Left to Right: Longwa Didos, Kasongo wa Kanema, Lovy Longomba, Bukassa Bukalos, Athia Djo, Katele, Loboko, Dhodo Doris and Kayembe [Photo: Courtesy]

At the dawn of Kenya’s independence from British colonialists, a clique of Zairean musicians were already pressing 45’s 7-inch records and bands staging live performances in numerous Nairobi nightclubs.

Additionally, as political power wrangles deteriorated in then Zaire (the now Democratic Republic of Congo - DRC) in the early 1970s, more musicians made their way across the borders and pitched tent in Nairobi.

But it was the mid-seventies that ushered in a trend described as ‘Congolese invasion’ as several Zairean groups stepped up rhumba and Lingala music gigs at night clubs on a regular basis.

Among notable artistes, who made the trek prior to setting base in Nairobi was legendary baritone vocalist Kasongo wa Kanema - a core founder member of the Orchestre Super Mazembe band.

Kasongo’s demise early this week does possibly herald the end of an era, often described as the ‘golden-age’ definitive of Kenya’s 1970s and 80s big bands song recordings scene.

Long journey

Their five-year sojourn to Kenya took the band from southern Zaire, first to Zambia and then through Tanzania, before Mazembe announced their arrival in Kenya in 1975.

Reports indicate that local audiences were initially not too receptive to the Zairean bands owing to the presence of numerous home-grown bands dominant on the city’s live music scene.

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But it did not take long before stiff competition and a semblance of rivalry gradually took shape, considerably shifting the stakes.

Orchestre Super Mazembe’s brand of not-so-fast-paced rhumba rhythms revolving around the magic of snare drums or high hat beats. It transformed the distinct Zairean sound into a hallmark of Nairobi’s live performances scene.

Mazembe’s hit single Kasongo, which was recorded and pressed on vinyl in 1977, catapulted the band to instant prominence and fame, riding on newfound wave of popularity.

“They easily tapped into a receptive market, weaned on Congolese music played on then sole VoK and later KBC radio station – prior to the advent of multiple FM channels,” recounts Silver Strings band bassist Sammy Wafula, who drew immense inspiration from Mazembe’s bass guitar wizard the late Atia Jo.

Indeed, in the years spanning the late 70s and early 80s, multiple Zairean bands became extremely active and creative. Coincidentally perhaps, it was the time several Europe-based record labels, began to pay attention to recordings from Kenya.

Successful venture

Virgin Records, for instance, got involved in a couple of recording projects in Nairobi, culminating in several highly acclaimed productions, inclusive of Orchestre Super Mazembe’s 9-song LP titled Kaivasha released in 1982.

Songs cut on the long-player vinyl include Mbanda ya Mabange, Kassongo, Jiji, Nanga, Samba, Malaba D’Amour, Mokano, Mwana Nyiau and Bamama – the latter’s lyrics penned by Kasongo wa Kanema.

By 1984, Orchestre Super Mazembe band had recorded some 42 singles, cut the Editions Mazembe imprint in addition to a string of recordings on other different labels.

Notably, the band got busy, relentlessly performing at live concerts, while touring both rural and urban Kenyan towns. This was a significant factor that spawned immense popularity for their songs throughout the country.

Seasoned bassist Wafula, a long-serving member of Nairobi-based Utawala Band, vividly recalls instances of intense yet amiable rivalry between most Kenyan and Congolese bands.

“I first met Kasongo in the early 1980s, as we both performed in our band's concerts at the annual Agricultural Society of Kenya (ASK) entertainment gigs at various towns,” remarks Wafula.

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More often than not, the paths for both bands crossed during the ASK shows held alternately in Mombasa, Nairobi and Kisumu during different months of the year.

“Revellers would jam-pack the Utawala and Super Mazembe stands to dance and sing along to our songs - but during the breaks, I would go to watch Atia Jo’s wizardry,” adds the bassist.

Big loss

He describes Kasongo’s death as a major loss to the local music fraternity.

“I learnt so much about the art of making music from him, he was humble, out-going and always friendly,” notes Wafula.

Kasongo would, later on, assist him and the Silver Strings band in recording the track Linda Moyo Wako, which he treasures.

Last week, benga and rhumba lovers were left to mourn the death of legendary artiste Aziz Abdi Kilambo, who like Kasongo, succumbed to ill-health.

Some of singer, composer and guitarist Abdi’s timeless and memorable hits include Kikulacho, Sharufa, Pesa Mbongo, Nyumbani ni Nyumbani, Suzzi, Amri Kumi, Sina Kazi, Mapenzi and Ubakaji – which calls out on rapists.

Among numerous artistes, who benefited from Aziz Abdi’s tutelage, is Afro Simba band frontman and guitarist Kombo Chokwe, who insists he owes his music career to the skilled veteran guitarist.

“Aziz recruited me into his Orchestra Ngoma Africa band while still in high school. The band comprised of five Kenyans and six Congolese musicians. And ever since, owing to foundational skills he taught me, I grew and flourished into being a versatile artist and set up my own band,” says Kombo.

Both Aziz and Kasongo’s immense musical legacy is bound to outlive the enduring appeal accruing from their timeless compositions.