Review Excerpts

I am rereading Gary Stewart's gem titled Rumba on the River...[read more]

The most comprehensive account
written in English of the rich history of music from the Belgian Congo. — Charlie Gillet

Ably written by a published author of articles on African and Caribbean music whose work has appeared in "The Beat", "Option" "West Africa" and more, Rumba On The River: A History Of The Popular Music Of The Two Congos is an enthralling dissemination of how changing times and ancient traditions blended to create a distinctive type of music along the Congo River. From the currents of political struggle to the tides of self-expression, the history, vibrancy, and popularity of this music flowed, and its indelible impressions upon the human psyche are succinctly framed in an unforgettable prose.
Wisconsin Bookwatch

[Stewart] details the evolution of both the music and politics of the area and his accessible writing makes Rumba an important addition to the bookshelf of serious students of Afropop, African history, and popular music in general. The book is rigorously researched and dense with facts, which Stewart lays out in a readable style.
Seattle Weekly

For devotees of Africa's music and its modern cultural history, Stewart's labor of love is a welcome addition to the collective bookshelf.
— Tom Cheyney, Worldview

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.... 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.... Even the most dedicated Congo music lovers can learn from Stewart’s ambitious account.
— Banning Eyre, Boston Phoenix

Much has been written about soukous, Africa’s most popular music, but the writing is fragmented in record jacket notes and overviews. This book delves deeply into the social history of soukous in both Congo Brazzaville and Congo Kinshasa, after first presenting a detailed political history of the region. Stewart writes with wonderful style, taking the reader to Leopoldville (Kinshasa) in 1946 with an upriver visitor who would later become a pio­neer in the genre. One follows the rise of major figures such as Franco, Docteur Nico, and Tabu Ley (Rochereau) and the development of their bands, as well as countless other band leaders and the female singers who later joined the bands. Never removed from reality, the narrative situates the musi­cians squarely in the sociopolitical milieu that fostered but then threatened the music, leading to the eventual exodus of musicians to European capi­tals. Individual careers are followed minutely, with photos, details of record­ing locations, travels, problems with illnesses and the business of music, and the successes. The narrative ends approximately in 1990, but not with­out a comment on the future after the departure of Mobutu in 1997.

Of all the strands and styles that make up the great narrative of African music in the second half of the twentieth century. Congolese rumba and its rambunctious offspring, soukous, have been the most influential and the most com­mercially successful. Its exuberant, but comparatively simple rhythms and the open-toned musicality of Lingala—the Congo’s lingua franca—speak across the continent’s ethnic and political boundaries like no other sound. From Senegal to Kenya, “Congo music” provided a model for the creation of modern, yet incontrovertibly African pop styles, while in parts of East Africa indigenous genres have given way almost completely to the imported Congolese sounds. It has been a development, according to American journalist Gary Stewart, “as revolutionary (for Africans) as the birth of American jazz”.... The way this movement has paralleled the process of urbanization, and the growing cultural awareness of African youth, has been the subject of innumerable television document­aries and newspaper and magazine articles. Musicologists, anthropologists and sociologists use been working in the field for some time. But Stewart’s Rumba on the River is the first really comprehensive account of the develop­ment of an African pop style. In it, he describes the evolution of music in the formerly French Congo-Brazzaville and in the formerly Belgian Congo-Kinshasa in tandem with the complex and frequently horrifying political events which accompanied it. In doing so, he, in effect, draws together the Congo’s conflicting images and realities—the pit of savagery and the font of musical genius and inspiration.
— Mark Hudson, Times Literary Supplement

African pop would be unrecognizable today if not for Congolese giants like Franco, Dr. Nico, Grand Kalle, Tabu Ley Rochereau and others chronicled in Gary Stewart’s excellent read, Rumba on the River: A History of the Popular Music of the Two Congos (Verso). Spanning the early ‘50s through the mid-’90s, Rumba is a credit both to Stewart’s impeccable research and his sheer fortitude as he manages to keep track of an ever-changing roster of bands and solo artists, in­cluding the roiling membership of Zaiko Langa Langa and its offshoots. I knew just enough about Congolese music to hit recognizable names ev­ery few pages, but the author is gifted enough at storytelling that unfamiliar names spin into fascinating chronicles. Artists I did know came alive with heady stuff like Franco’s arrest for obscene song lyrics, the touching story of Dr. Nico’s last days, the wheeling-dealing of former OK Jazz saxophonist Georges Kiamuangana (better known as Verckys), and the failure of Ngoma and other Congo record labels due to corruption, misman­agement and muscle from European-based com­panies. And as with Stewart’s last book, Breakout: Profiles in African Rhythm, he has a way of de­scribing a song that makes you want to stop read­ing and immediately cue up a forgotten track.
— Bob Tarte, The Beat

Gary Stewart's Rumba on the River (Verso) examines the seminal music scenes of the French and Belgian Congo at a time when new music (and new nations) were about to be born. Although Stewart carries on through coups, civil wars and dictatorships to the present day, some of the most instructive chapters are the earliest. The music of the two Congos from the 1930s through the '50s developed with remarkable parallels to the U.S. as old and new influences converged in an untaught, vernacular subculture. Thriving indie record labels (operated by Greek businessmen, who played the same role as the Jewish-American entrepreneurs who recorded much early jazz and blues) brought the new sounds to a hungry audience. Rumba on the River is a scholarly but readable account of the universal currents that shaped popular culture around the world in the 20th century.
Shepherd Express Metro, Milwaukee

Stewart pinpoints key elements in the music’s history, while neatly summarising broader historical events as a preamble to the genesis and growth of a onetime contender for the title of the world’s best dance music. The cast of characters is numerous and diverse; a superb organiser of detail, Stewart provides form and mien to a good many players, where others might have settled for a namecheck. Starting with early greats like Joseph Kabasele, he works through the golden age of the 50s and 60s, documenting the rise of Franco, variously known as ‘The Sorcerer of the Guitar’ and ‘The Balzac of Africa’ (so called because of the concern for the human condition expressed in his lyrics), before moving onto a new wave of ‘youth groups’ such as the constantly fragmenting Zaiko Langa Langa. Yet even as Stewart keeps pace with the momentum of the music’s evolution, he finds space for a string of often picaresque character studies. For instance, Franco, previously the subject of a near hagiography entitled Congo Colossus, is revealed here as a brilliant musician, a thorn in the side of authority and a businessman of questionable ethics. Stewart also sheds light on many musicians known to Westerners only through their records, profiling such Congolese artists as Pamelo Mounk'a and his producer Eddy Gustave.
— Richard Henderson, The Wire

Every now and then comes along a book so well detailed and full of information that it offers its readers rich, rel­evant, and invaluable insight. Rumba on the River is one such work. On its carefully selected topic, which revolves around soukous, author Stewart pro­vides essential historical context and background required for the compre­hension of non-African readers. He effectively conveys the odd and inextri­cable relationships between govern­ment, the arts, and the public that has saddled artistic development in Africa for several decades....Rumba on the River is highly recommended to the scholar and enthusiast of African music, particularly African popular music, with emphasis on soukous. Its chronological documentation of rele­vant historical, political, and artistic events is also well presented. In this book, the reader will find information not only relevant to the subject, but above and beyond what he or she could have asked for. It is a great book.
MultiCultural Review

Now there is a detailed history of the entire subject of Congo music, superbly presented and eloquently written in English by American author Gary Stewart. Rumba on the River has been extensively researched; Stewart has interviewed literally dozens of musicians—stars of modern Congo music and surviving veterans from the 1950s and 1960s. In addition to the musical history there are concise but informative references to the politics of the colonial period as well as the epic adventures and eventual downfall of post-colonial leader Mobutu, a tale integral to the music and culture of Congo-Zaire.
— Martin Sinnock, Songlines

The chronicle of Congo’s music is inevitably also a social history of [Kinshasa]. Intimately linked to and rooted in the realities of the lives of the urban young, the emerging music of the 1940s and ‘50s formed the acoustic canvas of social and political developments, the rhythm of the times in which dance and disorder became increasingly intertwined. Against this social, political and economic backdrop, Stewart describes ‘the restless impulses of egotism and paranoia’ that caused bands and orchestras to emerge and split up, in an endless musical battle for public recognition. Stewart is at his best when he describes and maps, in what sometimes reads like a political anthropology of shifting patterns of schism and continuity, or fusion and fission, the many meanderings and musical realignments of competing camps of musicians and orchestras. These range from the earliest generation of stars like Wendo, Bowane, and Kabasele, to Congo’s fourth musical generation which emerged with a group of young musicians around the orchestra Wenge Musica in the late 1980s. In between, the author describes the rise and fall of Congo popular music, from the coming of age of Congolese music in the 1960s with the generation of Tabu Ley and, above all, the musical giant Franco, to the massive fuite en avant of Congolese musicians in the diaspora, mostly in Europe and West Africa. What Stewart’s account makes painfully clear is how much the political climate of the later Mobutu years, in which musicians found it increasingly hard to survive artistically at home, affected the development of Congo music.
African Affairs

Attention all sapeurs and devotees de la musique soukous or rumba rock. Here comes a handsome 400 page tome that celebrates the music of the Congo, from both banks of the river....Gary Stewart is a deeply knowledgeable and passionate narrator.
Straight No Chaser