rumba on the river

abetiVictoria Eleison, Congolese band, formed 1982. Notable early members: Pepe Bipoli (born Kinshasa, May 14, 1955; vocal), "Huit Kilos" Nseka Bimwela (born Congo-Kinshasa; guitar), "Kester" Emeneya Mubiala (born Kinshasa, Nov. 23, 1956; vocal), "Tofla" Tofolo Kitoko (born Congo-Kinshasa, 1955?; guitar), "Patcho Star" Mpasi Samba (born Congo-Kinshasa; drums).

Victoria belongs to the extended family of bands descended from Zaiko Langa Langa commonly referred to as Clan Langa Langa. The link was an earlier Zaiko descendant, Viva la Musica, where most of Victoria's first members were originally employed. With the promise of assistance from producer Verckys Kiamuangana, ten musicians left Viva in 1972 to form Victoria Eleison. They combined the brief prayer Kyrie eleison with victoria, from victory, to get the name.

Charismatic singer "Kester" Emeneya led the band from its Christmas Eve debut onward. He sang lead vocals, wrote much of the group's material, and immediately became the star attraction. Victoria echoed the "youth band" style pioneered by Zaiko, roughing up the rumba to achieve a more strident sound than older Congolese bands produced. Early hits included "Sans Préavis" (without notice), the story of a woman who sacrificed to preserve her marriage only to be divorced in the end, and "Kimpiatu" (a man's name), about a man whose romance is destroyed by false rumors. Victoria played regularly in Kinshasa's clubs and traveled to Europe for an occasional concert and recording session.

As Victoria's sound began to mature, horns were added to the mix for the first time for the 1987 album Deux Temps (two tenses). Personnel changed as deserters came and went. New recruits included drummer "Dju Dju Chet" Luvemba and guitarist Safro Manzangi. Emeneya himself stepped out for a 1987 solo album, Nzinzi (the fly). Nzinzi, a rumba-free electronic orgy signaled his new approach to the music. Like his mentor, Viva leader Papa Wemba, Emeneya would begin to pursue a more "international" sound.

Emeneya moved his musicians to Paris in the early nineties. The band played an occasional concert, but beyond that a dearth of recordings kept Victoria's profile unusually low. Emeneya, by that point calling himself "King Kester," released Everybody, an unsuccessful, highly commercial solo in 1993. The full band's rumba-based Pas de Contact from 1995 met a better reception. Succès Fous, a 1997 release, placed the band back on an international track with a mélange encumbered by synthesizer and drum machine.
Following the release of Succès Fous, Victoria staged a grand homecoming concert in a Kinshasa stadium and recorded a double CD, Mboka Mboka, in one of the capital's few remaining studios. The musicians received a warm reception, but Congo's economic and political woes made it almost impossible for bands to survive at home. Victoria remained based in Paris.

The early 2000s found King Kester and a newer, more youthful Victoria "Dream Team Dream Band" in excellent form. The highlight of this resurgence came toward the end of 2001-early 2002 with a European tour that included highly acclaimed dates in Paris at both the Zenith and Olympia concert halls—the latter included a guest appearance by Tabu Ley. The double CD, humbly entitled Rendre à Cesar (2002), re-creates some of the songs from the Zenith show; Tout en Live (2002) presents a selection of songs recorded live at both concerts. Another drought followed, broken in 2007 by a new studio album, Le Jour le Plus Long, recorded with yet another re-vamped line-up.

Victoria Eleison is one of the best known of Congolese bands, yet it suffers from a lack of consistency. Periods of great creativity have been followed by fallow times. Emeneya, it seems, is forever re-thinking his music. The resulting oscillation between rumba roots and commercial excess has diminished the band's overall audience.
© 2011 Gary Stewart

Les Meilleurs Succès de Victoria Eleison (vols. 1-3, Flash Diffusion FDB300092, FDB300093, & FDB300102) eighties recordings reissued 1993; Pas de Contact (Sonodisc CDS8813) 1996; Mboka Mboka (B.H. Electronic 08895-2) 1998; Longue Histoire (Calbass, no number) 2000; Rendre à Cesar (AFM Productions, no number) 2002; Tout en Live (Mega Net 230902) 2002; Le Jour le Plus Long (Kiki Production K1054) 2007.

C. Stapleton & C. May, African All-Stars (London, 1987); M. Sinnock, "Everybody Talk'bout!" The Beat (vol. 15, no. 6, 1996); M. Sinnock, "The Man Who Would Be King," The Beat (vol. 17, no. 5, 1998); G. Stewart, Rumba on the River (London and New York, 2000); M. Sinnock, "Vive le Roi!", The Beat (vol. 21, no. 4, 2002).