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V/A - Roots of Rumba Rock: Congo Classics 1953-1955

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Artist: V/A

Album: Roots of Rumba Rock: Congo Classics 1953-1955

Label: Crammed Discs

Review date: Feb. 19, 2007

In the middle of the 20th Century, in what was then known as the Belgian Congo, various streams of local likembe-and-percussion dance music merged with the imported sounds of European pop and Cuban son and rumba to produce a new sound. The result was a grass-roots music that celebrated the fashions and fads of urban Africa and deep traditional roots all at once; a sound rippling with fresh possibilities and youthful energy.

Among the earliest commercial recordings of Congo music, the treasures gathered on this two-disc collection (a re-packaging of two separate volumes that first appeared in the 1990s) were originally released as 78s on the Loningisa label out of Leopoldville (Kinshasa). That fast-growing border city was a gathering point for people from all over the Congo and central African region, and a vibrant party scene of bars and social clubs was home to the guitar and vocal-based style that would eventually sweep across all of Africa to dominate much of the continent's popular music for the next three decades. Here in a very early version are the circling likembe-influenced guitar lines, the sweet vocal call-and-response and harmonies, the rhythmic and clever Lingala lyrics that were to remain at the heart of Congo/Zaire rumba and soukous. And although it's mostly acoustic, there is an electric intensity to the music here: Cheap guitars are picked hard to match the volume level of deep-toned percussion; the vocals are rich in tonal variety and are often open-voiced, communicating a vivid abandon and immediacy.

Some of the inventive artists behind these early recordings went on to fame and fortune in the years that followed. De Wayon fronted thrilling electric bands; ringleader and progenitor Bowane survived as a grand old man and entrepreneur-statesman of the classic Congo rumba; in the 1960s, Jean Bokelo created a slashing, bouncing electric guitar style that rivaled even that of the great Franco. ( Franco is also represented here, as a teenaged guitar picker!). Lovely oddities show up on these tracks, too; for instance, the weird electric Solovox organ licks laid down by a Belgian jazzman going by the name of Mr. Sardi, and some rare examples of early likembe pop. There’s even a catchy jingle advertising Fina margarine

While the 1950s Leopoldville city sound laid the foundations for the later full-flight big band rumba purveyed by the likes of Kabasele, Franco and Rochereau in the 1960s, it may be that its essential verve and anarchy were better honored in the ragged glory of Kinshasa youth bands like Zaiko Langa and Viva la Musica a generation later, in the 1970s. And the same glorious balance of wildness and discipline found on much of Roots of Rumba Rock lives on today in the hypnotic, body-shaking grooves of urban likembe bands like Konono No. 1.

By Kevin Macneil Brown

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