Central African Music

Back to main

The main music style of central Africa is the Congolese rumba, also called Zairean rumba before the country, which was called Congo-Léopoldville then Zaire, become the Democratic republic of Congo.

Congolese rumba is strongly inspired by the Cuban rumba, and, thanks to the radio, spread throughout all Africa.  Franco alias François Luambo, born in Sona-Bata in 1939, died in Brussels in 1989, was the leading artist of Congolese rumba. With his orchestra «O.K. Jazz», he recorded huge number of music records. We can compare the «O.K. Jazz» orchestra with «African Jazz» orchestra of Joseph Kabasélé, alias «Big Kallé», who will be succeeded by the singer Tabu Ley Rochereau, one of the inventors of the «soukous»,  a mixture of «rumba» and «sebene» music.

These orchestras are remarkable by the vocal harmonies of the singers, which champions are Mpongo Love and Sam Mangwana. Among the other pioneers of the Congolese music, there is Wendo Kolosoy, the group Zaïko Langa Langa, and the great singer Papa Wemba who likes to be recognized as the pope of the S.A.P.E., the Company of «Ambianceurs and Elegant Persons»

Among new generation of Congolese artists, there is Kekele, the guitarist Papa Noel who plays a luminous rumba, Lokua Kanza who created his own rumba folk jazz, and So Kalmery who is the leading artist of «Brakka» music, which is a tonic and dancing music which remind us John Lee Hooker’s music. «Brakka» is a mix of rhythm’ blues and soul music. That’s not by coincidence that this great artist has played with Fela and Ben Harper.

As is so often the case, there are outsiders. Ray Lema, who settled down in France in 1983, is one of them. King and enthusiastic promoter of musical fusion, he worked with Bulgarian choirs, Stewart Copeland from the group Police, and French artist Alain Bashung. Even more unconventional, the group «Konono n°1» , which invented an astonishing way of playing thumb piano with recyclable materials along with a rudimentary but very effective electric amplification.

In Cameroon, «kalimba» (thumb piano) and the balaphon (kind of wooden xylophone) dominate the music scene. The national artist, Manu Dibango, a saxophonist and keyboards player who studied music in Paris and Brussels always performed a very open and warm music. He incorporates in it swing, Latin jazz and rhythm’ blues, and does not hesitate to experiment new style of music going as far as composing with the Classical symphony Orchestra. In 1972, when he releases his famous «Soul Makossa», he does not suspect that he will cause a musical earthquake which at the same time will establish him as one of the pioneers of the afro rock’n’roll. «Makossa»,  was already an alternative to the rumba because it was a mix of home-grown rhythms and High-Life. «Soul Makossa»,  record was known all around the world and becomes a whole new style of Afro-American music. Manu Dibango is a prototype of the «European-African». He landed in Marseille more than sixty years ago, and one of his statements of belief is to repeat that “playing music, means know how to destabilize oneself in order to discover new sensations”. He adds: “when you start from the premise that music is a diamond with many facets, you will understand that you must explore all of them. I wanted to understand: why the rumba was appreciated by the Africans? Why the Americans considered afrobeat as a diabolic music? Since, I understood what music was and I am having fun with it.”

Among the other musicians of Cameroon, we must mention Francis Bebey who is «makossa» musician and storyteller, the bassist Richard Bona who is very active in diverse musical spheres such as jazz, the singer Sally Nyolo who performed a long time with Marie Daulne in Zap Mama, a Belgian musical group.

The Gabonese musical scene, is led by Pierre Akendengue who lived many years in France and who is an adept of marriage of cultures (African and European). Alongside with his career as a musician, he became a specialist in archiving sound recordings. He records traditional music as much as birds singing.

In Angola, many artists were sent to exile. That’s the case of Bonga and Waldemar Bastos who live both in Portugal.

Lastly, Pygmies’ music is found Central Africa and Central African Republic. Pygmies’ music is performed by several ethnic groups who produce a music intensely in communion with the forest. Pygmies’ music is composed with pots, dead tree branches, Pygmies’ flutes, bow-strings with one or many strings, and songs composed with polyphonic voices.

“African unity is my obsession. The true vocation of Art is to bring peoples together. From that perspective springs my desire to work with artists coming from all parts of Africa. For my music record “Truth of Africa” [2008], I composed with Cape Verdeans musicians. I like very much the «cavaquinho» style, which is extraordinary rhythmic and melodic. However, “Truth of Africa” remains on many points an album based on Gabonese music.” Pierre Akendengue