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The return of Wenge Musica

Wenge Musica band members at a Nairobi hotel in December 1995. [File, Standard]

Time is indeed a healer. Twenty-five years after the dramatic split that happened at Carnivore Grounds, Nairobi, and was preceded by a war of words, fistfights, fierce rivalry, dis-tracks and l juju from both fans and band members, the celebrated Wenge Musica BCBG 4x4 are back together - with a bang. 

The celebrated group of Congolese musical icons performed today (June 30) in Kinshasa during DRC’s independence day. The concert was graced by President Felix Tshishekedi and was billed as the biggest since the Rumble in Jungle when heavyweight champion Mohammed Ali made light work of George Foreman in 1974.

 And, the legendary Koffi Olomide is crying foul that Wenge superstars have not invited him to perform too. Even Ferre Gola (who joined Wenge during the split period) and young upstarts cannot share this stage. 

But it has not been an easy journey to bring together Africa’s iconic band members - especially the two giants JB Mpiana Mukulu and Ngiama Makanda aka Werrason - who went separate ways to curve a huge individual following across Africa. 

See, Wenge Musica BCBG (Bon Chic, Bon Genre) fame grew beyond music into a cultural and social trend among the Congolese populace of their generation, and Africans to an extent.

The group was founded as Celio by close college friends in 1979 and later renamed Wenge in 1987. And the group released the celebrated debut album, Mulolo in 1987 to be regarded as arguably one of the most talented bands to emerge after the demise of Franco and his TPOK Jazz Band.

Thus, it has taken successive Congolese Presidents, music promoters, and producers to bring them to a table to discuss a reunion of sorts. 

A few weeks ago, the Paris-based members of the Wenge clan led by leaders JB Mpiana (Wenge BCBG) and Werrason (Noel Ngiama Makanda) of Wenge Maison Mere alongside celebrated three solo guitarists Prince Alain Makaba, Roberto Ekokota and Patient Kusangila and Burkina Faso boarded a train for Charles De Gaulle Airport on transit to Kinshasa. 

In the retinue were also the rhythm and bass guitarists Maitre Fi-Carré, Christian Muepu, and Didier Masela, vocalists Alain Mpela, Titina Alcapone, Blaise Bula and Aimelia Elias. 

This was after celebrated Paris-based producer Amadou Diaby penned with the group a water-tight contract that will see the group release four songs (Maxi in musical terms).

They will also release a video documentary about the great Wenge years and later an album. And they capped it with today’s mouthwatering concert.

See, Werrason and JB Mpiana reconciled with a promise of dropping dynamite after the long-protracted war of words and music contest that led to a bitter break-up. 

Singer Ngiama Makanda alias Werrason. [Instagram, @werrasonofficiel]

JB Mpiana swore never to do anything musical with Werrason again. But, as they say, time sweeps everything away, and change is the only constant thing in a man. 

The two friends turned musical foes formed Wenge together. It was Werrason and guitarist Didier Masela who recruited JB Mpiana to form Wenge Musica BCBG (Best of Chicks, Best of Guys) 4 by 4.

 JB was elected the leader alongside Werrason in a star-studded cast that included Adolphe Dominguez, Ferre Gola, Marie Paul and Aime Bwanga. The group released debut album, Mulolo in 1981 to great success. 

They later, in 1991 released a five-track album, Kine a Bouge that spread like a bushfire in the dry season across Africa. Wenge became a household name alongside Papa Wemba’s Viva la Musica, and Koffi Olomide’s Quartier Latin. 

But with success came challenges. Marie Paul left the group and formed Wenge Aile Paris while Aime Bwanga formed Wenge Kumbela. Although the two groups did not achieve stellar success compared to the main group, the remaining Wenge members saw this as an affront to their supremacy and regrouped to release super hits. 

To counter the two offshoots (Wenge Aile Paris and Wenge Kumbela), Werrason and JB Mpiana roped in talented vocalist Aimelia Lias, Tutu Callugi (atalaku) and Burkina Faso and released the chart-busting album Kala Yi Boeing with hits Danico, Voyage Mboso and title track, Kala Yi Boeing. 

The group also pioneered the super dance Ndombolo. By 1996, the group released the much-acclaimed 11-track Pentagone album that went gold. The success of these songs became a curse to the group as Werrason and JB Mpiana started to fight for supremacy. 

Werrason felt that JB Mpiana was sidelining some members. The fight was also being instigated by Koffi who saw to it that JB Mpiana was closer to his rival Papa Wemba. 

So, JB Mpiana consulted Papa Wemba and decided to work on a solo album, Feux la Amour (Power of Love). This recording came hot on the heels of solo guitarist Prince Alain Makaba’s single, Pile ou Face, a year earlier. 

JB Mpiana Mukulu. 

The simmering differences were now at the breaking point. JB Mpiana enlisted all the big names in the group and sidelined Werrason, Didier Masela and Adolphe Dominguez. 

The album was released in 1997 coinciding with their tour of Nairobi. The already fractious group travelled to Nairobi needing only a matchstick to ignite the flame of separation. And it happened. 

Werrason refused to step on stage at the same time with Mpiana at Carnivore. The female fans who adored Werrason demanded to see his performance and hell broke loose. Everything fell apart. 

He performed with his friendly band members and exited. JB Mpiana and Werrason quarrelled backstage. Fists flew. It was over between these two great friends.

 As the group flew back to Kinshasa, Wenge had split again. JB Mpiana retained the core members of the group while Werrason only picked guitarist Didier Masela, Burkina Faso and Adolphe. 

Mpiana renamed his outfit Wenge BCBG while Werrason picked the name Wenge Musica Maison Mere. The split ushered in a fight for supremacy. Werrason went back to the drawing board and enlisted younger musicians including Baby Ndombe (TPOK Jazz Ndombe Opetum’s son), Ferre Gola and Bill Clinton Kalonji among others. 

JB Mpiana riding high with Feux la Amour went back to the studio and released Titanic in 1998, suggesting that Werrason and his team had sunk like the great cruise ship. 

But he was badly mistaken. Werrason released a super album, Force de Intervention Rapide (Rapid Intervention Force) that sold across Africa and cemented his position as a master composer. 

The album won Werrason a Kora Award for the Best African band. Buoyed by the album’s success, Werrason released the much-acclaimed, Solola Bien (Talk Now), at the turn of the century, directed to JB Mpiana and his outfit. 

Werrason (centre) with other Wenge Musica band members at the JKIA, Nairobi. [File, Standard]

JB Mpiana sensing the war was getting out of hand decided not to pour petrol into it as both Werrason and JB fans were fighting in the streets of Kinshasa. 

JB Mpiana released a counter, TH (Toujours Humble) indicating that he is always humble. But the two groups had crossed the Rubicon. 

They engaged each other in dark arts and street fights ensued among fans. The government tried to reconcile the warring musicians and their fans to no avail. They kept singing and fighting for years. 

The government did not give up, Laurent Kabila tried, Joseph Kabila too but to no avail. But as they say, keep trying, the current regime succeeded. A lot of water had passed under the bridge. Age and time are indeed a healer.