Caroline Nyanga and Mike Owuor
Like a besotted lover, Syran Mbenza appears entranced by his guitar, holding it gingerly. He occasionally purses his lips, bobs his head and stares into space, but the passion is palpable as he lets his fingers speak on his behalf. The audience at Nairobi’s Club Afrique, privileged to listen to one of Africa’s finest guitarists, is thrilled. It is a name they have heard acknowledged in various songs, but few have watched him live in his element.
A few days before the February 27, Club Afrique show, where he backed up US-based singer Samba Mapangala and Orchestra Virunga, the humble 59-year-old took time off rehearsals to talk exclusively to The Standard about his vision for rumba music. He had earlier in the month accompanied Samba to Zanzibar for the Sauti Za Busara Festival.
After his disillusionment with the direction the new generation of musicians was taking, he teamed up with other veterans in 2000 to form Kekele. A highlight of the band is the use of acoustic guitar and accordion.
"Rumba is like culture to us, yet there appeared to be too much distortion. We wanted music where one could hear the words and the melody," he says.
The musicians teamed up with Papa Noel, Wuta-Mayi, Nyboma Mwandido, Jean-Papy Ramazani, Loko Massengo, Bumba Massa and Yves Ndjock.
Their first album, Rumba Congo (2001), went against the Ndombolo dance craze, and still won admiration. The second recording, Congo Life (2004) did equally well. Kinavana, the third album, released in 2006, explores the connections between the music of Cuba and Congo.
He says their aim is to ensure original rumba stays. So, what does he think of suggestions that younger Congolese musicians have diluted rumba music?
"I am not in a position to pass judgment. All I can say is that sometimes when the change becomes too much then music loses its originality and flavour, and ends up becoming noise," he says, adding that Kekele is out to restore this fading glory.
Syran explains that he carries his guitar wherever he goes. However, he has no problem using any available tool of trade.
Down to earth
"The only problem is that some of the guitars provided are not good enough hence making it difficult for me," he says.
Kekele, he reveals, is in the process of completing an album in memory of the late Franco Luambo Makiadi, who led TPOK Jazz until his death in 1989. It will be launched in October, to coincide with Franco’s 20th anniversary.
Although he says he has not found a reliable distributor in the Kenyan market, he is working on ways to let his local fans enjoy the music.
According to www.cdbaby.com, the BBC’s Andy Kershaw commented in 2005: "Kekele, the cream of rumba veterans from the ... Congo, make the most exquisite music. Eric Clapton (an accomplished English guitarist) isn’t fit to tune the strings of their lead guitarist, Syran Mbenza."
Born in a family of six in Kinshasa, Syran’s artistic career began in 1968, as a pupil at Laive Primary School to Ecole du Moniter Secondary in Kinshasa. He spent his free time playing for a group called La Banita, and later had stints with Jamel Jazz, Dynamic Jazz Ewawa de Malph, Somo-Somo and Lovy du Zaire, led by Vicky Longomba. After leaving Lovy for the Kara band, he decided to become a professional musician.
Syran also travelled to Togo and Cote d’Ivoire, where he collaborated with Sam Mangwana in African All Stars. He subsequently recorded his first solo album, Kouame.
Syran later moved to Europe to continue his solo career where he produced Ilanga, among other solo albums. For the last 25 years, he has been in great demand as a studio musician and producer.
In 1982, alongside Nyboma Mwandido, Bopol Mansiamina and Wuta Mayi, they formed the Quatre Etoiles du Zaire (Four Stars), releasing several albums and touring Africa, Europe, the Caribbean, US and Canada, during the soukous music era.
In 1988 he teamed up with Passi Jo and JP Ramazani for a project called Kass Kass.
When not at work, the father of twins — boy and girl —likes to spend time watching movies. He is also an ardent fan of English Premier League club, Manchester United. His favourite player is Cristiano Ronaldo.
"I also frequent the popular Chateau Rouge joint in Paris, famed for Congolese cuisine whenever I feel like sampling real African food," he says.