There are centuries-old ties that bind the Congo and Cuba, dance steps that swayed from central Africa to the Caribbean and back again. The story of Congolese guitarist Papa Noel and his latest African-Cuban collaboration, Café Noir (Tumi Music), is the latest word in a long and fruitful cultural conversation spanning the Atlantic.
“Bana Congo is a mission for Papa Noel,” explains Tumi Music producer Mo Fini. “I recall when I took him to Cuba for the first time some seven years ago. As he walked the streets of Havana he cried and cried, saying that when he was young his mother used to play Cuban songs to him, and this was like coming home again.”
In the 1930s, Cuban sounds took the Belgian Congo by storm. The rhythms of the rumba, originating in a Congolese dance brought by slaves to the island long before, were delightfully, eerily familiar to Congolese musicians and dancers. Imported records inspired a new generation of musicians to explore the Cuban transformation of their ancestors’ songs, creating what became known as rumba congo, a musical form that hit a nerve throughout Africa.
At first, bands played tunes they learned from Cuban recordings, sometimes inventing Spanish-sounding lyrics, but soon they crafted their own original songs with words in the local language of Lingala or in French. Against the backdrop of colonialism and dictatorship, their music assumed a truly African flair and started a musical craze that soon spread across the Congo and beyond.
Seventy-eights of Cuban son and Congolese rumba spun on many a prized phonograph player around Léopoldville, now Kinshasa, including the turntable at the home of the young Nedule Montswet, later known as Papa Noel thanks to his Christmas birthday. Noel listened from an early age to his mother’s record collection, which featured Congolese rumba greats like Antoine Wendo, whose songs were believed by some fans to have magical powers.
"I was very lucky that I had all these amazing ‘babysitters,’” Noel mused in a 2002 interview with Jane Cornwall for Jazzwise Magazine. “I mean, Wendo's  song ‘Maria Louise’ was held to be so powerful it could raise the dead! I couldn't help but be inspired by these musicians. They were the first epoch of a particular style of Congolese rumba."
Noel became an apprentice of sorts to the legendary musicians of this first generation of rumba congo players. After years of absorbing Cuban and Congolese sounds, Noel taught himself to play the guitar when his mother encouraged him to pursue his passion for music. Meanwhile, a tide of talented young musicians had gathered in 1950s Léopoldville, replacing the trés and piano parts found in their favorite Cuban songs with the guitar and infusing the new music with African jazz sensibilities. Noel began to hang around studios where musicians like Wendo recorded, learning the ropes and deepening his self-guided education in rumba congo.