Bakongo roots from the D. R. Congo

Posted April 8th, 2008 at 11:37 pm (UTC-4)
10 comments

I will never forget the first time I heard the group ‘Konono # 1′ from Kinshasa. It was back in the fall of 1995, when I working in a record store in Cambridge, MA. One afternoon a friend-and fellow music enthusiast- came in to browse through whatever new releases had arrived that day, and as he made his way through our large collection of African music, he pulled out a CD called ‘Musiques Urbaines à Kinshasa’. He handed me the disc and said, ‘if you haven’t heard this yet, put it on before you leave tonight’. A little later, when the store was empty, I cracked open the case, and dropped the disc into the stereo. I listened to ‘Musiques Urbaines à Kinshasa’ for the next four hours straight, turning up the volume every twenty minutes. By closing time it felt like ‘Le Tout Puissant Konono # 1′ had replaced my brain; the bass-Likembe runs rippled through my nervous system, every cymbal crash soothed the muscles in my neck, and the rhythmic accents of the whistle made my ears prick up like a hunting dog’s.

When I finally made it to Kinshasa, in November of 2003, I hassled my hosts, and everyone else I spoke with, until I found a cassette vendor who could scratch my itch for more ‘urban’ roots music from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. My obsessive-and I imagine, annoying- behavior led me first to a market stall in Matonge (the neighborhood that has long been Kinshasa’s musical heart) with shelves full of cassettes, mostly of religious recordings.

One of the best of the batch I picked up in Matonge was this cassette by ‘l’Orchestre Yamba Yamba Beto Ba’. The group was founded in Kinshasa by Makengo Makape, and has been together for several decades. Their sound is rooted in the musical traditions of the Bantandu people, who are a subgroup of the Bakongo. (The roughly 10 million souls who consider themselves Bakongo are spread between the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Republic of the Congo, and Angola. The Bakongo are a blend of different peoples who, over the centuries, have assimilated the Kongo culture and language: an assimilation that started with political domination of the region by the Kongo Kingdom in the 15th century. Some of the many Bakongo subgroups are the Mayombe, the Bantandu, the Laari, the Vili, and the Bazombe-Konono’s repertoire is based in Bazombe musical traditions. Each of these groups speaks their own dialect of Kikongo.) The ‘Orchestre Yamba Yamba Beto Ba’s grooves are built around the guitars of Maitre Makape and his colleague Lutumba, with a Likembe holding down the bass, and embroidered by bells, rattles, and percussion.

The next, and most rewarding stop, on my musical scavenger hunt through greater Kinshasa was at the main market in Selembao, which is a dense suburb, southwest of downtown Kinshasa. My friend Jean-Paul took me to ‘Edition Mongo Kibila’, the retail outlet of Papa Ya Nsiala. From ten feet away I knew that Papa Ya Nsiala had what I was looking for. His shop consisted of a countertop, cassette deck, amplifier, and huge speakers at the front of a bar. Under the countertop were boxes with dozens of cassettes, and each time he put a new one into the deck, the patrons in the bar expressed their approval with loud cry’s and wobbly dance moves.

Papa Ya Nsiala was born in December of 1956, in the village of Kevuka, in the Lukaya District, which is part of the Bas-Congo Province (which translates as the ‘Lower Congo Province’-the name refers to the river- and is also the home of the Bakongo people). He came to Kinshasa, after his father died, in 1969, and was taken in by his uncle Alamoule, who was a music producer who had worked with Tabu Ley Rochereau and Franco. Ya Nsiala soon found work on the production line of the Phillips vinyl factory, which pressed the 45 rpm singles, and 33 rpm lps, that kept Kinshasa ‘on the good foot’. Even before Papa Ya Nsiala arrived in Kinshasa he was crazy about Bakongo traditional music, what in Kinshasa is called ‘le folklore’.

In 1970, after seeing an inspiring performance by a 12-year-old musician by the name of Koko Shando, who was also from the Bas-Congo Province, Papa Ya Nsiala decided to get into music production. With the help of his uncle, he opened his first stall in Selembao, and released his first recording of Koko Shando. Almost forty years later, Papa Ya Nsiala, under his label ‘Edition Mongo Kibila’ (with the exception of a few titles under an ancillary label), has released just over 200 different titles of Bakongo ‘folklore’. He told me that the most popular cassettes in his catalog have sold over 10,000 copies.

Koko Shando’s best selling release from the late 1990s, which is also Papa Ya Nsiala’s best-selling production, is ‘Kibwisa Muini’. It features the Likembe driven sound that he performs at weddings, funerals, and baptisms throughout Selembao, greater Kinshasa, and the Bas-Congo region.

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    Koko Shando ‘Nkinsangu’

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    Koko Shando ‘Luzolo Luntima

Another group that Papa Ya Nsiala has been working with throughout the last ten years is ‘l’Orchestre Maita 1er de Ya Garry’, a band that has 15 members, and are based in the Gafani neighborhood of Selembao. They have released three cassettes on ‘Edition Mongo Kibila’, but their best remains their first release ‘Lumata’.

The group’s sound is similar to that of ‘l’Orchestre Yamba Yamba Beto Ba’, anchored by some nice rhythm guitar playing, and two Likembes.

As Papa Ya Nsiala told me, ‘the new dances of Wazekwa, Werrason, and all of the modern musicians, capture the attention of the public for a few months, then disappear. But the ‘folklore’ that we produce and promote stays for years’.

Special thanks to Eddy Isango in Kinshasa for his translating help.

10 Responses to “Bakongo roots from the D. R. Congo”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thankyou for this wonderful music it reminds me of the riverboat to kisingani and my travels in 1989 and again in 1994 in gabadolite, bumba kisingani, bunia and goma. I caught a bad case of malaria but I also met some wonderful people. With such music and such joy in peoples hearts how can we hear such sad and terrible stories from the heart of Africa.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Hi Matthew – been enjoying your blog since it began – thank you.
    I just revisited your blog on Kinshasa as I will be heading there
    for a week in December … and I am hopeful of making some
    ‘musical scavenger time’ inbetween work and track down
    Papa Ya Nsiala at Selembao.
    My interest is more in vinyl than tapes – any tips? what chances?
    Kind regards
    Chris Albertyn
    South Africa

  3. Anonymous says:

    Hello Chris,
    Thanks for your encouragement and support for the blog. When I was in Kinshasa I didn’t find any vinyl. I was looking for singles by the Orchestre Kiam (who are one of my favorite groups) and couldn’t find anything. I went to all of the music shops I could find in Matonge, stopped by Veve’s complex, and searched in some other neighborhoods as well. I had no luck. I am still convinced that there are stashes of vinyl hiding in greater Kinshasa. You should give Papa Ya Nsiala a call. His number is (0)81-29-86-441. His first job in Kinshasa was working at an lp pressing plant, and his uncle was a producer in the 1970s and 1980s. Papa Ya Nsiala may have some leads for vinyl.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I definitely was enchanted back to the good old traditional music of different countries in Africa between the 1940s and late 1960s. Those were the real music with feelings expressed in songs and cultural music instruments. Today we are living in a twighlight zone with unwarranted lyrics demeaning the real fruitful lives in the past where folklores and story tellers had more respect while entertaining community setting settings. The echoes past translated the originality that cannot be duplicated. I thank you very much for the hard work in tracing good old music to enliven a 69 year old man like me. May God Bless You.

  5. Anonymous says:

    This is great stuff, Matthiew. This is MY music tradition I grew up with as a Muntandu. You finally went to Kinshasa.
    Thank you for the treat. I will pass the link to many of my brothers and sisters.
    Could you contact me so we can talk/discuss your work among Bantandu?
    Mbala.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I wish this blog would continue since it’s introduced me to so much colorful African music!

  7. African Beat says:

    Awesome blog! Congo Music, Rule the African Air Waves from East to West and from Malta to Roben Island!

    African Beat.

  8. Hello there! I know this is kinda off topic nevertheless I’d figured I’d ask. Would you be interested in exchanging links or maybe guest authoring a blog post or vice-versa? My website covers a lot of the same topics as yours and I feel we could greatly benefit from each other. If you happen to be interested feel free to shoot me an e-mail. I look forward to hearing from you! Fantastic blog by the way!

  9. I have a dog named miracle and I love her, she certainly is a miracle.

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Heather Maxwell produces and hosts the award-winning radio program “Music Time in Africa” and is the Africa Music Director for the Voice of America. Heather is an ethnomusicologist with Doctorate and Master’s degrees from Indiana University specializing in African Music. She is also an accomplished jazz and Afrojazz/Afrosoul vocalist and has been working, researching, and performing in Africa and the U.S. since 1987.

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