rumba on the river


Another to link music and commerce was Nicolas Jeronimidis, a general merchant who opened Léopoldville's first recording studio in 1947. Called Ngoma, the studio recorded Congolese music's earliest pop stars, including Wendo, another singer-guitarist named Henri Bowane, and dozens more. "We had a large machine to make recordings on acetate disks," Nikiforos Cavvadias, a brother-in-law of Jeronimidis, remembered. "We sent the acetate disks to Europe, to Belgium, to make the matrix and press the records."2 By recording the music and selling the records, Ngoma won a far broader audience for its musicians than they had been able to reach on their own. The records, in turn, inspired more musicians to approach the studio for work and brought more customers to the Jeronimidis shop. Soon Jeronimidis stocked EMI gramophones from England and the needles they required from Germany; Bush radios and Vidor batteries to power them; and a steadily increasing catalog of Ngoma records produced by an expanding roster of musicians. His network of dealers selling Ngoma records eventually covered the entire country and extended to West and East Africa.

Ngoma's success led other merchants to join the competition. The Benetar brothers, like Jeronimidis of Greek origin, opened Opika in 1949, a studio that launched the first bona fide (but fleeting) musical sensation, Jhimmy "the Hawaiian" (who had never been out of Africa). Opika also nurtured a more substantial talent in singer Joseph Kabasele, the man many consider to be the father of modern Congolese music. The competition intensified in 1950 when two Greek cousins named Papadimitriou opened a third studio they called Loningisa.

A Belgian jazz musician, Fud Candrix, introduced the saxophone when he sat in on several recording sessions at Opika in 1952. A year later Bill Alexandre, another Belgian jazz player, electrified the music — and its fans — when he plugged in his sleek new Gibson guitar.

The Congolese music business and Léopoldville's population were expanding so rapidly that toward the end of the fifties the Belgian company, Fonior, built the colony's first record pressing factory. In addition to the manufacture of records, Fonior invited groups to Brussels to record in studios far superior to the rudimentary establishments in Léo. Speaking of Fonior's owner, one Willy Pelgrims, Cameroonian Manu Dibango, who performed in Kinshasa, recalled that "when Pelgrims invited people to Brussels he bought all the equipment, new equipment, competitive one. The musicians brought the stuff back to Congo, and the other musicians they saw that, 'Wow! Fantastic!' So there was inter-reaction and competition—in a good way."3

In addition to its shops, both white and black, that furnished the capital's essentials, the city gave birth to a number of bars that relieved the pressure, if only temporarily, of the new urban life. These establishments opened in the African cité, across the park and past the zoo from the white ville that curled along the river bank. Some had a kind of makeshift feel, nothing much more than someone's back yard dotted with tables and trimmed with lanterns, perhaps a sound system, and fridge to chill the beer. Better places could be found indoors, real saloons with a bar and dance floor. Records provided the music in most, but many booked live bands too. "We were doing such great stuff that in the evening we would fool our boss's watchman to get out of the studio with the instruments, and we would go to the cité to perform in a bar," Edo Ganga recalled. "People really liked our music, what we were doing. Because we were selling records."4 The growing number of bars and recording studios attracted more musicians, and more and more people wanted to hear them. Factory jobs weren't the only ones to be had.

Under colonial rule the mixing of Congo's nearly 200 ethnic groups accelerated in the cities as members of nearly all of them streamed in. In this regard anthropologist Colin Turnbull once wrote — in a passage that was perhaps overly pessimistic — that in the city an African "quickly discovers that here he is no longer a member of a family, even of a tribe; that his neighbor is not bound by the same beliefs that bind him, and so can not be relied on to behave as a reasonable man. The only sensible and safe thing to do is to mistrust one's neighbor, to think for oneself alone, to have no consideration for others."5

Still, the breaking of old bonds presented opportunities for new ones to be forged. One such bridging of old ways to new could be found in the adoption of Lingala, a pidgin that had evolved among traders and boatmen to facilitate communication among various groups along the rivers. Largely because it bore little ethnic or cultural baggage Lingala soon spread to become a lingua franca — along with the French of colonial administrators — especially in Léopoldville. Nearly all of Léopoldville's musicians adopted Lingala for their compositions. As records sold outward away from the capital they helped to spread the language to rural areas, thus abetting a growing sense of a broader Congolese nationhood. But it would take more than shared language and music to make a country.
When the Congolese won independence in 1960, people celebrated to the exuberant sounds of "Indépendance Cha Cha" by Joseph Kabasele and African Jazz (as did Africans across the continent when their own times came). But celebrations were short-lived as subversion of Congo's new democracy by outside powers and the resort to ethnic-based alliances among Congolese politicians plunged the country into chaos. Post-independence Léo sprawled uncontrollably as people poured into the city to escape political violence in the countryside. What emerged from the upheaval was a Congo united by a ruthless dictator.

Colonel Joseph Mobutu exerted his will through the army and secret police, but he manipulated his country through cultural means as well, not the least of which was music. Mobutu began replacing European designations with African ones in 1966 with the announcement that Léopoldville would henceforth be Kinshasa. He launched his Mouvement Populaire de la Révolution the following year, and, his hand unseen, he raided O.K. Jazz to form the nucleus of a new group called Orchestre Révolution. The band didn't last, so Mobutu gradually began to cultivate ties with Franco, leader of the band he had raided. Franco supported Mobutu's 1970 "election" as president in song, as did other groups in what would become an often-repeated ritual aimed at remaining on the good side of the regime.

Politics aside, Congolese music was mostly fun. "The songs we sang were very nice songs artistically, because we were very close artistically," said Sam Mangwana. "At that time we had a group spirit. You must be close to make nice music."6 Manu Dibango remembered that "nightlife was very powerful in Congo at that time." Music and beer were abundant he said. "It was a good life."7


<<< PAGE 1

PAGE 3 >>>