Many of the most interesting recordings in our archives are frustratingly mysterious; they have no track listings, no recording dates, no recording location, and no list of band members. One of the more enigmatic tapes in our collection is a reel sent to us from the United States Information Service Officer in Brazzaville back in 1961. This reel is part of a set of two that the accompanying memorandum, dated October 25, 1961, calls ‘Congolese town music’.
The first reel, which I posted back in 2007, features the great Orchestre Bantous de la Capitale. Its’ twin, is a recording of the elusive Orchestre Novelty, described in the USIS memorandum as ‘a somewhat younger organization with plenty of swing’. The memorandum helpfully adds, ‘Congolese town musicians play cha-cha-cha’s, merengues, rhumbas, and some tangos with a beat that is unmistakably Congolese. The rhythms of these dances which originated in Africa returned to Africa to be reinterpreted. The sample we are forwarding reflects the hybrid yet unique character of African town life today’. Not much useful information for the hungry musical archaeologist to sink his teeth into.
What is the story of the Orchestre Novelty? What became of them? These are questions, that over the last couple of years, whenever I had a few spare moments, I have tried to answer. With the help of generous colleagues in Brazzaville and Kinshasa I have been able to piece together an outline of the story of the Orchestre Novelty. I usually won’t post a feature until I have exhausted every possible lead and shaken every bush that crosses my path but, even though I am still on the trail of the Orchestre Novelty, I thought, given the great interest in Congolese music in the blogosphere, that I would share my skeletal outline in the hopes that you can help me flesh out the story of the Orchestre Novelty.
The Orchestre Novelty was founded in Brazzaville in 1959 by the bass player Montou Typoa and the saxophonist Paul Ngombe aka ‘Penki’. The guitar chair was held down by Joseph Samba ‘Mascott’, who went on to play with the Orchestre Bantous, and the vocal frontline featured Toussaint Mobenga, a singer remembered by his nickname ‘Batanga’-who it was said was so short that he had to stand on two stacked beer cases to reach the microphone- and Yano, whose last name no one seems to recall.
After a few years in Brazzaville, the group moved down to the port city of Pointe Noire. In 1966, the group split apart, with Samba Mascott going to the Orchestre Bantous, Toussaint Mobenga starting a new group ‘Africa Mode Matata’, and Penki launching the ‘Orchestre Mentha Lokoka’. Most of the members of the Orchestre Novelty seem to have passed away, but I have heard that Penki is alive, and hopefully well, still living in Pointe Noire. I am trying to track down his phone number and remain optimistic that he will be able to share the story of the Orchestre Novelty with us.
This recording, which was provided to the USIS officer in Brazzaville by the director of Radio Congo, was, I imagine, made in the studios of Radio Congo. The opening track is an instrumental rave-up with a very nice percussion break and some tasteful guitar playing by Samba Mascott.
The Orchestre Novelty appears to have benefited from the support and the patronage of the ‘Bana Nova’, a mutual-aid society in Brazza (these societies provided crucial support to many Orchestras of the era). In this track Toussaint Mobenga (?) sings, ‘It was not yet time for me to leave. Every since I left people have been begging me to return. Those who are against Nova were rejoicing. But I am back, once again within the warm embrace of the Bana Nova’.
This next track is a more conventional love song. ‘I am still a bachelor. I am not going to get married. Think of me Josephine, you have no regrets, you don’t think of your family. Falling in love with someone is a mistake, after you my heart is not the same’.
The fourth track on the reel is an instrumental dedicated to the ‘Bana Nova’. The refrain goes ‘Orchestra Nova, Novelty a fashionable orchestra’.
This track is another romantic tearjerker. ‘Think of me, think of what you are doing. There is no illness more virulent than love’.
The final track on the reel is a slow shuffle, a love song featuring some ripe clarinet playing by Paul Ngombe aka Penki: another wistful melody that nostalgically evokes the optimistic years of African independence.
Thanks to Fatouma Kalala for help with the translations and to Maitre Pierre Kalala, Maman Eugenie Lutula, and Buké Georges in Kinshasa. In Brazzaville, Adrien Wayi and especially Médard Miloundou provided most of the detailed information I have been able to pull together.