When you look at Congolese music the question that comes into mind is whether it ever reached its full potential and whether it is a reflection of what Congo as a country has become.
For a country that has undergone decades of social and political unrest, the Democratic Republic of Congo, or Zaire, as the country was known until 1997, has produced some of the finest music in Africa.
Rumba has survived for generations through sheer innovation, experimentation and fusion with diverse styles from different parts of the world.
In turn, rumba has influenced other popular music styles on the continent, notably Benga in Kenya, highlife in Ghana and Cameroon’s Makossa.
Today young Congolese musicians, much like their predecessors, are blending and experimenting rumba with dancehall, hip-hop, house, and R&B.
In the 1940s it was the influence of Latin-American styles like son, cha-cha-cha, and merengue which, some have argued, were transported across the Atlantic by the slaves from the Congo Basin.
In the 1950s, rumba bands known either as orchestras or jazz bands introduced instrumental sections with guitar, saxophone, and percussion (drums and shakers).
By the mid-1950s the electric guitar gave the music the sound that distinguished it from jazz and Latin bands
Joseph “The Grand Kalle” Kabaseleh, the father of modern Congolese music, dominated the scene in both Kinshasa and Brazzaville with his band, African Jazz, which also featured the legendary guitarist Dr. Nico.
It was Kabaseleh who composed the iconic “Independence Cha-Cha” to celebrate the birth of the independent nation in 1960.
The music was modern yet rooted in tradition, cosmopolitan but authentically African. This was the first pan-African sound and the precursor of what was to come over the next two decades, with the unrivaled popularity of Congolese music.
“Franco” Luambo Makiadi and his TP OK Jazz developed a style called rumba odemba, complete with a full horn section, three saxophones, four trumpets, up to six electric guitars, drums, congas and a large selection of vocalists accompanied by dancers.
Franco and his nemesis, Tabu Ley, who started the band Afrisa after his time with Kabaseleh and later with Dr. Nico in the early 1960s, were the most influential figures in helping spread the music to different parts of the continent and beyond, to Europe and America.
Rumba continued to evolve in interesting ways in the 1970s with the emergence of soukous, a style defined by a mid-song rhythmic change called sebene, an improvised solo guitar section.
This sound was influenced by the global popularity of rock ‘n’ roll and funk, following the famous performance by King of Soul James Brown at the “Rumble in the Jungle” in Kinshasa – the celebrated world heavyweight boxing fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in 1974.
The most revolutionary Soukous band was Zaiko Langa Langa, formed in 1969 by a group of high school students from Kinshasa and led by Papa Wemba.
The iconic star built a reputation for energetic music structured around a snare drum, rhythm section, sebene and an unparalleled sense of fashion that won the band a significant youthful fan base.
The political and economic upheaval in Kinshasa did not spare the music industry, with recording studios forced to shut down and record pressing plants unable to leave their doors open due to the lack of vinyl.
This led to the exodus of Congolese musicians to Europe via the Ivory Coast. Abidjan marked not only a launching pad to Paris and Brussels, but also the beginning of a whole new sound that was to stamp Congolese dominance on African music for another two decades. The Congolese musicians in France developed a working relationship with Ibrahim Sylla, an Ivorian whose record label Syllart Productions became the home of the Soukous greats; Bopol Mansiamina, Wuta Mayi, Syran Mbenza, Nyboma Mwandido, Pepe Kalle and Tshala Muana.
Sylla developed the ‘Paris Soukous’ which became popular throughout the 1990s with repeated guitar riffs combining rumba with salsa and zouk and giving rise to new variants of Congolese music identified by dance routines like kwassa kwassa and ndombolo.
No artist perfected this style more successfully than Kanda Bongo Man, a singer and flamboyant showman whose up-tempo songs and choreographed stage shows turned him into a sensation in many parts of the world.
There was a fierce rivalry and defection between the two giants of rumba in the old rumba era, Franco and Tabu Ley, and high profile feuds remain a fixture of modern Congolese music.
Wenge Musica was the most popular band in Kinshasa for most of the 1990s until a clash of egos between the two stars in the group, Werrason and JB Mpiana, led to the group’s break up. Currently, Ferre Gola, who is a former protégé of both Werrason and Koffi Olomide, and Fally Ipupa, also a former member of Koffi’s Quarter Latin, are constantly sniping at each other.
Survivors of the older generation of rumba like Sam Mangwana have been critical of the modern sound, describing the current state of Congolese music as a crisis point.
The response from Koffi Olomide, who popularised slower-tempo soukous known as tcha tacho, has been that this is all part of the evolution of music and that Congolese sounds are still the most influential across Africa.
Perhaps the future of Congolese music lies in a new generation of performers like Baloji, a rapper born in DRC but raised in Belgium, who returned home in 2012 to record an album, Kinshasa Succursale, with veterans like Konono No.1 and Zaiko Langa Langa.
The album won much praise for its bold mix of hip-hop and rumba, including a stunning reworking of Kabaseleh’s liberation anthem “Independence cha-cha” recorded with rumba legend Wendo “Papa Wendo” Kolosoy’s band.