Plenty has already been written about the way Cuban music came home to Africa in the first part of the 20th Century, spreading via records, radio and actual musicians to find new musical synergies. Afro Latin: Via Kinshasa is a two-disc anthology documenting mostly the golden decade of the 1960s, when the Congo blend that was called rumba, with its horns and electric guitars, took full flight and became for some time the dominant African pop sound across the continent and beyond.
The tracks here each fall within one of two wide sortings. First, there is the smooth and urbane rumba of African Jazz (and, later, its many spin-offs), with emotive vocalists Kalle and Rochereau (among others), and the electric guitar of Docteur Nico, whose floating, articulate melodies and patterns danced with and around the Congo/Cuban percussion and the pillow-like — but always firm — rhythm guitar of his brother Dechaud.
Then there is the style of the rival outfit, OK Jazz, led by the great Franco, tending toward a faster, rougher, more rootsy feel during this era — the leader’s guitar pushing at the beat with a more insistent and stabbing sort of excitement.
While these two approaches became revered blueprints, it is interesting to hear what happened as times changed and bands splintered and reformed. (All this is dizzyingly documented in the liner notes.) After the splinter of African Jazz, and later African Fiesta, Nico’s Fiesta Sukisa journeyed, paradoxically perhaps, deeper into both Cuban sounds and Congolese folkloric guitar styles. Kalle, after nearly a decade, kept his smoothness while going almost all the way into Latin music with his African Team, featuring Cuban Don Gonzalo’s charanga-style flute.
The OK Jazz approach might well have, as the decade changed, bridged a gap, had Franco’s little brother Bavon Marie Marie — a brilliant, wide-ranging guitarist and charismatic performer with Negro Succes — not died so young. (As it turned out, a new energy was to come along in the ‘70s, with the arrival of the fierce and hypnotic youth bands.)
But the beauty, grace, and power of the classic era still pulses, rocks and shimmers, and is well captured in the sides gathered on Via Kinshasa.