The Evolution of Rumba
One of the most loved and inspiring music to emerge from Africa – the Congos specifically – is rumba, which is also spelt rhumba.
Researchers contend that rumba emerged from some parts of America as early as 1900.
Although there is no mention of the African slave links, it’s believed that the Africans who founded rumba and were influenced by Cuban music worked on farms.
At the time, the only instruments were empty bottles, guitars and likembe or sanza, a mbira-like instrument where musicians use thumbs.
By 1930, the music had grown so much that some radio stations picked it up and helped in spreading it across the world.
Between the 1940s and 1950s, enterprising musicians had started using electric guitars to improve the sounds.
When the music was brought back to Africa and landed in Congo, it assumed the name soukous derived from the French word meaning “shake” because it’s a danceable beat.
Once in the Congos, the music was given a ‘shake-up’ in the form of the introduction of more instruments such as the rolling double bass, clips, brass and wind instruments, congas as well as mainly male vocals.
With time, a third guitar-line known as the 'mi-solo', which fills up the gap between the rhythm and the lead guitars, was brought in to complete the repertoire.
Early rumba groups were orchestras and indeed their names had orchestra this-and-orchestra-that or had jazz-something as part of their names.
Most of the groups were formed along the American-style bands, which were called by the Congolese kasongos or kirikiris before Tabu Ley Rochereau ‑ one of the pioneers of soukous ‑ brought up the term soukous in 1966.
At a later stage, we shall touch on another Zimbabwean group whose members were trained as guerrillas in Tanzania where they started playing east African rumba using the name Kasongo Band.
The growth of rumba in the Congos – Congo Brazzaville and the Democratic Republic of the Congo – was a result of rapid urbanisation.
The earliest people who pioneered the music were among others the late Antoine Wendo Kolosoy known as Papa Wendo, who is the father of Congolese rumba music for his pioneering work in fusing cha-cha, tango, beguine and waltz to come up with soukous. Wendo, who died in 2008, was a boatman.
Ley was part of the group African Jazz together with Joseph Grand Kalle Kabasselleh; Manu Dibango who plays the saxophone; and Nico Kasanda who was nicknamed the Docteur for his guitar-playing prowess.
There was also the group OK Jazz that featured Franco (real name François Luambo Luanzo Makiadi) whose nickname was the Sorcerer of the Guitar for his strumming that was described by many fans and music critics as fluid and effortless.
Alongside Franco was Jean-Serge Essous. The third most popular group at the time was Orchestre Bella Mambo, formed by Kanda Bongo Man and his brothers, Soki Vangu and Soki Dianzenza.
The group later split and changed its name to Orchestre Bella Bella, which sheltered Pepe Kalle (Kabasele Yampanya) in the early 70s.
Pepe Kalle was inspired by Joseph Grand Kalle Kabasselleh, hence, the adoption of the stage name Le Grand Kallé.
He would later be dubbed The Elephant of African Music or La Bombe Atomique by his fans.
Later, these groups split into other more formidable bands. For example, Franco changed the OK Jazz into TP OK Jazz that accommodated more musicians such as Kiamanguana Mateta, whose saxophone work changed soukous into a ‘relaxed, sensual, languid’ type of music, which was very popular in the late 1960s.
The rhythm was expanded further when more creative instrumentalists such as Mose Fan Fan joined the group.
Ley also moved on from African Jazz to form African Fiesta where he teamed up with Sam Mangwana, Huit-Kilos Bimwela Nseka and M’bilia Bel.
It was at this time when Ley started performing in huge concerts where he turned the performances into lurid shows in imitation of Parisian rock cabarets.
Fan Fan later had his own group, the Band Somo Somo; Sam Mangwana had the African All Stars while Papa Wemba formed Viva La Musica; and Mateta founded Orchestre Veve.
Other groups were Zaiko Langa Langa; Orchestre Virunga while individuals who contributed immensely to the growth of soukous were Diblo Dibala, who played the guitar for Kanda Bongo Man.
There were others too such as orchestres Kamale, Kiam, Lipua-Lipua and Empire Bukuba.
With each group came different dance routines but what stood out in all of them was the use of animation where a member of the group yells instructions to the audience either on each dance move or about the musicians.
This is still very popular with all rumba groups, especially in Zimbabwe where a rumba offshoot, sungura, employs several such men who chant and move the audiences with praises for their leaders and band as well as scornful phrases for rivals.
The man who brought up this animation was a guitarist called Jimmy Elenga.
In the Congo, however, during the political upheavals, some rumba groups would animate or chant about the troubles and problems besieging the people. This became known as l'animation politique.
But with more and more political uncertainty in the Congos, rumba musicians escaped to Europe, east and southern Africa where they continued playing but different forms of rumba namely kwasa kwasa and Ndobolo.