Known as “The Doctor,” Remmy Ongala was based in Dar es Salaam with his band Orchestre Super Matimila. In Tanzania, Remmy’s popularity amongst the people particularly the young was unrivalled – only the President was better known.
The steady melodic drive of Congolese-style soukous was at the root of Matimila’s music lifted by the fluid East African guitar style and infectious Tanzanian rhythms. The music had a broad spacious quality with hints of Latin and Caribbean influence. Above this soared the rich soulful vocals of Remmy Ongala.
Remmy’s aim was to make people dance but also to make them think. The voice of the Tanzanian artist always had something politically astute or deeply philosophical to say. His concerns were rooted in both the daily life of Dar es Salaam and politics on a global scale. By introducing English lyrics he widened his potential audience yet further.
As he said ‘I am successful in Tanzania because I write songs about serious topics; my music is known as Ubongo Beat because in Swahili ubongo means brain and my music is heavy thinking music.’
Remmy Ongala died on December 13, 2010 in Dar es Salaam.
Siama Matuzungidi was deeply influenced by the soukous music of rural DR Congo (then known as Zaire) during his youth. He grew up in the Bakongo region, immersed in local traditions of music, storytelling and dance. He taught himself to play guitar at age 12, and later joined the band Cavacha in Kinshasa. He then moved on to Uganda and onward to Kenya; his later homes were in Dubai and Japan, and he is now based in Minneapolis.
Siama would go on to play with a range of soukous greats: Tshala Muana, Sam Mangwana, Kanda Bongoman, Samba Mapangala, Moreno, Lovy Longomba and more). In 2014, he received a McKnight Fellowship for Performing Musicians, and launched a solo career. His album ‘Rivers: From the Congo to the Mississippi’ was released in May 2016. Siama joins us in this interview on his extraordinary musical journey, influences and collaborations.
Q: From DRC to Minnesota – that has been a long and winding journey! What has inspired you, and what have been the challenges?
A: Music makes me feel good and I feel like I’m gifted to make people happy when they hear my music. But when I compose a new song it’s hard to know when it’s ready to let people hear it!
Q: Who would you say are the leading influences in your musical career?
A: I first taught myself guitar by playing along with big soukous artists like Franco and Tabu Ley on the radio. While I was living in Kenya in the 1980s, George Benson became a big influence and still is. I was so honored he came to our gig while I was living in Japan (with Ibeba System band) and he sat in with the band. Joe Pass made me love guitar more too.
Q: Who are some of the musicians you collaborate with the most, and how did these relationships get formed?
A: I really enjoy collaborating with musicians who play different styles because it makes me think in a different way. It’s a good challenge. One of my favorite collaborators is Nirmala Rajasekar, a veena virtuoso from South India. Her style of playing and singing is so different from mine but fits with my style so well, and she likes to experiment like I do. We first played together when Steve Kaul invited me to share a night at a world music venue. We composed a song on the stage and it felt like magic.
I play a lot with Mikkel Beckmen too. We met during the show with Nirmala. Mikkel plays washboard and other American traditional instruments which fit really well when I play my music on acoustic guitar. We wanted to perform at folk venues so he came up with the name, “Siama’s Afrobilly” for our trio (with Dallas Johnson) because the name describes the bridge between American and Congolese traditional music.
Dallas Johnson is a singer who co-produced my new record and introduced me to many of the musicians who played on it. Dallas and I met in 1995 when we both had just moved to Minneapolis and were in the same band. She has two original jazz CDs available online and now we write songs and perform together. She helped me start my solo career in 2014 and quit her job last summer to work with me full time. We got married in October and we get to do a lot of fun music projects together.
Q: Who are some of the musicians you have collaborated with for your new album?
A: My new record features collaborations with many musicians who play different styles. The core band (Greg Schutte, Tony Axtell and Brian Ziemniak) plays jazz and jazz-funk and the record also features pedal steel player Joe Savage, gospel singer J.D. Steele, cellist Jacqueline Ultan, world percussionist Tim O’Keefe, versatile guitarists Zacc Harris and Steve Kaul, trumpeter Bobby Jay Marks, jazz singer Dallas Johnson, veena virtuoso and singer Nirmala Rajasekar from South Indian Carnatic traditions, and Tibetan master multi-instrumentalist Tenzin Ngawang.
I could have invited a hundred more because there are so many musicians I love playing with. It makes me want to live a long time so I can try everything.
Q: What are some of the challenges in interpreting traditional folk music with modern instruments and style?
A: Traditional music from home was played with thumb piano, likembe and rhythm instruments. When I play traditional style songs with electric instruments the main thing that has to be right is the rhythm and the challenge is to play guitar chords that give a sense of the way traditional instruments sound.
I play around with the notes and picking a lot until it reminds me of home. Growing up, we called traditional music, “old people music” but the more I learn other styles and the more I travel the more I appreciate how much traditional music from DR Congo has influenced music all over the world.
Q: How are you able to do ‘fusion’ of different styles and instruments without ‘confusion?
A: The most important thing is picking musicians who are really talented and open minded. It takes courage and experience and each musician has to really listen and give each other room and be open to the moment.
In the studio, I told the musicians to be free and have fun and find themselves in my music. I didn’t want them to play what they thought I wanted to hear. We recorded all 12 songs in two afternoons. They’d learn the progression of a song, play it through once or twice and we’d record. Almost all of the songs were only second take. Back in Africa we’d record an album in one day, live to two-track. I wanted this record to feel live like that and we didn’t do much overdubbing so there’s more feeling in it.
I give our engineer and co-producer Steve Kaul a lot of credit because with so many really great tracks it was a big challenge to mix the record in a way that featured guest collaborators but kept the songs simple and open. When listening to one of the songs before mixing began, one of the musicians said, “You’re gonna have a job mixing that bowl of noodles!”. Steve was a master at that and he had such great ideas for the songs and the mixes. I owe him a lot.
Q: How long were you working on the album Rivers?
A: We recorded the main tracks in November, added special guests and vocals in January and March and did most of the mixing in April – so six months on and off. We’d do a few days, then take a break, do more, take a break. We did it that way because I wanted it to feel natural and not forced.
Q: What is your next album about?
A: [laughing] I don’t know yet. I’m busy promoting this one now. The feeling will come when it’s ready. Actually, Dallas Johnson and I have started writing some kids’ songs so that will be my next project, maybe during the winter. We love playing music with kids.
Q: The tracks Jungle Zombie, Sisilli, and Maisha Mazuri are fabulous please tell us how you composed them!
A: The 6/8 rhythm in Jungle Zombie is used in almost every traditional song back home. I was playing around with some chords on my guitar and imagining hearing that beat and the sound reminded me of people waking up in the morning and walking through the bush to get food at the farm. That’s why I wrote it in my mother’s language Kikongo when I sing, “Bring me water. bring me food.”
Sisili was the second song I composed in my life. I wrote it for my girlfriend Sisili, just as a love song for her. The melody came first and the words and chord progression came in a natural way. In the studio, Moni Mambo asked if any musicians had a new song so I played Sisili. He loved it and it became a big hit. The bad thing was Sisili’s dad didn’t want her dating a musician so he took her out of town and we never saw each other again.
Our sweet friend Krista moved in with us while she was very sick. I would sit quietly with her and play guitar to help her relax and the chords to Maisha Mazuri came to me during that time. She loved it and always asked me to play it for her. Even though she was facing so much pain she would invite her mom and her friends to hang out with her, meditate with her, make her healthy food and make her laugh. It was so inspiring to see how much she loved life so I wrote the lyrics for her. (“Beautiful life. Drink it up. No one knows about tomorrow but today is for us to live.”)
Q: How would you describe your musical journey?
A: It’s been fun! I’ve met so many people I wouldn’t have met if I wasn’t a musician. I would’ve been stuck in an office and I wouldn’t know why I was so bored and not happy. Music is so fun and inspiring. It makes people get along and enjoy life so much. Music is a great way to make friends with good people.
Q: Where do you see yourself headed in the next 10-15 years?
A: I want to be somewhere by the sea, relaxing without worries and of course I want to play music forever. Most of my life I played music every day but never made much money. I started my solo career in 2014 and things have been going great. I’m hoping this can keep growing so I can travel and collaborate with musicians and make friends around the world.
Q: Which are your favorite musical festivals, and what makes them so special?
A: I love the Winnipeg Folk Festival and the American Folk Festival because the musicians are so talented and you can hear so many styles so it’s inspiring. There are so many great music festivals here in MN during the summer. I’m really looking forward to the Lowertown Guitar Festival in August.
Q: What are some unusual reactions you have got during your live performances?
A: Sometimes people come to me in tears saying my music is a healing cure for their soul.
Q: Do you also teach workshops for students/musicians?
A: Yes, I teach songwriting, guitar and rhythm. I’d like to do more of this because I love helping people learn. They say I make it fun and inviting.
Q: What have been some of your collaborations with musicians from Asia?
A: I already described playing with Nirmala. I also love playing with my Tibetan friend Tenzin Ngawang. He is a master musician and singer who’s so creative and has such a big heart too. He seems shy but then he opens his mouth to sing and he surprises people with his big sound. He plays a dranyen (Tibetan lute) so it’s fun to play with another stringed instrument and fun to compose together because he brings different ideas I wouldn’t think of.
Q: What kinds of social and political messages have been conveyed in your recent albums?
A: My music is mostly a message about love and happiness, not politics. Everybody has a different purpose. Mine is to share love and make people happy.
Q: What is your message to the musicians and artistes of the world in this age of globalisation and also conflict?
A: Let’s create more positive music so negativity doesn’t make us forget the good things in life. Art and music are very important.
Born in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and raised in the UK, Robert Maseko is part of the new wave of Central African artists who are re-interpreting hip-swinging Congolese soukous music.
With his band the Congo Beat he has gone back to the rumba roots that so entranced Africa and added touches of reggae, flamenco, tango, merengue and zouk.
Elegant vocals, sizzling guitar and rumba propelled bass lines explore the deep roots of Afrobeat and the connections between African, Cuban and Caribbean music. “Congo has got plenty of clashes in it tradition and cultural rhythm where is rare for me to run out of beat and compositions it just flows out no stop, the gift every child has got is own – I love music,” Maseko says
His lyrics are written in Lingala, Swahili, French and English, accommodating the diversity and versatility audience.
Robert aims to promote African music, African literature and cultural diversity and understanding through his Drumming 4 Diversity project. Workshops include African drumming and music using ngoma, jembes, talking drum, marimba, xylophone and other instruments; African Literature using ancient African methods of story telling, poetry, dance and masks.
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.
Faux Pas (1983)
Loyenghe (Genidia, 1984) Boya Ye (Genidia, 1984)
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)
African Fiesta was a Congolese soukous group started by Tabu Ley Rochereau and Dr. Nico in 1963. Tabu Ley left the group in 1965 to form his own group, African Fiesta National. Sam Mangwana was also a member of African Fiesta until he left to join the new African Fiesta National.
Affro-Muzika played soukous music. Led by Congolese singer-dancer-composer Shimita El Diego and fiery electric guitarist Nene Tchakou, the group included a dance crowd-friendly rhythm section as well as two onstage dancers, Aminatha and Judith. While Shimita and Nene both grew up in the bubbling early years of soukous in their Congo homeland and later developed it in Paris, the group’s album Rumba-Soukous was recorded in Berkeley and issued in the United States by Sunnyvale’s Cassava Records.
Singer-composer Shimita El Diego (born Lukombo Nzambe) was influenced by such African musical pioneers as Tabu Ley Rochereau and Joseph Kabasele, and during the 1980s collaborated with some of the seminal Zairean bands in the early years of soukous, then moved to Paris as soukous took hold there. He sang in the popular band Le Grand Zaiko, co-founded the Soukous Stars, and is the lead vocalist on one of the biggest soukous hit record, Lagos Night.
Soukous is a Congolese style that combines Afro-Cuban rumba rhythms with African jazz and dance, all anchored by insistent electric guitar patterns. It is sung in a number of Congolese languages as well as Spanish.
Soukous flourished in clubs and bars in Kinshasa and quickly spread throughout Africa, then to Paris where Shimita relocated in 1988, where he and guitarist Nene Tchakou helped pioneer the African-pop music explosion in Europe. The two musicians created Affro-Muzika, where dance rhythms are the bottom line, while Shimita sings original songs in Yoruba, Fantik, Ibo, Ashanti and Swahili.
Adam Solomon is a 2005 Juno Award winner in the World Music Album category. Adam was born in Mombasa, Kenya, and began performing at an early age, playing kivoti (flute) and Kayaamba (shaker) at village celebrations and festivals. He established his career playing lead guitar and singing on recordings and videos with Kenya’s most popular bands and musicians, such as Joseph Kamaru, Professor M.B Naaman and the Nine Stars Orchestra, Super Wanyika Stars of Issa Juma, Lessa Lessan vocalist of Dr.Nico, Super Mazembe ya Mushosho, Kanda Bongo Man and Mombasa Roots band.
Adam formed his band Tikisa in 1995. Retaining his roots in traditional music, Adam’s compositions are comprised of a wide variety of African rhythms, from traditional chela, highlife, soukous, reggae, and samba to bossa nova and traditional 6/8 beat chakacha. Adam sings in six languages: Swahili, English, Lingala, Duruma, Giriama, and Arabic. “The Professor,” as he is known in musical circles, is highly respected as a lead guitarist and vocalist. In addition, he is experienced as a bass and rhythm guitar player and keyboard player. Adam Solomon & Tikisa have performed across Canada and the US in clubs and major festivals.
Adam Solomon was a co-founder of Canada’s great pan-African band, The AfroNubians, with whom he toured western Canada in 1993 collaborated on two CD releases: Tour to Africa and The Great Africans. His touring credits also include workshops with African super stars Papa Wemba from Congo and Ismael Lo from Senegal.
Like Dakar, Bamako, or Nairobi, Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), is one Africa’s great cities for music and has been for some time. Some would argue that Kinshasa has eclipsed the other cities in terms of producing music that has dominated all of subsaharan Africa. It is debatable. One photographer Jean Depara spent an entire lifetime participating and photographing Kinshasa’s night life and urbanity, leaving behind him brilliant photographs that illustrate the gourmand consumption of Congolese rumba in Kinsasha and the world of emotions that propelled the rise of the musical powerhouse soukous.
Jean Depara was born in Angola but made a name for his self as a photographer in DRC. He focused Kinshasa’s nightlife from the 1950’s to the 1970’s, when he became an official parliamentary reporter in 1975. At the heyday of Depara’s career, around the time and right after “Les Independances” or when African nation states became independent, the great name in DRCongolese music was Franco. Franco, short for Francois Luambo Makiadi, like many other African musicians, was first well known for playing in an orchestra that fused Afro Latin American and African rhythms, OK Jazz.
Cuban rhythms were especially beloved in many African cities and it was the case in at first the Belgian Congo and then in the many names that the DRC has gone by where a Congolese rumba was developed. Franco not only played a terrific guitar but was also an incredible vocalist. He was the king of songs that hid messages and often political messages. OK Jazz would go on to develop into TPOK Jazz and become one of the country’s major figures in the soukous movement and dominate the music of subsaharan Africa in general. It would soon be globally recognized.
In 1954, Depara became Franco’s official photographer. He was granted access to the life that fed Franco’s music. TOPK Jazz’s only real rival was Grand Kalle et L’African Jazz who were well known for the phenomenal “Independance cha cha cha,” though Zaiko Langa Langa and Tabu Ley Rochereau were as well known on the music scene though not as well loved. They all thrilled Kinsasha. In addition to Franco’s TPOK Jazz and its rivals, there were many other groups. DRCongolese groups were the major acts of subsaharan African music of the time both in terms of popularity and critical acclaim.
Depara’s subjects were often under strain though it does not seem to be the case. As Latin-African fusion and eventually soukous made their way into DRCongolese hearts, DRCongo’s politics began to know its highs and lows. The much loved Prime minister Patrice Lumumba was violently followed by Kasavubu and then violently by the dictator Mobutu Sese Soko in 1965 until 1997.
By the beginning of Mobutu’s reigns, DRCongo’s great orchestra and Kinshasa’s nightlife were already in existence. With Mobutu came a time of general absurdity that included both harsh dictatorship but also a campaign of authenticity and of pride in one’s own history. The DRCongolese people, for some time renamed Zaire by Mobutu, lived to the rhythm of daily national life imposed by Mobutu Sese Soko as much as they did to Soukous and their other musical rhythms. The people of Kinshasa’s continuing to attend nightclubs and their living along to DRCongolese’s many musical rhythms created the sort of life that fed soukous and the songs of Franco.
Jean Depara captured the emotion in Kinshasa’s living that came from cultural glory and from political doubt; the living that fed music’s brilliance and perpetuity.
headline photo: Congolese rumba master Franco – Photo by Jean Depara
Your Connection to traditional and contemporary World Music including folk, roots and various types of global fusion