Rumba Congo. That was the title of Kékélé’s debut album. The term had never gained wide currency outside of Africa and hadn’t been used much for quite a few years even there. So when Kékélé’s CD was released to much interest and acclaim in 2000, people wondered, “Rumba is Cuban music, so what’s Rumba Congo?” The question was posed to members of the Congolese group, who answered that rumba is Congolese music too, and always has been. From this first album to their latest release, Kinavana (Stern’s Africa), Kékélé highlights and emphasizes the rich Cuban-Congolese cultural connections. Their 2006 tour will give listeners a chance to hear the group’s latest tribute to rumba congo’s Cuban roots, along with Kékélé’s elegant originals in the unmistakable Congolese style.
As singer Nyboma Mwan’dido explained to students at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire on a tour stop there, the word rumba derives from nkumba, which means “waist” in KiKongo and refers also to a social dance that joins couples at the waist. The word, the dance and its accompanying rhythms and songs survived, time and again throughout four centuries, the terrible passage from the coast of Central Africa to the Caribbean island of Cuba. The majority of enslaved Africans brought to Cuba came from the Congo region. As late as the 1870s (decades after the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade) slave ships still ran from the mouth of the Congo River to Matanzas and Havana – which meant that many Cubans living well into the 20th century were Bantu born in Central Africa. So of course Cuban music is full of Congolese elements: conga drums and marimbula keyboards, rhythms such as guaguancó and palo, and dances like mambo and rumba.
Graced with the Spanish r, the word “rumba” returned to the Congo region in the 20th century along with myriad new sounds engraved in Cuban phonograph records, first imported into the French Congo and the Belgian Congo in the 1930s. Congolese listeners were unfamiliar with the Spanish language and the Euro-American instruments, melodies and harmonies of Cuban songs, but they immediately recognized the rhythms and the way singers called and choruses responded. Here was their old music, they marveled, made new and given back to them as a novel product of the modern age. Much more than a fashionable import, Cuban music was what Congolese music had developed into, so people treated it with pride, as though they owned it, and took liberties with it, as was their right, because, after all, it was still theirs. Musicians in the twin cities of Léopoldville and Brazzaville were soon playing songs by Trio Matamoros, Sexteto Habanero and other Cuban groups of the era and also composing new songs in a quasi-Cuban style, which they generally called rumba, applying that word to a range of rhythms and styles. A decade later they started making their own records.
In the 50s just about all of the many professional bands that recorded in Brazzaville and Léopoldville (later renamed Kinshasa) played Cuban music to one degree or another. Some could have passed for Cuban conjuntos or orquestas if not for the Lingala laced into the imitation Spanish lyrics of their songs. Others relied on less-traveled local sounds and still others were more inventive (employing electric guitars in ways never heard in Cuba), but Cuban music was the standard. Everything else either led up to it or proceeded from it, and at which point Congolese music became Cuban or Cuban music became Congolese was impossible to tell. It was all rumba.
Rumba was the essential sound of the great Congolese bands of the 60s. Kallé Kabasele summed up both the sound and the spirit of the times in the title of his famous “Indépendence Cha Cha.” His band based its even more famous “African Jazz Mokili Mobimba” on an old Cuban son done up mambo-style, with Dr. Nico and his brother Dechaud playing the piano montuno parts on their electric guitars. The early O.K. Jazz repertoire was full of mambos, tcha-tcha-tchas and boleros – some original, some copied. In Franco’s percolator Eddie Palmieri’s “Café” became a local robustica brew. Les Bantous recorded “El Manicero,” renaming it “Mayeya.” Tabu Ley Rochereau wrote and sang many of his early songs in pseudo-Spanish. Sam Mangwana was the only notable Congolese singer who could actually speak some Spanish, and he imbued his vocal style with the accents and phrasings of Cuban singers like Beny Moré and New Yorkers like Tito Rodriguez.
Under the anti-Communist Mobutu regime Cuban records became scarce in Zaire (as Mobutu renamed the former Belgian Congo) and nationalist politics touted a jingoistic Zairean culture. Whether because of politics or through inevitable change, Congolese/Zairean music progressed in new directions, away from Cuba, in the 70s. Yet the Cuban influence never faded entirely. Every musician worth his mongwa had to be familiar with Cuban music if he was to make contemporary Zairean music with the right savor, the same way that beboppers had to know the swing standards and rockers the blues.
The veteran musicians of Kékélé all came up through the great bands of the 60s and 70s. Papa Noel’s illustrious career goes back to the 50s and the pioneering Congolese group Rock-a-Mambo. Les Bantous, O.K. Jazz, Cubana Jazz, Trio Madjesi, Bella-Bella, Tabu Ley’s Afrisa, Sam Mangwana’s African All-Stars: they all played Congo rumba and they all bred future members of Kékélé. Unlike some of their peers, however, these gentlemen never stopped playing rumba even when it became unfashionable. Papa Noel, Sam Mangwana and Quatre Étoiles were among a loose circle of musicians, including Dizzy Mandjeku, Fan-Fan SeSengo, Samba Mapangala and Ricardo Lemvo, who found the Zairean music of the 90s increasingly decadent and resolved to buck the trends and revive Congo rumba and its Cuban antecedents. Noel and Mangwana recorded and toured together in the late 90s, then Noel dueted with the Cuban singer and guitarist Adan Pedroso and at last went all the way to Cuba to make an album with Papi Oviedo. In 2000 Papa Noel, Loko Massengo, Bumba Massa and three of Quatre Étoiles’ “Four Stars” – Nyboma Mwan’dido, Wuta-Mayi and Syran Mbenza – formed Kékélé.
Along with a dozen new songs, Rumba Congo included a medley of Grand Kallé classics. An O.K. Jazz medley fit perfectly among the excellent original material in the group’s second album, Congo Life. Now, with Kinavana, Kékélé go way back. The entire album is an homage to Guillermo Portabales.
Unlike, for example, Arsenio Rodriguez, a first-generation Cuban whose parents came from Congo, Portabales was a descendant of Spanish peasants who had settled in rural Las Villas, Cuba, long before his birth in 1911. A guitarist and singer, he was best known to his compatriots for popularizing guajira – Cuban country music – in the island’s cities in the 1930s. When guajira became old hat in Havana, he sustained his career in Venezuela, Colombia, Mexico, Florida and Puerto Rico, performing sones, guarachas and boleros by songwriters such as Eliseo Grenet, Nico Saquito and Celia Romero in addition to his original guajiras. He died in 1970 (run over by a car on a street in La Isla Verde, Puerto Rico), probably unaware that his records were popular in Africa. But it makes sense that they were. For one thing, he was a guitarist, and Congolese rumba is fundamentally guitar music. For another, he favoured Afro-Cuban rhythms, however subtle, in even his most Spanish guajiras. But Congolese musicians and dancers had plenty of rhythms at their fingertips and feet; what most attracted them to Portabales were his melodies. With their echoes of old Spain, at once exotic and deeply resonant, they appealed to the Congolese nostalgia for a time and place that their ancestors had never known.
Kinavana comprises 12 songs that Portabales composed or recorded. In place of the original Spanish lyrics, the Kékélé singers have written new Lingala lyrics that are decidedly not translations from Spanish. (“BaKristo,” for example, is based on the music of “El Carretero,” but instead of telling a wagoner’s tale it denounces the efforts of evangelical churches in Africa to ban all music that is not Christian.) The arrangements are also new, devised by Syran Mbenza and Papa Noel (back with Kékélé after a hiatus forced by illness) with Nelson Hernandez, the Venezuelan arranger best known for his work with salsa stars like Celia Cruz and Oscar D’Leon. With charanga flutes and violins on some pieces, hot trumpet or funky saxophone solos on others, and Congolese guitars throughout, Kékélé’s sound is quite different from that of Portabales and his trios and quartets.
The music of Kinavana, like the title combining Kinshasa and Havana, is both Congolese and Cuban. Rumba cubano or rumba congo, it’s all rumba. And Kékélé has perfected this Congolese music with deep Cuban roots, reviving rumba congo's sensuous rhythms, graceful melodies and genial harmonies, and opening the ears of audiences worldwide.
- Ken Braun, acknowledging François-Xavier Gomez