Kenya’s hidden hand in the growth of Congolese rumba

Songbird Faya Tess, Labour Day celebrations, Nairobi, 2019. [George Orido, Standard]

Last week came with good news for Africa as Congolese rumba music won Unesco protected status.

It joined other living traditions such as Jamaican Reggae on Unesco’s intangible cultural heritage of humanity list.

Congolese poured onto Kinshasa streets and the rest of the country to celebrate this fete with the Democratic Republic of Congo Minister for Culture Catherine Kathungu Furaha expressing her joy, saying rumba has been part of the people’s identity from time immemorial.

Similar celebrations were reported in neighbouring Brazzaville city of Congo Brazzaville separated only by the mighty Congo River.

Yet in the midst of these celebrations of the enduring rumba music in one of Africa’s largest nations, there lies a silent and hidden Kenyan hand to its spread and growth.

Veteran producer Tabu Osusa, who was given an award by the French government for his contribution to the growth of African music, says Congolese rumba has benefited from Kenya recording studios, with Kenyan producers who lent it a lot of Lo Benga in both melody as well as instrumentation.

Osusa himself has worked with many Congolese artistes including Orchestra Virunga Virunga and Nyboma and has published books on Kenyan benga and its association with the Congolese music through his company Ketebul Music.

In an earlier interview, Congolese maestro Kanda Bongo Man admitted that his lead guitar in Lisa, is a derivative of a tune from a Luo singing game Oyieyo.

Kanda Bongo Man and Mbilia Mbel at the Bomas of Kenya, Nairobi, 2019. [Elvis Ogina, Standard]

The original lyrics of this hide and seek game song for children goes, Oyieyo paka dwa mako oyieyo, oyieyo matin (A rat, a cat wants to catch a rat, a small rat).

Similarly, Kabasele Yampanya, the almost eight-foot giant who had the pygmy dancer Anyila Emoro by his side in all performances, including when they came to perform in Kenya, had one of his songs picking lyrics and tune from a Luo cultural tune, Kisero.

The song had originally been popularised by Owino Misiani of Shiratti Jazz Band, a Tanzanian who lived and performed in Kenya.

Congolese music has been influenced by a number of music tunes from across the world, including Kenya.

It developed into fast-paced tune with falsetto guitar riffs.

Franco himself came to Kenya and studied with his slow music, as did many people before him, but Kenyans were moving into a very fast music.

Then they picked Kenya’s music tempo and with time made a name for themselves.

They became so big that in one instance at the Kisumu’s Moi Stadium, the crowd went wild and broke the perimeter wall, pouring into the already full Moi Stadium to watch his legendary TPOK Jazz perform.

However, the best benga tribute was recorded by Lokassa ya Mbongo in his hit 1989 album, Nairobi Night. Lokassa went to the heart of benga and picked celebrated D O Misiani’s 1970s Luo hit, Kisero Pek Chalo Kidi, and reworked it to Nairobi NightKisero was such a hit in Africa that most artistes re-worked it.

Soon, Soukous vibration was felt everywhere in Africa

Aurlus Mabele, with songs like Embargo and Extra Ball, Kanda Bongo Man with Isambe and Lisa, Bopol Mansiamina, who just died, joined in and they formed the Orchestra Four Stars.

Congolese musician Wuta Mayi in Nairobi, 2019. [George Orido, Standard]

“Benga contributed a Congolese rumba hype and tempo, and we are proud to have contributed to it,” says Sylvester Otieno, who directs music at Kenyatta University and has been one of the most illustrious arrangers of Congolese music in the Zilizopendwa category at the Kenya Music Festivals.

Musicians such as Nyboma Mwandindo, Ngouma Lokito, Lokasa ya Bongo, Shimita El Diego, Dally Kimoko, Diblo Dibala, Aurlus Mabele - all made a contribution to the Congolese rumba after interactions with Kenyan pop styles.

Rumba specialist Fred Obachi Machoka says other than Benga beats, the coastal bango has also contributed to the Congolese rumba.

“People like Fundi Konde, who did their slow bango, joined hands with Zambian Bosco Mwenda and Congolese Edward Masengo, together with Fadhili Williams and Mwachupa to do collabos that brought such a rich hybrid,” he says.

Machoka, who would rather call Congolese rumba, African rumba, echos Otieno’s sentiments that the benga beat persuaded the Congolese musicians to raise the beat, especially with many being hosted in Kenya during the tumultuous political times in DRC. 

“Without the influence of Congolese music on our benga, the beginning would remain as fast as the ending today and that is the stylistic development we have borrowed heavily from them,” says Otieno.

Machoka says many other musical compositions that is Congolese rumba is still alive and at times the back and forth is a question of the egg and the chicken.

Maybe, one day Kenyan benga will earn its stripes and a seat on Unesco’s highly esteemed cultural heritage list.