Kekele is a collective of legendary Congolese musicians revitalizing the Congolese rumba of the golden age artists such as OK Jazz, Ry-Co Jazz, or Les Bantous de la Capitale. Their music is an old-school version of Congolese rumba: classic, relaxed, with great acoustic guitar interplay and sweet vocals. In a way comparable to what Buena Vista Social Club was for Cuban music, but much less a well-planned marketing project, Kekele started as a loose ensemble, a revival that had its prelude in a couple of rumba albums of the 1990s by Mose Se Fan Fan and Wendo Kolosy. A true supergroup, the member list of Kekele reads as a who-is-who in Congolese rumba music.
Kekele is a Lingala word for a fibrous vine that climbs trees in the tropical forests of the Congo River basin. Ropes woven from Kekele are still used in some places to build bridges across forest streams. By calling their group Kekele, then, perhaps, Papa Noel, Syran Mbenza, Wuta-Mayi, Nyboma Mwan Dido, Jean-Papy Ramazani, Loko Massengo, Bumba Massa and Yves Ndjock are thinking of their long career paths as strands woven together to make something strong, something that spans divisions – geography, generations, genres – and allows musicians to continue on their journey, and to return home to their musical origins: Congolese Rumba.
The golden era for Rumba Congolaise – an irresistible mix of Cuban rumba and African rhythms – was in the sixties, when it reflected the optimism of the newly independent African nations. Kekele has succeeded in bringing this sound back to life, featuring many of the musicians from the classic orchestras of that era. Enchanting vocals, vivacious rhythms and spellbinding guitar-based dance make the Congolese Rumba totally uplifting and joyous. This is the classic Congo sound before the rhythmic intensity of soukous overpowered its subtlety.
In Congolese terms, this is a “supergroup,” comprised of true luminaries. Both singers, Bumba Massa and Loko Massengo, have careers dating back to the ’60s, while the rest of the vocal contingent were founders of the soukous group “Les Quatre etoiles” in the ’80s, and lead guitarist Papa Noel has a pedigree going back to his days as instrumental foil for the late great Franco.
Qualifications simply don’t come any higher. While many of the performers had worked together in different combinations before, and obviously knew each other through the burgeoning Paris world music scene, in most cases they’d never recorded together, although Mayi and Noel had released a duet album in the mid-1990s.
It had been a long time since the musical climate had been open to the throwback style of Congolese rumba where they had started their musical careers. Gentle and laid back, it had been superseded by the more frantic and danceable soukous, which had given everyone a living. However, the time had come for a revival. Kekele had never thought of it that way; it wasn’t a calculated commercial enterprise. The idea for a band – or at least a record – came together slowly, over casual jam sessions at apartments and houses in 1999. The material which would form their debut disc, Rumba Congo, came from those times, established slowly, out of love and a return to roots. When they were finally ready to commit their sound to tape, they teamed up with another veteran, Ivory Coast-based producer, Ibrahim Sylla. In 2001, Kekele released their first album.
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.