rumba on the river

abetiJean Serge Essous
1934 - 2009

Jean Serge Essous died in Brazzaville on Wednesday, November 25, 2009. He was just short of his 75th birthday, not so old anymore, except in central Africa where conditions contrive to take lives early. Still, the pleasure he took from making music outweighed the vagaries of country and career and sustained him far beyond the lifetimes of most of his contemporaries.

I met him for the first time in Paris in 1991. Congolese popular music by then had lost its momentum, but Essous seemed to harbor hope for the future, and he recalled the good years with relish. He was patient with a journalist full of questions. His thoughtful answers and generous introductions to other musicians helped to form part of the foundation for Rumba on the River.

Essous arrived on the Congolese music scene at almost precisely the time the scene itself arrived. He saw the stars of the day at Brazzaville's famed Chez Faignond and played there himself—on the same bill as the renowned Joseph Kabasele—with his fledgling band Negro Jazz. The band eventually met musician-entrepreneur Henri Bowane across the Congo River in the Belgian Congo, played at Bowane's Quist nightclub in Léopoldville, and with Bowane's help, several of the group caught on at a new Léopoldville recording studio, Loningisa.

In the studio and at a nightspot called the O.K. Bar, Essous became a founding member and first chef d'orchestre of O.K. Jazz in 1956. It was a good time, Essous told me. "I think it was one of our finest periods. Put yourself in my place, from where we came from, to get that far, it was extraordinary."
A year later Essous followed Bowane to a new studio called Esengo where he helped found another new band called Rock' a Mambo. With the coming of political independence on both banks of the Congo River, Essous and other Brazzavilleans organized the band that would become his home for most of the rest of his career, Orchestre Bantou—later called Les Bantous de la Capitale.

As a teenager in the French Congo Essous had begun in music playing pipo, a (often homemade) bamboo flute with dancer-musician Isidore Diaboua. He moved on to clarinet and eventually took up the saxophone in Orchestre Bantou. In whichever group he found himself, Essous wrote many of its songs, often sang lead in a raspy tenor, and liberally indulged his passion for the African sounds bouncing back from Cuba. At one point he became such a Latinophile that he called himself "Jerry Lopez."

He was a man of exceeding character and intellect, assets that sometimes propelled his career in unexpected directions. In the late 1960s, when the Congolese government of Massamba-Debat began to meddle in the country's artistic and cultural affairs, a frustrated Essous left Les Bantous and wound up performing for several years in the Caribbean with the itinerant Congolese band Ry-Co Jazz. Politics interceded again in the 1990s when Essous supported a civilian president in Congo, Pascal Lissouba, who had replaced autocrat Denis Sassou Nguesso, who in turn ousted Lissouba in a civil war that destroyed much of Brazzaville. This, perhaps, explains Nguesso's failure to come to Essous's aid when he needed medical attention earlier this year.

Essous performed with Les Bantous at the famed Olympia concert hall in Paris in April. Soon after that final appearance he fell ill, languishing in the French capital for several months without the funds necessary for proper medical care. Alarmed friends and colleagues attempted to raise money so that Essous could be treated in Paris, but their unsuccessful efforts forced him to return home. Congo's president, who surely was aware of the situation, apparently could not be moved to help insure the survival of one of his country's greatest musical treasures. Essous died in a Brazzaville hospital.

© 2009 Gary Stewart
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