ley in 1987, she moved to Paris. There she started working with guitarist Rigo Star, and between 1989 and 1990 she went on tour to the United States of America, the United Kingdom, and West Africa.

With a combination of beauty, an angelic soprano voice, and tremendous agility on stage, M’bilia Bel stole the hearts of music fans all over the continent. She was Africa’s first female transcontinental diva. She became the first female musician from Africa who could claim popularity all over the entire continent and beyond. In fact, one could argue that there has not been any female musician from Africa who has captured the imagination of music fans across the continent as much as M’bilia Bel did in the eighties. South African Miriam Makeba, known as Mama Afrika, popularity peaked in the 1960s but could not attract as many fans as M’bilia Bel did later.

M’bilia Bel began her performing career at the age of seventeen singing backup for Abeti Masikini and later with Sam Mangwana. She burst into the music scene when she joined Tabu Ley’s Afrisa International in 1981. The duo of Tabu ley and M’bilia Bel was an instant hit. The combination of Tabu Ley’s composing genius and Mbilia Bel’s heavenly voice resulted in high sales of Afrisa records.

Her first album, released in 1983, was the extremely popular Eswi yo wapi, which roughly translates to “Where did it hurt you?”, composed by both Tabu Ley and M’bilia Bel. The song won the award for the best song of 1983 in Zaire, and M’bilia Bel won the award for best new performer.

Thanks to M’bilia Bel, the popularity of Afrisa International was soaring. Even songs that did not feature M’bilia Bel were receiving more exposure. The stranglehold that Franco’s TP OK Jazz had held in the music scene was now being loosened, as Afrisa could now match TP OK Jazz in popularity and record sales, thanks to the arrival of this new sensation who was now being referred to as the African tigress.

Concerts of Afrisa were now a huge draw. M’bilia Bel was always the main attraction, and when she made an appearance, the crowds often went into a frenzy. She was a talented stage performer and often tantalized crowds with her exceptional dancing ability when she would join the Rocherreautes (dancers) in their dance routine.

By the mid-eighties, Mbilia bel had officially married Tabu Ley and was a refined and mature performer. Her songs continued to dominate the scene. Among them was “Mobali na ngai wana”, which roughly translates to “This Husband of Mine”. The song was composed by Tabu Ley and Roger Izeidi and is an adaptation of a traditional song in Kikongo. In the song, M’bilia Bel praises her husband as being handsome and successful and stresses the fact that even though he has the opportunity to choose from any of Kinshasa’s beautiful women, he chose her. Other songs that blazed the charts during that period include “Balle a terre” and “Bameli soy”.

In 1987 Tabu Ley recruited another female artiste to accompany M’bilia Bel. Kishila Ngoyi was here real name, but she was known by her artistic name, Faya Tess. It was with this new lineup that Afrisa embarked on a tour of East Africa that took in Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda, culminating in the album Nadina, which had Lingala and Swahili versions of the title song.

M’bilia Bel quit the band late in 1987 to embark on a solo career. She briefly joined with a Gabonese producer in Libreville before leaving for Paris where she joined with guitarist Rigo Starr Bamundele. Her first album with Rigo Starr was entitled “Phénomène” and was a huge success in Kinshasa as well as abroad. Subsequent releases such as Yalowa, Desolé and Exploration have met with limited success.

Following the departure of M’bilia Bel, the popularity of Afrisa International as a band plummeted substantially. Tabu Ley himself seemed to lose inspiration for composing as is evidenced by the substantial reduction in the number of albums released. With the exception of her debut album, Phénomène, Mbilia Bel’s career also took on a downward spiral when she left Afriza.

Discography:

Faux Pas (1983)
Loyenghe (Genidia, 1984)
Boya Ye (Genidia, 1984)
Keyna (1985)
Ba Gerants Ya Mabala Paka Wewe (1985)
Beyanga (Genidia, 1986)
Contre Ma Volonte (1987)
Phénoméne (1988)
Bameli Soy (Shanachie, 1991)
Désolé (Celluloid, 1991)
Ironie, with Rigo Star (Celluloid, 1993)
Yalowa (1997)
Exploration (Terrascape, 1997)
Benedicta (Sonodisc, 1999)
Welcome (Syllart, 2001)
Boya Ye (2003)
Belissimo (Sterns Africa, 2004)
Bel Canto: Best of the Genidia Years (Congo Classics 1982-1987) (Sterns Africa, 2007)
Queen (2011)

Author: Angel Romero

Angel Romero y Ruiz has been writing about world music and progressive music for many years. He founded the websites worldmusiccentral.org and musicasdelmundo.com. Angel produced several specials for Metropolis (TVE) and co-produced “Musica NA”, a music show for Televisión Española (TVE) in Spain that featured an eclectic mix of world music, fusion, electronica, new age and contemporary classical music. Angel also produced and remastered world music and electronic music albums, compilations and boxed sets for Alula Records, Ellipsis Arts, Music of the World, Lektronic Soundscapes, and Mindchild Records. Angel is currently based in Durham, North Carolina.

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