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The Boston Phoenix Rumba Wars

A tale of two Congos

By Banning Eyre

JULY 24, 2000:  For the past 15 years, Americans have been consuming a steady diet of pop music from Africa. But they've had little help in understanding its significance. A small but growing literature on modern African music gets a boost with the publication of Gary Stewart's Rumba on the River: A History of the Popular Music of the Two Congos. Stewart has spent more than a decade researching the music variously known as rumba, soukous, kwassa-kwassa, Congolese, and Zairois. The story he tells is comparable with that of Motown or New Orleans jazz. It boasts visionaries, prodigies, operators, innovators, and most of all performers who inspired generations and gave their lives meaning, at least for a while.

As Stewart worked away, the capitals of the two Congos -- Kinshasa and Brazzaville, cities that face each other across the great Congo River -- were being devastated by war and civil unrest. Poverty and an epidemic of untimely deaths have all but erased the vibrant nightlife that fed this powerful music, and the survivors have mostly dispersed to other countries. Yet though the two Congos now lie in ruins, Congo music has had a greater influence worldwide than any other modern music from Africa.

For fans and scholars alike, it is a godsend to have so much of this history packed into a single, well-indexed volume. What's more, the book makes practical sense out of hundreds of CDs of Congo music that have been released with nary a word of explanatory liner notes. The French label Sonodisc, which inherited the rights to much early Congo music, has produced the bulk of these ghost releases. Anyone who has followed African pop knows the outlines of the story, how African rhythms went to Cuba and came back to Africa as dance-band music in the 1920s and '30s, and how Kinshasa became the hub of a dance-pop movement that produced stars like Franco, Tabu Ley, Papa Wemba, and Kanda Bongo Man. But even the most dedicated Congo-music lovers can learn from Stewart's ambitious account.

It was actually Greek entrepreneurs in the 1940s who first set out to record and sell the unusual music that was growing up in Brazzaville and Leopoldville, as Kinshasa was then known. The early Greek-run labels -- Ngoma, Opika, and Olympia -- inspired African competitors like Loningisa and later Veve and a variety of artist-run outfits. In the process, an industry was born. Studios had house players and instruments; singers competed to write songs that would outsell the previous big hit. Clubs sprang up throughout the two cities; the bands developed loyal followings, and they shaped pop-music sensibilities for much of the continent in the 1960s.

There was the rough, rootsy sound of Franco and his feisty OK Jazz; there was the lyrical romanticism of African Jazz, which featured the father of Congo guitar, Dr. Nico, plus stardom-bound singer Rochereau (later known as Tabu Ley) and Cameroon legend Manu Dibango, who was lured to Kinshasa by its rich music scene. In the 1970s, dictatorial President Mobutu sought to revive his country's African cultural heritage. The policy he called authenticité opened the door to a new kind of band: hotter, rawer, more dedicated to the flashy rhythms of the village than the cool Cuban sound. The so-called "youth bands," Zaiko Langa Langa, Choc Stars, Bella Bella, Lipwa Lipwa, and many others, introduced rock-and-roll intensity to the Congo sound. As the Zairean economy deteriorated under Mobutu's bloodsucking regime, the once-promising music industry began to fail, and many successful artists fled to Paris and Brussels to pioneer the slicker sound that the world came to know as soukous.

Stewart has his work cut out for him keeping track of all the defections, schisms, reunions, and redefections these bands engendered as the music struggled to rise above the conditions in their two hell-bound countries. But even if you lose track of the details, the big picture is impressive. By the time these artists arrived in Paris in the 1980s to vie for the attention of early "world music" hunters like Island Records, it's no wonder that neophyte talent scouts had difficulty comprehending the musical universe in front of them. Congo watchers, for example, were stunned when Island dumped soukous acts in favor of the "obscure" King Sunny Ade.

The book's final chapter reads like an extended obituary, with many deaths attributable to rampant AIDS. Stewart's tentative attempt to find hope amid the human and political wreckage of the two Congos at the dawn of a new millennium is hardly reassuring. But this dark ending does not blot out the glory of the earlier decades he's so lovingly detailed.

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