Nestled in the heart of the Continent, the Central African Republic is surrounded by some of Africa’s most fertile musical cultures, and over the last fifty years her musicians have struggled, and continue to struggle, to make themselves heard above the din of Cameroonian and Congolese rhythms that flood the region’s airwaves. Despite the many professional and existential challenges Central African musicians have had to overcome (the music industry in CAR is probably the least developed in the region) they have nevertheless created their own ‘ragged but right’ sound; a more relaxed and rambling take on the rumba.
The story of the ‘Bangui Rumba’ starts with the guitar player Prosper Mayélé. He grew up, in the 1940s, listening to the recordings of Wendo Kolosoy, Henri Bowane, Jhimmy Zacharie (whose mother was from the Oubangui-Chari region, now part of the CAR), Camille Feruzi and Leon Bukasa; the first generation of modern Congolese recording artists, and the founders of ‘modern’ Central African music. By the time he graduated from Bangui’s vocational school in 1954, with a degree in carpentry, he was already an impressive guitar player. The young Prosper got a chance to prove his talents, in 1953, when one of his heroes, Joseph ‘le Grand Kallé’ Kabasele, came to Bangui to play the opening of the bar ‘Le Rex’. In need of a rhythm guitar player-the African Jazz’s ‘Dechaud, the great Dr. Nico’s brother, couldn’t make the trip to Bangui- Kallé hired Prosper for their New Year’s Eve gig, and was impressed with the results.
Encouraged by Kallé’s compliments, Prosper decided to start his own group. The ‘Tropical Jazz’, Bangui’s first ‘modern’ orchestra, was born in 1954, and for the next five years was the house band at ‘Le Rex’. In 1963, after a few years as the house band at the ‘Mbiye Bar’, a recording debut at ‘Radio Bangui’ (which was opened in 1958), and enough success to create some tensions, the group split in two. Prosper Mayélé’s new band was ‘l’Orchestre Centrafrican Jazz’, and for the next eleven years they were the most popular group in the Central African Republic.
In the mid-seventies the orchestra’s glory days came to an end. The story goes that President Bokassa-soon to be emperor Bokassa- felt threatened by their popularity (he was supposedly particularly envious of Prosper) and pulled the plug. In 1976, Mayélé, who must have been at least in his late thirties by then, was conscripted into the army and assigned to the ‘Commando Jazz’, a military orchestra that was under Bokassa’s thumb. Prosper Mayélé passed away on October 12, 1997.
This 1966 single features two tracks recorded in the studios of Radio Bangui, and released on the ‘Disques France-Afrique’ label; a label that belonged to Herve Victor Lejuste, a Franco-Caribbean who arrived in Bangui during the colonial era and left in 1972. The b-side is an instrumental that features Prosper Mayélé’s guitar playing. Over a rhythm that he calls the ‘Lingbonga’, Prosper plays a series of muted riffs that bring to mind the traditional harps or xylophones of the Central African Republic.
The A-side of this single features the singer and composer Dr. Wetch, considered one of the greatest lyricists of modern Central African music. He was born Darma Michel in Cameroun in the early 1940s, and while still a teenager was a member, along with his friend Tchana Pierre (who had a string of regional hits in the 1970s), of the ‘Sonorita Jazz’. For several years the group had a regular gig at the Pezzena Bar in the Madagascar neighborhood of Yaoundé. In 1964, Dr. Wetch moved to Bangui and became one of the lead vocalists of ‘l’Orchestre Centrafrican Jazz’. Dr. Wetch was with the group until they fell apart in 1974.
About ten years ago, along with ‘Mimox’ another original member of the group, Dr. Wetch reformed the ‘Centrafrican Jazz’. The group is currently recording at Bangui’s Studio Bonga Bonga, and hopes to have a new CD on the market by the end of 2009. This next track is the first part of a very popular four-song sequence that tells of a dispute that Dr. Wetch had with his wife Marie. One morning Marie asked Dr. Wetch if she could go back to her village to see her parents. He consented and Marie left. Four months later Dr. Wetch started to grow frustrated, he missed his wife, and was tired of doing the cooking. Dr. Wetch then composed a song to remind Marie of her marital duties. Marie responded that her visit had been prolonged because she was helping her parents work their fields. In the final song of the series he expresses how happy he is to have his wife back by his side.
While the Bokassa years spelled the end of ‘l’Orchestre Centrafrican Jazz’ they were the golden age of the ‘Tropical Fiesta’. The group was formed by Charlie Perrière, who was born on August 12, 1946 in Bangui and started singing with his church choir in 1957. In the early 1960s, Charlie played guitar in both ‘l’Orchestre Centrafrican Jazz’ and with the ‘Orchestre Vibro-Succès’ (the other group that was born of the split of the original ‘Tropical Jazz’). On February 2, 1965 Charlie founded the ‘Tropical Fiesta’ to perform at a local kermesse, or church fair.
In 1966, President Bokassa adopted the ‘Tropical Fiesta’, and the group became the unofficial national orchestra. Over the next six years the group would represent the Central African Republic in Romania, France, Greece, Egypt, the Cote D’Ivoire, Cameroon, Gabon, Uganda, Zaire, and Nigeria (the group performed at the Festac in 1977). With Emperor Bokassa’s overthrow in 1979 the ‘Tropical Fiesta’ lost their primary sponsor and much of their audience. The group disbanded and Charlie Perrière spent most of the 1980s in France. In the mid 1990s Charlie returned to Bangui, handed the ‘Tropical Fiesta’ over to Aggas Zokoko, and devoted himself to religious music. Under Zokoko’s leadership the group has released 5 cassettes in the last fifteen years, and currently plays every Sunday evening at the Hotel Levis, in Bangui’s Lakoanga neighborhood.
These next two cuts were composed by Zokoko. The first track on this cassette, ’50eme anniversaire’ was written to celebrate Aggas’s fiftieth birthday. The track features a nice vocal cameo by one of the group’s longtime fans, a Senegalese silversmith by the name of Seck. Aggas told me that Seck loved the ‘Tropical Fiesta’ so much that he used to show up for all their rehearsals and all their concerts. He would sit back and sing along lustily with his favorite songs. Impressed with his voice, Aggas invited Seck to sing a verse in Wolof on this birthday tribute. Seck left Bangui several years ago and moved to Maroua in eastern Cameroon.
Next up is ‘Francilienne’, another Aggas Zokoko composition. He tells the story of one of his close friends’ marital troubles. This is a rumba that features some nice guitar playing by Yamssa Yaya, who just celebrated his fiftieth birthday two weeks ago.
The group ‘Tchuna BG Excellence’, led by the singer and composer Petit Centro, has been together for about eight years. They continue to perform occasionally at the Excellence Bar in Bangui, but like many groups in the Central African Republic they struggle to keep their musical dreams alive. (One musician I spoke with told me that most of Bangui’s groups do not own their own instruments, and are forced to rent guitars, amplifiers, drumsets, etc… whenever they get a gig).
These next two tracks feature the lead guitar playing of ‘Major Danger’.
One of the Central African Republic’s most interesting musical styles was born back in 1981, when two different groups of young musicians in the southern city of Mbaiki, the provincial capital of the Lobaye region, were brought together by a civil servant named Wanto Athanase. The new group was called ‘Zokela’, and they called their style of music the ‘Montè-Nguènè’, which translates as joy or pleasure. Their music drew on the traditional repertoires of the Ngbaka, Mbati, and Monzombo ethnic groups; the guitar parts in particular were inspired by the ‘N’Gombi’ or 10-string harp popular in the Lobaye region. Wanto Athanase set the musicians up with instruments and in 1983 brought them to Bangui to record at the ABC studios. These first recording sessions, with hits like ‘Waligno na Lambaki’, launched the group’s national reputation. Over the next twenty years Zokela toured throughout the Central African Republic and turned the ‘Montè-Nguènè’ into a nationally appreciated genre, with lyrics in Sango-often dealing with social problems-that spoke to all Central Africans.
The group’s popularity created tensions and in 1999 the Zokela split into four rival groups; Zokela del Wantal, Zokela Mon Ticket, Zokela Iti Maiti, and Zokela Montè-Nguènè. Today, only two of the Zokelas remain, Zokela del Wantal which has become Zokela de Centrafrique under the direction of Kaida Monganga, and Zokela Iti Maiti under the direction of Dibaba Alagom.
These next two tracks were recorded, in 2005, by Zokela de Centrafrique at Bangui’s Studio Bonga Bonga. Both of these songs were composed by Kaida Monganga, and feature the exciting guitar playing of Tongo Star. The group’s biggest hit is ‘Affaire Visa’ which tells the story of their difficulties with the French embassy. In 2004, the group was preparing for a tour of France and after weeks of gathering contracts, affidavits, passports and deposits, the French embassy, on the day they were to fly out of Bangui, scuttled the trip. Kaida expressed his frustrations in this song.
‘Sanfou Nakoli’ tells the story of an independent woman, who doesn’t depend on any man, she has her own job, and provides for herself.
Kaida Mongana and the Zokela de Centrafrique continue to perform occasionally on Friday evenings at the ‘Cave des Copains’, a bar in Bangui’s Castor neighborhood, and at weddings and traditional ceremonies in Bangui. The group has a new album already recorded but has not yet found a producer willing to release it.
This post is based on interviews with Regis Sissoko, Dr. Wetch, Aggas Zokoko, Kaida Monganga, and Dibaba Alagom in Bangui, and draws on the research of Sultan Zambellat (check out his website devoted to Central African music www.maziki.net). Special thanks to Alex Balu and Thierry Mbomba for their help.