Verckys Kiamunguna: Top producer and saxophonist exits the stage

Verckys Kiamunguna.

The death of legendary musician and producer Verckys closes the chapter of the first generation of Congolese musical greats now in the fifth generation, writes Charles Otieno

The story of Congolese music cannot be told without mention of great saxophonist and producer Verckys Kiamunguna who passed on this week after long glittering career as a composer, bandleader, producer, record label founder, and music-business executive.

Just as Franco Luambo Makiadi was the wizard of guitar, Verckys was the master of saxophone who thought he was King Curtis, the American jazz legend. Indeed, Verckys and Franco had a love hate relationship.

Stylish Verckys joined TPOK jazz in 1963 and left after bitter fallout with Franco over money. See, Franco was away touring Europe, Verckys took the core of the band including vocalist Youlou Mabiala into the studio and released own LPs behind Franco's back. When Franco returned to Kinshasa, he demanded a percentage from this splinter group, but Vercky's declined and went solo. His short stay of three years came to an end at TPOK Jazz.

Thus 1969, he set up his own Orchestre Veve, the first indigenous African to own a record label. He also started managing a host of bands which he named as Orchestre Kiam and Orchestre Lipua Lipua. He also nurtured several future stars including Nyboma Mwandindo, Pepe Kalle and his Empire Bakuba, Les Grand Maquisards and the Zaiko Langa Langa clan. Verckys also produced music for other top bands of 1970s including Les Kamale, Orch Shama Shama and Orch Kiam among others.

A few years ago, this writer met Verckys in Nairobi when he had come to chase for his royalties. He was aging and had difficult in walking though was still sharply dressed and bubbly. He took yours truly and promoter DS Njoroge on musical journey of his long career. He fondly talked of his groups Veve, Bella Bella, Lipua Lipua and of TPOK band leader Franco.

"I played a pivotal role in bringing Franco's body home. After all, I was also involved in bestowing the title of Grand Maitre to him," said Verckys who was the President of Congoles Musicians Association (SOCADA).

Dressed in grey silk shirt and matching trousers, Verckys touched on the issues affecting Congolese music especially royalties from African countries. "I have not been paid by my Kenyan distributor, a renown lawyer for several years," he claimed.

But as fate would have it Verckys passed on chasing for his money in Kenya. And in another twist, he died a day after Franco's death, albeit 30 years later.

Rhumba historian Graeme Ewens in his book, Congo Collosus: Life and Legacy of Franco and OK Jazz opines that Verky's brought life to TPOK Jazz.

He writes: "For the next few years he brought some raucous excitement to the OK Jazz repertoire with his modern interpretation of Congo folklore rhythms and provided visual entertainment with his hippie clothing and frenetic dance routines."

Vercky's rise to the top was not purely on talent but business acumen. From playing in the church the rich kid joined TPOK jazz in his early 20s. After three years, he quit and founded Veve, where he improvised with electric solo guitar, a departure from TPOK Jazz repertoire.

His popular cavacha dance was a direct precursor of soukous. The man who started his musical career in 1962 with Los Cantina later joined Congo-Rock before joining Franco's TPOK Jazz in 1963. He became Franco's right-hand man and delighted. Unlike Franco, Verckys recorded with a more stripped-down sound than OK Jazz.

Vercky's early recordings were collected on the Sonodisc label, and later founded Editions Veve in 1974. In 1976 he changed the name of his label to ZADIS.

Vercky's Veve Center became the hot spot for Grand Zaiko Wa Wa, Langa Langa Stars, Victoria Eleison, Mbonda Africa, Afro International, Wenge Musica and other groups. In 1978 he recorded young sensation Koffi Olomide.

In 1980 Verckys came out of retirement to release some new albums on the Veve International label in Paris with his backing band also renamed Veve International. Verckys was elected president of the Congolese Musicians Union in 1988.

In 2008 Verckys was hospitalised in Brussels for leg operations soon after completing a new album, Coup de Marteau.

Vercky's death marks an end of an era of musical greats of Congolese first generation.