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September 25, 2008

The Congo Shakes It Up with Soukous

by John Oseid

Globalization is not as new as we think. I was reminded of that in a small way last week when Congolese soukous singer Kanda Bongo Man stirred the crowd at New York City's Symphony Space. I heard the odd Hawaiian tone in his guitarists' playing--how did those rhythms get there? Latin influences long ago made their ways into modern African music, but Hawaiian? The absorptive power of African pop is staggering.

Hugely popular in many parts of Africa as well as in Paris clubs, soukous and its various forms evolved in the sixties out of Congolese Rumba, which itself grew of age in post-war Belgian Congo. And now, even some Latin-Caribbean artists are picking up the infectious high-pitched speedy guitar arpeggios.

On stage, the European-based Kanda has a genial presence and some quite nimble dance moves for a portly gent. He's credited with popularizing the vivacious kwassa kwassa style of dancing, in which the hands thrust forward, following swings of the hips. After a few low-key tunes, Kanda picked up the pace and the Symphony Space party was on. The audience waved its arms and women jumped on stage, matching their moves with those of the band's two professional dancers.

The above clip of Kanda at a WOMAD concert in Adelaide shows kwassa kwassa dancers and the distinctive soukous guitar sound. Here he is in Cornwall at the 2005 "Live 8: Africa Calling" debt relief concert.

Kanda's New York City show opened the World Music Institute's new season. Over the years, the non-profit organization has hosted a dizzying number of world performers in New York's premier houses, like Carnegie Hall, and sponsored national tours. Philip Glass and Ravi Shankar are among the honorary chairs.

Further reading:
* Kanda Bongo Man's early-nineties album Zing Zong is considered his classic
* Rough Guide's new compilation Congo Gold includes early soukous star Tabu Ley Rochereau, who lived for many years in the States
* In Rumba on the River: A History of the Popular Music of the Two Congos, Gary Stewart recounts the unlikely tale of Greek merchants opening Kinshasa's first recording studios in the 1940s
* The Rumba era is coeval with Patrice Lumumba's brief rule. Director Raoul Peck's acclaimed 2001 film "Lumumba" depicts the president's overthrow and 1961 murder
* Seminal soukous performer--and Lumumba confidant--Papa Wendo recently died at age 82. The U.K Guardian's obit reads like a history lesson on Belgian Congo-era music

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