Legends of Congolese music

By Kazadi Wa Mukuna

Meet some of the key figures who helped shape modern Congolese popular music.

Lutumba Simaro (b.1938), one of the legends of congolese music scene. www.coraliekiengeshow.com
Lutumba Simaro (b.1938), one of the legends of congolese music scene. www.coraliekiengeshow.com

Both local and foreign musicians have contributed to the definition and evolution of modern Congolese music. Among them, several have distinguished themselves and are today remembered as legends for their contribution to this genre of national urban music. The measurement of an individual musician as a legend is recognition of his/her talent as an artist, coupled with the commercial value of the recordings the artist has made and sold over the years and the frequency of his or her work on radio and TV.

This article is devoted to listing some of the legends of Congolese music. The selection and assessment process is often tainted by the author’s personal bias based on his knowledge and experience of urban music in DRC. This selection therefore does not claim to be exhaustive or conclusive. Some musicians may have been inadvertently omitted due to the author’s preference and admiration for other performers. These criteria include but are not limited to:

  1. Virtuosity - the ability to excel on a musical instrument,
  2. Orchestration and Instrumentation - the ability to organize instruments in an ensemble,
  3. Compositional technique - the ability to compose instrumental music or write lyrics,
  4. Harmonization - the ability to organize musical material,
  5. Vocalization - the ability to interpret melody vocally, and
  6. Social commentary - the ability to summarize a situation through song lyrics.

Due to space constraints, attention is given to two of the above categories, instrumental virtuosity and vocal interpretation.

Lwambo Makiadi (Franco)

One of the greatest guitar virtuosos of all time in modern Congolese music is Lwambo Makiadi Lokanga La Dju Pene Francois (1938-1989), also known as Franco, Yorgo or Grand Maitre. This versatile artist excelled in more than one category: he was an accomplished guitar player, vocalist, composer, improviser, and organizer. In addition to all these talents, Franco was accredited as one of two musicians who helped define the modern Congolese guitar style.

Two lead guitar players, Franco and Dr. Nico, established two stylistic schools, each identified by their name, ‘Franco School’ and ‘Nico School’. The difference between the two lies in the manner of playing melodies on the guitar, especially M during the interlude section of the composition. In the Franco School, melodies are played harmonically in parallel 6th, while in the Nico School the emphasis is placed on playing the melodic line without harmony. Today, Congolese bands are still largely divided into these two stylistic camps, according to the way the lead guitar treats melodic lines in the interlude section. The Nico School is dominated by bands of younger musicians, while in the Franco School those bands of the older generation constitute the majority.

In an interview conducted in Kinshasa (2009), guitarist Lutumba Simaro explained to me how he was obliged to fulfill the role of playing the mi-solo (rhythm guitar) in OK Jazz, with Franco on lead guitar: “We are in Franco School, that is to say the rhythm guitar player has to be capable to sustain and support the principal player. A mi-solo player adds and supplements melodic phrases composed by the lead guitar player.”[1]

Franco will always be remembered as one of the few musicians who were versatile and gifted as a lead guitarist, composer, vocalist and social commentator who was blessed with the ability to improvise verbally on any topic. Under his leadership, the Tout Puissant OK Jazz (the All Powerful OK Jazz band) became the ‘Academy of Congolese Modern Music’, where talented musicians tested their musicianship prior to becoming freelance session musicians, going solo or joining other ensembles.

Lutumba Domanueno Simaro (Simaro Masiya)

Lutumba Domanueno Simaro (b. 1938), also known as Simaro Masiya or le Poete, is an accomplished rhythm guitar/mi-solo player who joined the OK Jazz in 1961. His artistry was such that his style of playing became recognized as the only way of playing mi-solo, the standard for everyone to emulate. After the death of Franco in 1989 and the demise of OK Jazz, Lutumba and some of his colleagues created a new band called Bana OK (Children of OK) in 1994. Lutumba continues to take the leadership role and play his rhythm guitar/mi-solo[2]. He described to me the role of the mi-solo player in the OK Jazz ensemble and how he maintained the relationship with Franco on lead guitar:

The role of the mi-solo is to sustain the lead guitar player ... I left the role of rhythm guitar player and joined the lead guitar player. This is how I joined the OK Jazz and innovated those things ... that you hear today being said in various orchestras, if you are a rhythm guitar player, you have to play ‘a la Simaro’ (in the style of Simaro).[3]

Elenga ‘Jimmy’ Zachary

Guitarist Elenga Zachary, also known as ‘Jimmy’, arrived in Kinshasa from the Central African Republic in 1950. He was hired as a freelance recording artist at Opika, one of the recording studios in Kinshasa owned and operated by Greek brothers Gabriel and Moussa Benathar. Stylistically, Jimmy possessed a unique style of playing guitar. For a period of two years (1950-1952), he dominated the musical scene of the country with his Hawaiian guitar.

Jean Bosco

Guitarist and vocalist Mwenda Jean Bosco wa Bayeke (1930-1991) developed a guitar style that stressed both the melodic line and its harmonic accompaniment.  This style of guitar playing reflects an influence of the so-called ‘palm wine’ guitar style that was popular along the West coast of Africa from Liberia to Cameroon. Today Jean Bosco’s guitar style remains a challenge for most players to emulate. This artist belongs to the period known as the ‘Troubadour Era’ (1939-1953), when artists typically sang and accompanied themselves on either traditional or imported instruments. Historically, the ‘Troubadour Era’ overlapped with the period of ‘Brass Tradition’, which ended with ‘Tango ya ba Wendo’, which ended with the advent of African Jazz and the first Congolese orchestra in 1953. 

Lokassa ya Mbongo & Michelino

The category of instrumental virtuoso would not be complete without including such guitar players as Lokassa Kasia Denis (b. 1946), also known as Lokassa ya Mbongo) and Mavatiku Visi Michel (b. 1946), also known as Michelino. Whereas the former distinguished himself as a rhythm guitar player par excellence in addition to playing lead guitar, the latter is notable for his improvisation skills on lead guitar.  Both players use the altered guitar tuning called ‘mi-compose’[4] to express their artistry. Michelino’s lead guitar touch, for example on the collaborative album Lisanga ya ba Nganga (1983) that first brought Franco and vocalist Rochereau (Ta Bu Ley Pascal Richard, born Sinamoyi Pascal-Emmanuel 1940-2013) together, will never be forgotten. Similarly, the talent to play any rhythmic style on the ‘mi-compose’ will always be the trademark of Lokassa ya Mbongo.

Joseph Athanase Tshamala Kabasele (Le Grand Kalle)

Several names stand out in the vocal category from one period to another. The name of Kabasele Tshamala wa Nkongolo wa Bena Dipumba Joseph (1930-1983), also known as Kalle, Kallejeef, Grand Kalle or Kalle de l’Inspiration, is recognized as a giant of Congolese music in more than one respect. He is the creator of a Congolese band that followed the structure and instrumentation of bands from Cuba. In 1953, while working as a freelance interpreter at the Opika recording studio that he joined in 1950, Kabasele formed his first musical ensemble, called African Jazz, with some colleagues from the studio. This multi-talented vocalist was also an arranger and organizer. He is credited as organizing the makeshift band that performed at the round table meeting in Brussels, Belgium, where the decision about the independence of Congo was made in 1960. Two songs he wrote for this occasion were ‘Independence Cha-Cha’ and ‘Table Ronde’, both of which continue to be performed at the annual celebration of the country’s independence. Grand Kalle, as he is respectfully addressed, will always be an icon of Congolese music - for the quality of his voice, his writing skills on songs such as ‘Sofia’ and ‘Para Fifi’ and his leadership abilities.

Sam Mangwana

Many of the most gifted Congolese vocalists performed with OK Jazz at one time or another. Among them, Mangwana Samuel (b. 1945), also known as Sam Mangwana) is the pioneer who popularised the style of interpreting solo ballads that tell a story, such as ‘Mabele’, ‘Faute ya Commerçant’ and ‘Ebale ya Zaire’, all composed by Lutumba Simaro.

Djo Mpoyi

After Mangwana, the vocalist Mpoyi Kanida Joseph (1950-1993), known by his stage name Djo Mpoyi) joined OK Jazz and continued with the same tradition of ballad singing. Possessing an exceptional vocal range and quality, Djo Mpoyi was also a sensitive interpreter. He will be remembered every time songs such as ‘Kadima’ and ‘Mbongo’ (both composed by Lutumba) are heard on the radio. In short, both Sam and Mpoyi remain in the memory of Congolese people for their exceptional voices and interpretative talent.

Malage & Carlyto

Although they were not part of OK Jazz for long, vocalists, Lugendo Lutala-Malage Orphin (b. 1961), and Lassa Ndombasi Charles (b. 1961) also known as Carlyto) left their mark on the group. Malage’s interpretation of ‘Testament ya Bowule’ by Lutumba, recorded live at a music festival in Holland and released on CD, captured the emotions of those who hear his vocal talents. Carlyto’s unique rendition of ‘Maya’ and ‘Verre Casse’ (both composed by Lutumba), his duet with the late Kabasele Yampanya wa ba Mulanga Jean-Baptiste (better known as Pepe Kalle), remain popular favourites in DRC.

Madilu

Another great vocalist who performed with OK Jazz is Madilu Bialu Jean de Dieu (1952-2009), also known as Madilu System, Le Grand Pharaon, Ntotila dia Kongo, La Baleine and Le Grand Ninja. Madilu inherited Franco’s singing style of interjecting vocal grunts as punctuation and stressing a point in a melody. Following Franco’s death in 1989, Madilu left OK Jazz in 1994 to pursue a solo career accompanied by his own ensemble. The influence of Franco’s vocal style in Madilu’s singing is so apparent that he calls himself the spiritual son of Franco. Madilu possessed an exceptional talent for interpretation. Shiko Mawatu, who composed memorable tunes such as ‘Frere Eduard’, ‘Vincent’, ‘Ya Jean’ and several others for Madilu’s interpretation, said in an interview with Tabilulu Productions in New York that while he composes the melody it is Madilu who gives the song its own flavour through his unique interpretation and vocal quality.  Madilu’s talent permeates all his interpretations, from the melodic lines to the semantics of the lyrics. He is a legend with an unrivalled vocal quality that will never be forgotten

Abeti Masikini

Prior to the dance craze that became indispensable to the stage presentation of younger bands, most (if not all) female artists in modern Congolese music excelled primarily as vocalists. Finant Elisabeth (1954-1994), also known as Abeti Masikini) was a singer who possessed a vocal style that was her own. A legend in her right, Abeti will be remembered as the only female Congolese artist to successfully perform on the famous Olympia stage in Paris.

Although this list is not exhaustive, other leading female singers include Etisomba Lokinji Antoinette (b. 1950), Mboyo Moseka Marie-Claire (b. 1963), commonly known by her stage name Mbilia Bel, Pongo Landu Alfride (1956-1990), known as Pongo Love, and the queen of Mutwashi, Muidikay Tshala Mwana Elisabeth (b. 1958), commonly called Tshala Mwana.

These are some of the many legends of modern Congolese music. For those interested in reading further, in 2010 Jean-Francois Nimy Nzonga published a seminal research tool entitled Dictionnaire des Immortels de la Musique Congolese Moderne (Dictionary of the Immortals of Congolese Modern Music). Here he lists more than 350 artists who have made significant contributions to the development of modern Congolese music, many of whom are still active today. The inclusion of names in this dictionary, however, is not necessarily an indication that these musicians have attained legendary status. Nevertheless, the book offers important recognition of artists who have made their mark on the popular music of a nation and provides a valuable tool for anyone wanting to learn more.


Further Reading:

  • Ewens, G. 1994. Congo Colossus: The Life and Legacy of Franco & OK
  • Jazz. Norwich: Buku Press.
  • Yako, P.D., L. Malangi & K. Djambulate (et al). 1985. Hommage à Grand Kalle. Kinshasa: Editions Lokole.
  • Tchebwa, M. 1996. Terre de la Chanson: La Musique Zairoise Hier et Aujourd’hui. Louvain-la-Neuve: Duculot.
  • Nzonga, JN. 2010. Dictionnaire des Immortels de la Musique Congolaise Moderne. Louvain-la-Neuve: Académie Bruylant.

[1] Interview with Lutumba Simaro at his residence in Lingwala, Kinshasa on May 27, 2009.
[2] Mi-solo guitar is played between the lead and rhythm guitars.
[3] Interview with Lutumba Simaro at his residence in Lingwala, Kinshasa on May 27, 2009.
[4] Mi-compose is a guitar tuning in which the “D” string is tuned at the octave.  Often, players may prefer to tune the “B” or the high “E” string to D pitch.

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