Travel: Musical Expression In The Congo

Koffi Olomide. Image from

It’s crazy that in a society where simple daily needs, like food and water are a struggle to more than half of Congo’s population, yet somehow the arts have found a home. A place of creative expression is what Congo can be described as. We have talked about places you should visit in Congo and also about the incredible fashion scene in Congo – Sapeurs: The Silent Revolution In Congolese Fashion.

One of Congo’s greatest contributions to contemporary African culture has been its music. According to this article about the top 10 Musicians and bands you should know,  for decades, Congolese music has been king on the African music scene. Many have loved, cried, lived and danced to the rhythms of Congolese beats, from rumba to ballads and ndombolo. Congolese artists are legends that have filled the world’s biggest concert halls.

The first authentic Congolese musicians were troubadours of the 1940s and 1950s, travelling to perform primarily in the more remote provinces. Among the early troubadours were Antoine Wendo Kolosoyi, Tête Rossignol, Paul Kamba, Polidor, Jean-Bosco and Colon gentil. They travelled as soloists but as the music developed, the solo acts became groups, adding African drums and acoustic guitars. Antoine Kasongo, Tekele (believed to be the first female music star), and Odéon Kinois were among the first leaders of groups. Traditional music was given up by younger generations as they were shifting towards new forms and adding more instruments.

Friends of the Congo shares how the first recordings of Congolese music was made by colonial museums in 1947. At about 1953, Joseph Kabasele, one of the founding fathers, formed the African Jazz Orchestra and made a few records. Luambo Makiadi Franco, the first to begin playing cha-chas, formed the O.K. Jazz Orchestra. The influence of Cuban and Latin music began to be felt in the late 1950s. A number of Latin American records were adapted and recorded by Congolese groups. These included “Kay-Kay”, “Son”, “Tremendo”, “L’Amor”, and “Lolita”. Most composition of songs in this period has Latin rhythms and Congolese lyrics with such classics as “Indépendance Cha-cha” by Tabu Ley Rochéreau to commemorate independence, and “Cha-cha-cha de Amor” by Luambo Franco. “Congo Jazz” is used generally to describe Congolese orchestral music, with Franco, Rochéreau, and Docteur Nico among the most popular musicians. The term “Soukouma” (Lingala for “shake”) had been introduced and gradually became the dominant form of music by the late 1960s. Congolese music has become one of the most popular in Africa by this time.

By the late 1970s, as the number of bands had multiplied and the music considerably pluralized, some leaders incorporated disco, jazz, and blues harmonies into their compositions. Others preferred ballads and traditional musical forms. Although many languages were used in the lyrics, Lingala remained the most common. Several were created deriving from the African Jazz and OK Jazz; we can name Grand Zaiko of Manuaku, Viva la Musica of Papa Wemba, Choc Stars of Ben Nyamabo, Victoria Eleison of Emeneya JoKester, Quartier Latin of Koffi Olomide, Empire Bakuba of Pepe Kale, and the group Wenge Musica. This third generation of bands introduced new dances like Cavacha, Griffe Dindon, Caneton, Silauka, Kwassa Kwassa, Ndombolo etc.

Congolese musician Lokua Kanza performs with his daughter Malaika Lokua at the Apollo Theater & World Music Institute’s ‘Africa Now!’ concert in Harlem, New York, New York, March 16, 2013

Congolese musician Lokua Kanza performs with his daughter Malaika Lokua at the Apollo Theater & World Music Institute’s ‘Africa Now!’ concert in Harlem, New York, New York, March 16, 2013

Congolese music is most of all dance music, usually favoured in large, open-air dance clubs. Kinshasa used to be one of the earliest recording centres in Africa, but economic hardships and shortages of foreign exchange led the industry to decline in the late 1970s, leaving space and opportunities for other African cities like Abidjan and Lagos. Congolese orchestras frequently perform and record in Paris and Brussels. A few better known artists and orchestras manage to tour or record in the Americas, including Werrason, Koffi Olomide, JB Mpiana, Fally Ipupa, Lokua Kanza, Mbilia Bel, Kanda Bongoman just to name a few.

Kanda Bongoman

Papa Wemba

Koffi Olomide. Image from //
Koffi Olomide. Image from

Music and dance are of huge importance to Congolese people. The region’s music is sometimes referred to as ‘musique Zaïroise’ (from Zaire, the old name of the country). Many instruments are handmade and bands frequently form on the streets of towns and cities. In Goma, an annual Skiff arts festival is held as a showcase for the region’s music, poetry and films.

Awilo Logomba

Undoubtedly, Congolese have music in their blood; and it is one of the arts through which they’ve come to best express their outstanding creativity. The most striking fact is that most Congolese musicians are exclusively self-taught and exceptionally gifted. As their best form of expression, Music could potentially be the tool they use to change the state of the country.

For more information about Congolese music and a list of Congolese musicians you should check out Our Africa, and The Culture Trip.

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