Show #238: A Taste of Congolese Rumba

Written by

African music traveled to the New World with slavery, only to return to Africa in the 1930’s and 40’s via 78 rpm phonograph records, broadcast by Radio Congo Belge in Léopoldville (now Kinshasha), Congo. Ironically, rumba was and is the most African music and dance form in Cuba, whereas Congolese rumba finds its roots in Cuban son rather than rumba.

West African nations like Congo, Senegal, Mali, Benin, and Guinea loved Cuban and Puerto Rican music—whether on the airwaves or on the dancefloor. Malian photographers like Malick Sidibé and Seydou Keïta captured Africans partying to latest from Johnny Pacheco, Celia Cruz, Beny Moré, and Miguelito Valdés. Cuban music also became increasingly popular in newly-independent West African nations because of Fidel Castro’s revolution against the capitalist mantle of Fulgencia Batista in January 1959. The Africans identified with the coming of Castro, which mirrored the end of colonial rule.

The seminal early recordings of Joseph Kabasele (aka Le Grand Kallé) such as “Independence Cha Cha” and “Afrika Mokili Mobimba” influenced all groups that followed. The latter Grand Kallé classic was the theme song for the long-running KCRW show The African Beat (1982-1992), hosted by C.C. Smith, Solomon Solo, and Ade James.

On this show we feature just a handful of the African bands that made Congolese rumba famous. We begin with a very early recording by Franco Luambo (aka Franco) called “Merengue” from 1956. Franco later formed TPOK Jazz (Tout Puissant OK Jazz), whose motto read, “on entre ok, on sort ko” (you come in okay, you leave knocked out). Franco was a large man and a larger-than-life figure in the Kinshasha, Brussels, and Paris music scenes.


We follow with a longer dance song from 1992 featuring Pepe Kalle (aka La Bombe Atomique de la Rumba Congolaise), Simaro, and Carlito. This personal favorite of mine stretches out to over 10’ long and keeps the dancefloor moving.

Two queens of Congolese rumba are next. First we hear Mbilia Bel from her excellent and informative box set, Bel Canto. I enjoyed her show at the Veteran’s Auditorium in Culver City years ago. Tshala Muana then sings the beautiful ballad “Emony” from her CD Biduaya.

We conclude with Tabu Ley Rochereau, once a star singer with the band African Fiesta, who later formed his band Orchestre Afrisa International. When the dictator and kleptocrat Mobutu Sese Seko died in 1997, Rochereau became the Congolese Minister of Culture, appointed by the new Laurent Kabila government. I once saw him perform at West Hollywood’s wonderful nightclub Luna Park.

Congolese rumba is dance music and many of the tracks are long, so this playlist just gives a small glimpse and taste of this wonderful African music. For those interested in hearing more African music, I suggest the great podcast series from Afropop Worldwide.

Here is “Independence Cha Cha” from Le Grand Kallé:

Rhythm Planet Playlist for 11/24/17

  1. Franco / “Merengue” / The Rough Guide to Franco/ World Music Network
  2. Pepe Kalle, Simaro, Carlito / “Affaire Kitikwala” / Pepe Kalle/Simaro/Carlito/ Flash Diffusion
  3. Mbilia Bel / “Ba Gerants ya Mabala” / Bel Canto: The Best of the Genidia Years / Sterns Arc LTD
  4. Tshala Muana / “Emony” / Biduaya / Celluloid
  5. Tabu Ley Rochereau / “C’est Comme Ca La Vie” / C’est Comme Ca La Vie / Sonodisc