Review of the El Congo Brazza (2003) Kin album
by Bob W. White.
Rumba without sweat
El Congo Brazza Kin
Democratic Republic of the Congo
Rumba Without Sweat
Rumba without sweat. This is what the grandfather of Congolese popular dance music says when you ask him what the difference is between the music of today’s youth in Kinshasa and the music he was playing in bars and bistros when Kinshasa was Leopoldville and the Congo was still Belgian. What he means is that young people today dance and shout too much and that the definition of Congolese rumba is to be found in its easy, slow swing: “bina malembe”. In 1999, I had the pleasure of accompanying Wendo during his first U.S. tour. Much like the characters in Wim Wenders’ tale of “discovery”, Wendo was well into his 70s and he was having a late career comeback. We talked about his career and his music and by coincidence the newspaper on the table was talking about the latest tour of the Buena Vista Social Club. I asked him if he knew these artists and he vaguely recognized them: “This guy I know him. I don’t know his name but I’ve seen him before in Paris. They’re good musicians.”
Clearly this album is trying to ride the Buena Vista wave (whose wake is filled with spin-off projects): “But in its way, this session was as historic, and as sweet and swinging, as the famous Buena Vista Social Club gathering in Havana, Cuba a few years earlier” (liner notes). But how many people know that the original Buena Vista was supposed to be a collaboration between African rumba musicians and Cuban rumba musicians? The only reason it didn’t work is because there were visa problems for the artists from Africa. The injustice of history strikes again. But Congolese musicians who know about the Buena Vista phenomenon are quick to point out that the world music industry has it all wrong: the various African nostalgia rumba projects (Ricardo Lemvo, Africando, Delvis Salsero) are not derivative of Afro-Cuban son. It is Afro-Cuban son that is derivative of African rumba. History tells us as much and now, once again, the music industry creates an authenticity that reproduces itself endlessly like a genetically modified eggplant.
“El Congo Brazza Kin” unfortunately only reinforces this problem. Not only because it brings together an oddball collection of musicians, periods and styles that have very little to do with each other (Wendo, the first urban popular musician to get a local contract with producers during the colonial period, Antoine Mundanda the primary figure of a terribly marginalized style of likembe playing hailing from the other Congo, and the Rumbanella Band a group of musicians who used to play with Bosco Mwenda in the other extremity of the country and who mostly cover the music of African Jazz), but also because the presentation (adorned with the admittedly beautiful photography of Yves Pitchen) mixes the 1st generation of Congolese urban popular music (Wendo) with the fourth. Musically speaking, Mundanda is always interesting and this song features some social critique, which is not common in Kinshasa these days. Wendo is great, but then he is always great, in part because of his voice and in part because his band has some of the most professional unsung musicians of the entire Kinshasa music scene. Rumbanella, the group with the most songs, is not at the same level as these greats, and it makes me wonder why the producers didn’t make an album with only Rumbanella. Maybe they didn’t trust their artists? Maybe they thought they could produce some good old fashioned Congolese rumba, without having to work up a sweat…?