Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Kékélé: Congolese Rumba

Kékélé was in town Monday night and I didn't want to miss a single moment of what I presumed correctly would be an outstanding night of music and dance. It only took one song before dancers were up on the floor during the second set. During the earlier show at least two, many three precious dance-moments passed before patrons braved the embarrassment of being the first person on the dance floor and let the music propelled by three lead singers: Nyboma, Loko Massengo, Wuta Mayi (Bumba Massa too ill to travel on this tour) lead guitarist Syran Mbenza, tenor saxophonist Jimmy Mvondo; congero, Sungu Debat; traps drummer, Komba Matwala; accordion player, Joeffrey Arnone, and bass guitarist, Vincent Hamandjian -- have its way with them.

What's so great about Kékélé is that fact that it's a super band. All its members were already successful recording artists in bands like: Rock-a-Mambo, Les Bantous, O.K. Jazz, Cubano Jazz, Trio Madjesi, Bella Bella, Afrisa, African All-Stars, Quatre Étoiles.

Syran Mbenza, guitarist said Congolese music was “out of breath...(that in what) the young groups were playing, there was a real deformation of our music, in the dance, in the rhythms. There were no more songs, no more melodies. We thought about this and decided we had to get back to the rumba, what we played in the past. We were born into rumba; it's like a culture for us. Our music was becoming decadent. We had to wake it up again” (Banning Eyre).

Mbenza called some of the rumba giants living for the most part abroad in Paris to his home for a jam session which led to other such sessions over the next year –1999, at one musician’s home or another. Suddenly the hum turned into an oh yeah once the men took their classic tunes -- recollections of, if not a perfect past, certainly a nostalgic boyhood rife with European colonialists in the guise of Catholic missionaries places where boys had access to instruments and musical training if they converted.

These tunes before the revival weren't being played anymore in Kinshasa, rumba Congolese almost completely obscure back home.

In the 50s, 60s and 70s though, rumba’s heyday, was a time of celebration, celebration of a liberated Kongo…the possibilities of Black self-rule! Then after a reign of terror presided over by the US and Belgium tyranny preceding and following the murder of the country’s first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba and the appointment of Mobutu, the musicians of Kékélé’s generation offered an assessment of the reality.

In Rumba Congo – Africans in Cuba and Congo were able to reunite after centuries apart – Mantanzas and West Africa in this music on the airwaves, in the streets and eventually in person – truly diasporic harmony!

Rumba Congo reflected the moods and syncopations of the cities and towns, the voices, attitudes and energy of Kongo people. As with most African music, there was a lesson in the song, one which while not distracting certainly allowed one an opportunity to reflect as it echoed in one’s head later on. What made Congolese Rumba so unique was the fact that everywhere in Africa people were dancing the rumba…truly the first international African music.

Soukous which became extremely popular after rumba receded into the background to the oldies but goodies rack, and was about as obscure as a card catalog is presently in the age of technology (just kidding, I don’t think it was that bad), when Syran Mbenza called his buddies together to discuss the possibility of reviving the music most indicative of their cultural renaissance, a legacy almost trashed by a popular body politic which was too young to realize this music’s historic relevance and value in the current world of shared files, dubs, remixes, market and bottom-line dictates when referencing creativity.

Syran Mbenza tells Banning Eyre in an interview in Paris (2004) following the successful tour just two years prior, how despite Ken Braun at Stern's and C.C. Smith at The Beat magazine’s interest in this project early on, he was worried because rumba “wasn't ndombolo, that music that just makes you dance all the time,” but the leap paid off. Lucky for us! (http://www.afropop.org/multi/interview/ID/58/Syran+Mbenza+speaks+on+the+eve+of+Kekele%27s+2004+U.S.+tour).

“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”

The debut of the project went for a test drive with the release of Rumba Congo six years ago followed by what was termed a low key tour a couple of years ago (http://www.cdroots.com/st-kekele.html). The band came through the Bay Area with a stop in Berkeley at Ashkenaz. I kind of missed Ashkenaz Monday night. The dance floor at the Community Dance Center is a lot larger; plus there is a door to open for fresh air along with ceiling fans.

It's a great place to get down.

When Emmanuel Nado, deejay, (http://www.kkup.com/nado.html)gave me a hug, he commented on how wet I was. All I could say was, Well, I've been dancing since
8 p.m. to Kékélé!

Despite the cramped space – the concert was a blast, an all out success, if the smiles on departing faces were any indicator of the great time had by all last night!

Kékélé’s tour continues through August here and in Canada. Visit their website for the schedule. Next California stop is Grand Performances in Los Angeles, Friday, July 7, followed by another performance in San Juan Capistrano at the Multi-Cultural Arts Series at this library I heard about from Bembeya Jazz (Guinea). Afterwards it's to Chicago for a few days where they'll perform July 9 at the Chicago Folk & Roots Festival at Welles Park Lincoln & Montrose.

Me and Syran Mbensa. Hanging out with the band at Yoshi’s. Emmanuel Nado with band members. Photo credit: Wanda Sabir

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bc2T5PRGubA. This is really cool video featuring Loko playing soccer as he performs.


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