Legend. Musicians today live in the shadows of the dazzling artistry of Congolese rumba and soukous. Congolese star Kanda Bongo Man stands so tall among the soukous giants that it is often said if he performs and you do not respond, you should check your pulse because you are probably not alive, writes Jacobs Odongo Seaman.
A man of trademarks. That is Kanda Bongo Man. From his dance strokes to the debonair suits and hats and even the diastema in his dentition, down to his gentlemanly personality, Bongo Man has wowed rumba music lovers for generations.
The Congolese music milieu from 1960s to 1990s was hugely defined and influenced by audience appeal. Grand Kalle and Tabu Ley, for instance, appealed to the elites, Franco and his TPOK Jazz was for the riffraff and the peasants, Zaiko Langa Langa lived in the hearts of the older folks, and Bavon Marie Marie and Negro Succes were joined by Bella Bella in driving the youth crazy.
Bella Bella, run by brothers Emile Soki Vangu and Maxime Soki Dianzenza, was the starting point for Bongo Man after the teenage son of drummer and percussionist; also named Bongo Man ran away from school to pursue his music dream. Soki Vangu was Bongo Man’s mentor and because the two brothers lived a ‘frosty blood’ relation where the younger Vangu often rebelled and broke away to form his own band, Kanda Bongo Man twice found himself at an offshoot band and then back to the main all over again. Franco’s brother Bavon Marie Marie’s death in 1970 had left the youth feasting in the hands of Bella Bella and the soukous revolution that was just beginning to take shape with its avalanche of musicians.
Six years of honing his vocals under the Freres Soki gave Bongo Man the first of his 17 albums, Iyole, in 1979. The four-track album was restrained and without the kind of self-aggrandisement we see in soukous musicians today. Diblo Dibala, on lead guitar, did well without ‘stealing the show’ even in the long sebene in the second parts of songs which still lacked the hard-edged twang of synthesiser and harder guitar sounds.
Soon after, Bongo Man decided do what most other Congolese musicians searching for their soul did; go to Paris. He worked in a windowpane factory and performed in nightclubs whenever he got the opportunity. And it was in a nightclub where it all started for Bongo Man, two years later, when his slushy tenor vocals attracted the attention of Jumbo Vanrenen, a South African producer who worked with Island Records in London.
“Kanda was at the right place at the right time,” Vanrenen told South Africa’s Mail and Guardian in 2015.
“I went to France in the late 1970s and in 1981 met Jumbo Vanrenen. He found me singing at a nightclub and said: “Woah! The guitar from this music sounds like it’s from Soweto.” He said: “I want to take you to London and promote you,” Bongo Man said in the same interview.
Vanrenen helped link Bongo Man to British musician Peter Gabriel, who organised Womad in 1983, giving Bongo Man his first taste of real music audience. Bongo Man said: “At that time I was a very young man and Jumbo introduced me to singer Peter Gabriel, who played in the band, Genesis. Gabriel invited me to play in Womad festival in London. So it was Jumbo who introduced me to the international music market.”
For a musician who appreciates those who helped prop him up, Bong Man did not surprise many when in 1991 he dedicated the entire Zing Zong album to the Soki brothers. In a world where musicians like Kofi Olomide have denied their mentor (Papa Wemba) after a fallout, Bongo Man went a notch higher with the song, Freres Soki, a special tribute to his mentors.
At the time of making acquaintance with Venrenen, Bongo Man was popularising the Kwassa Kwassa dance that became manic in the late 1980s. The dance involved gyrating with the waist as the hands moved in rhythm. Kwassa Kwassa was a long transformation from Massassi kulikile (dancing with the hands imitating the shooting of a rifle), and the submarine dance where one’s hands moved like that of a swimmer.
Revolutionising the soukous dance was not the only aspect of rumba Bongo Man set out to change. His first album was lacking in some elements despite the good melodies. Bongo Man wanted to see solo guitarists lead in every sense and not just have their frets felt during sebene. His idea was that soukous, unlike traditional rumba, relied on beats and chord progression more than the lyrics. A typical soukous song, he argued, could have as few as 10 words and still be a hit. His own Muchana and Wahito, for instance, fall in that category.
Bongo Man encouraged Diblo and Dally Kimoko to adopt the style of Felix Manuaku Waku, considered the godfather of the “talking guitar” style. Manuaku, a founder member of Zaiko Langa Langa, Les Ya Toupas and Grand Zaika Wawa, established the guitar as the lead instrument in contemporary Congolese music, with a rapid guitar playing style that was a distinctive feature of soukous music. Diblo and Dally Kimoko and later Nene Tchakou took Kanda Bongo Man’s advice, starting their rise to stardom as arguably the best three lead guitarists in the soukous era.
Initially going with the style and playing fast-paced soukous with Dally Kimoko or Diblo setting the pace and jigging the sebene in songs like Liza, Monie, Kadhi, Wallow, Bedy, Naloti, and others, Bongo Man started blending with elements of zouk style popularised by French Guadeloupe stars, Kassav.
In came Muchana, Tika Kolela, Bolingo, My Love Elizabeth, Soni, Wahito, Nzambe and Yezu Kristu, among others. These are songs with little, if any, lyrical substance. Only Elizabeth has some meat in its lyrics, probably because Bongo Man was trying to prove that he could sing in broken English. The songs relied on Nene Tchakou’s mastery of Manuaku’s “talking guitar” and synthesisers for laidback danceable beats and melodies.
Ironically, they turned out to be Bongo Man’s greatest musical accomplishments. Fusing zouk with rumba meant that the suave dresser in Bongo Man would dance ‘without breaking a sweat.’ And to this style was the charm in the audience. It is hard to see a couple sit through Muchana, not with the video itself having Tchakou hold Chantal Loial, the queen dancer, by the waist, and pull off rare salsa strokes on the vocals of Djena Mandako and Abby Surya.
The New York Times once wrote of Bongo Man’s evolution thus, “Zairean soukous is a lilting, rippling, dance groove that seems to smile from every register, with melody and rhythm inseparable. Kanda Bongo Man himself sings melodies that curl through the patterns like vines on a trellis.”
Not done, Bongo Man, who now lives in London, UK, set base in South Africa, a country whose musicians he says greatly influenced his style. Setting a home in Limpopo, he took it to South Africans with the album, Welcome to South Africa (1995), in which he tried to fuse beats from his second home to his zouk-rumba intermarriage.