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Spotlight on Culture

People that call this area Home

New Americans

Immigrants from other areas of the world

The Congolese people

Cultural Profile of their country- DR Congo

Music and Dancing

[NOTE- This post includes music from the Republic of the Congo (former French Congo) and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (former Zaire and Belgian Congo)]

Music and dancing

Congolese music is one of the most influential of the African continent. Since the 1930s, their musicians have had a huge cultural impact on the African musical scene and all over the world. Popular musical genres include Congolese rumba and soukous. Many contemporary genres of music, such as Kenyan Benga and Colombian Champeta, have been heavily influenced by Congolese music. In 2021, Congolese rumba joined UNESCO's "intangible cultural heritage of humanity" list.

The music of the Democratic Republic of the Congo varies in its different forms. Outside Africa, most music from the Democratic Republic of Congo is called Soukous, which most accurately refers instead to a dance popular in the late 1960s. Soukous is a Congolese musical genre that grew out of 1950s Cuban rumba rhythms with jazz and kwassa kwassa dance rhythms, supported by electric guitar patterns. It is sung in a number of Congolese languages as well as Spanish. Soukous became popular in clubs and bars in Kinshasa and rapidly spread throughout Africa, and later to Paris. The term rumba or rock-rumba is also used generically to refer to Congolese music, though neither is precise nor accurately descriptive of this genre.

The people do not have a single term for their own music. Muziki na biso ("our music") was used until the late 1970s, and now the most common name is Ndule, which means music in the Lingala language. Most songs from the DRC are sung in Lingala.

Colonial times (pre-1960)

Since the colonial era, Kinshasa- Congo's capital, has been a great center of musical innovation. Since the country was carved out from territories controlled by many different ethnic groups, many of which had little in common with each other, each maintained (and continue to do so) their own folk music traditions, and there was not much in the way of a pan-Congolese musical identity until the 1940s.

Like many other countries in Africa, Congo was dominated during the World War II-era by rumba. Congolese musicians adopted and modified the rumba rhythm, and adapted its characteristics for their instruments and tastes. In the 1950s, record labels began appearing, including CEFA, Ngoma, Loningisa and Opika; Radio Congo Belge also began broadcasting during this period. Bill Alexandre, a Belgian working for CEFA, brought electric guitars into the mix.

Popular early musicians of that era include Camille Feruzi, who popularized rumba during the 1930s, and guitarists like Zachery Elenga, Antoine Wendo Kolosoy and Jean Bosco Mwenda. Alongside rumba, other imported genres like American swing, French cabaret and Ghanaian highlife were also popular.

In 1953, their music began to differentiate itself with the formation of African Jazz (led by Joseph "Le Grand Kallé" Kabasele), the first full-time orchestra to record and perform, and the debut of fifteen-year-old guitarist François Luambo Makiadi (Franco). Both would go on to be some of the earliest Congolese music stars.

African Jazz, which included Kabasele, sometimes called the father of modern Congolese music, as well as legendary Cameroonian saxophonist and keyboardist Manu Dibango, has become one of the most well-known groups in Africa, largely due to 1960's "Indépendance Cha Cha", which celebrated Congo's independence and became an anthem for similar movements across the continent.

Big bands (c. 1950–70)

In the 1950s Kinshasa and Brazzaville became culturally linked, and many musicians moved back and forth between them. Notoriously Nino Malapet and one of the founders of OK Jazz, Jean Serge Essous. Recording technology now allowed for longer playing times, and the musicians focused on the Seben, an instrumental percussion break with a fast tempo, common in rumba. Both OK Jazz and African Jazz continued performing throughout the decade until African Jazz broke up in the mid-1960s, TPOK Jazz, with Franco Luambo Makiadi, dominated soukous music for the next 20 years.

Tabu Ley Rochereau and Dr. Nico formed African Fiesta, which incorporated new innovations from throughout Africa as well as American and British soul, rock and country. African Fiesta, however, lasted only two years before disintegrating, and Tabu Ley formed Orchestre Afrisa International. This new group was not able to rival OK Jazz in influence for very long.

Many of the most influential musicians of Congo's history emerged from one or more of these big bands, including Franco Luambo Makiadi (usually referred to simply as "Franco"), Sam Mangwana, Ndombe Opetum, Vicky Longomba, Dizzy Madjeku and Verckys Kiamuangana Mateta. Mangwana was the most popular of these solo performers, keeping a loyal fanbase even while switching from Vox Africa and Festival des Marquisards to Afrisa, followed by OK Jazz and a return to Africa before setting up a West African group called the African All Stars. Mose Fan Fan of OK Jazz was also influential, bringing Congolese rumba to East Africa, especially Kenya, after moving there in 1974 with Somo Somo. Rumba also spread through the rest of Africa, with Brazzaville's Pamelo Mounk'a and Tchico Thicaya moving to Abidjan and Ryco Jazz taking the Congolese sound to the French Antilles.

In Congo, students at Gombe High School became entranced with American rock and funk, especially after James Brown visited Zambia in 1970 and Kinshasa in 1974. Los Nickelos and Thu Zahina emerged from Gombe High, with the former moving to Brussels and the latter, though existing only briefly, becoming legendary for their energetic stage shows that included frenetic, funky drums during the seben and an often psychedelic sound. This period in the late 60s is the soukous era, though the term soukous now has a much broader meaning, and refers to all of the subsequent developments in Congolese music as well.

Zaiko and post Zaiko (c. 1970–90)

Stukas and Zaiko Langa Langa were the two most influential bands to emerge from this era, with Zaiko Langa Langa being an important starting ground for musicians like Pepe Feli, Bozi Boziana, Evoloko Jocker and Papa Wemba. A smoother, mellower pop sound developed in the early 1970s, led by Bella Bella, Shama Shama and Lipua Lipua, while Verckys Kiamuangana Mateta promoted a rougher garage-like sound that launched the careers of Pepe Kalle and Kanda Bongo Man, among others.

By the beginning of the 1990s, many of the most popular musicians of the classic era had died, and President Mobutu's regime continued to repress indigenous music, reinforcing Paris' status as a center for Congolese music. Pepe Kalle, Kanda Bongo Man and Rigo Starr were all Paris-based and were among the most popular Congolese musicians. New styles genres like madiaba and Tshala Mwana's mutuashi achieved some popularity. Kinshasa still had popular musicians, including Bimi Ombale and Dindo Yogo.

In 1993, many of the biggest individuals and bands in Congo's history were brought together for an event that helped to revitalize Congolese music, and also jumpstarted the careers of popular bands like Swede Swede. Another notable feature in Congo culture is its sui generis music. The DRC has blended its ethnic musical sources with rumba and merengue to give birth to Soukous.

Influential figures of Soukous and its offshoots (N'dombolo, Rumba Rock) are Franco Luambo, Tabu Ley, Simaro Lutumba, Papa Wemba, Koffi Olomide, Kanda Bongo Man, Ray Lema, Mpongo Love, Abeti Masikini, Reddy Amisi, Pepe Kalle, and Nyoka Longo. One of the most talented and respected pioneers of African rhumba - Tabu Ley Pascal Rochereau.

Congolese modern music is influenced in part by its politics. In 1965, Mobutu Sese Seko took over, and despite massive corruption, desperate economic failure, and the attempted military uprising of 1991, he held on until his death in 1997. The president, Laurent Kabila, inherited a nearly ungovernable shell of a nation. He renamed it the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He could not erase the effect of the Belgian and Mobutu legacies, and the country was in a state of chronic civil war. Mobutu instilled a deep fear of dissent and failed to develop his country's vast resources. However, the walls he built around his people, and his attempts to boost cultural and national pride, contributed to the environment that bred Africa's most influential pop music. Called Soukous, Congolese rumba, Zairois, Congo music, or Kwassa-kwassa, this pop sound that came from Congo's capital Kinshasa has shaped modern African culture more than any other.

African countries now produce music genres that are directly derived off Congolese Soukous. Some of the African bands sing in Lingala, the main language in the DRC. The same Congolese Soukous, under the guidance of "le sapeur" Papa Wemba, set the tone for a generation of young guys who dress in expensive designer clothing. The many singers and instrumentalists that passed through Zaiko Langa Langa, went on to rule Kinshasa's bustling music scene in the '80s with bands like Choc Stars and Papa Wemba's Viva la Musica.

One member of Viva la Musica, Koffi Olomidé, has been the biggest star since the early '90s. His main rivals are two veterans of the band Wenge Musica, J.B. Mpiana and Werrason. Mpiana and Werrason each claims to be the originator of Ndombolo, a style that intersperses shouts with bursts of vocal melody and harmony over a din of electric guitars, synthesizers and drums. This style is so popular today, that even Koffi Olomidé's current repertory is mostly ndombolo.

Stay tuned for more information on the Congolese people and their culture, and more places and their people in future posts. Our area is blessed to be called home by many people of many cultures, and they deserve to be acknowledged.


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