When US-based Congolese musician Samba Mapangala performed in Nairobi in March, after attending the Sauti Za Busara Festival in Zanzibar, his entourage included Komba Bellow, one of the most famous Congolese drummers. His role is normally overlooked, with vocalists and guitarists hogging the limelight. But Bellow, a veteran of over three decades knows the importance of the percussion section.
"Although I have been in this profession since the late 1970s, many people hardly notice the effort we drummers put in a performance. Some do not even consider us crucial," says Bellow during an exclusive interview with The Standard.
Bellow is also part of the Kekele, a group of artistes determined to maintain the original rumba beat. Formed in 2000, Kekele is known to use the acoustic guitar and instruments like the accordion.
"I teamed up with musicians like Papa Noel, Wuta Mayi, Nyboma Mwandido, Jean-Papy Ramazani, Loko Massengo and Bumba Massa and Yves Ndjock among others to form the group," he says.
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Kekele is a Lingala word for a fibrous vine that climbs trees in the tropical forests of the Congo River basin and is woven into ropes.
"The name suggests our enduring careers to strands put together to make something strong and overcome all divisions in our mission to return rumba back to its roots," says Bellow.
Despite this, the renowned drummer, who occasionally sings, has also worked with various top Congolese musicians. For example, Bellow was the man behind Koffi Olomide and Papa Wemba’s Wake Up hit, Pepe Kalle’s Tika Mwana album and Samba Mapangala’s Vunja Mifupa.
Others musicians he has worked with include Diblo Dibala, Yondo Sister, Tshalla Mwana, Mpongo Love, Lokua Kanza, Kanda Bongo Man, Alain Kounkou, Abeti Masikini and Choc Stars.
Bellow, who is usually hired by the top stars to record or perform, says he is comfortable with how his career has moved. And unlike most pioneer musicians who start their own bands, he is not keen on going that direction since it is hard to manage a bandÓ.
An ardent supporter of English football team, Arsenal, Komba Bellow believes he is the best drummer Congo has ever produced. He says others great drummers include Seskaine Molenga, known to have pioneered the drumming career in modern Congolese music, and Pajos, who worked with Franco Luambo Makiadi’s TP OK Jazz for a better part of his career.
So, why doesn’t Bellow and other top Congolese musicians best in the West perform often in Africa
"I think promoters have generally been a letdown," he says.
He cites an example of a concert in Mali 1985 where he played alongside Soukous Stars, and another in Zimbabwe, in 2000, with Alain Kounkou. In both cases promoters conned them and they left without pay.
"Since then, I have been careful. I always ensure a water-tight agreement is reached before I can accept the offer," he says.
The musician, who has toured the globe, says he prefers to work with his long time ally Samba because of the musicianÌs consistency and also the fact that he is easy to work with.
"The fact that unlike many Congolese stars he has managed to maintained his melodious voice including dancing style tells a lot about him," he says.