I recently heard about the Syllart Records, a music records label which many considered to be the equivalent of the African continent’s Motown records. The record label leader is Binetou Sylla, the daughter of the founder, the late Senegalese producer Ibrahima Sory Sylla. The label owns the largest African music catalog in the world, spanning the last sixty years of music creation. Its founder, Sylla’s impact on African pop music and its global influence is really wide. Imagine the hard work, the quality, the authenticity, and innovation that went on in his studios! Yet, I had never heard of his name. However, I had heard about some of the artists produced under his label, and danced to their music, such as Ismael Lo, Salif Keïta, Empire Bakuba, Sam Mangwana, Gadji Celi, M’Pongo Love, Tshala Muana, M’bilia Bel, Oumou Sangare, Pépé Kallé, Miriam Makeba, Papa Wemba, or Africando, and so many others.
Today, his daughter is working on digitizing all that hard work, and trying to find ways to give rights to the musicians. She says of her father on OkayAfrica, “[My father] preferred to let his work, his music speak for him. He was an ambassador for African music. … [He] excelled at scouting new talent and used Syllart as a launching pad for many who would rise to global stardom.” Enjoy her recent interview to BBC. Check out the Syllart Records YouTube channel.
… Rumba “has been part of our identity, descendants of Africa and all of us, throughout the ages,” said DR Congo’s Culture minister Catherine Kathungu Furaha earlier this year. “We want rumba to be recognised as ours. It is our identity.
“When our ancestors who were taken abroad wanted to remember their history, their origin, their memory, they danced the navel dance.”
There is no doubt that the Rumba has gone global, or that it has influenced other musical types throughout the world. To those who do not know, Rumba is a music style that originates from Kongo … and here I mean the whole area that is encompassed by both Congos, the Republic of the Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and in the olden days it was even bigger including areas of Angola, Central African Republic and Gabon. The rumba was born in Cuba from the enslaved Africans who had been taken there from the Kongo.
The submission will help showcase the diversity of the heritage and raise awareness about its importance. If Congolese rumba were to be added, it would join the Budima dance of Zambia, hawker food of Singapore, sauna culture of Finland, handmade weaving in Upper Egypt, traditional pomegranate festivity and culture of Azerbaidjan, Traditional Thai massage, and traditional irrigation systems in the United Arab Emirates, among countless other customs on the list.
The word Rumba derives from “nkumba,” meaning belly button in the local Kikongo language, a dance originating in the ancient kingdom of Kongo.
The music style was born of the melting pot of 19th century Cuba, from the enslaved Africans, combining their drumming and dancing with their melodies and those of the Spanish colonizers. The African slaves who were taken to the Americas created the rumba as a way to stay connected to their inner beings, their histories, cultures, and probably also as a way to escape the daily grind of slavery, the inhumane practice that ripped them of their dignity of human beings.
It was re-exported to Africa in the early 20th century on vinyl, where it found a ready audience in the two Congos who recognized the rhythms as their own.
Catherine Kathungu Furaha, the DRC’s minister of art and culture, said, “when our ancestors who were taken abroad wanted to remember their history, their origin, their memory, they danced the navel dance.”… “We want rumba to be recognized as ours. It is our identity.”
Cuban rumba has been inscribed in the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage since 2016. It only makes sense that its counterpart, the mother-source, the origin, the Congolese Rumba be inscribed in the list as well. We will know in November when the committee will decide.
To celebrate all the mothers out there… I thought of sharing this beautiful song by the legendary Papa Wemba “Mama,” from his album Nouvelle Ecriture 1997 dedicated to his mother. I dedicate it to all the mothers out there, and future mothers. Papa Wemba was the King of Rumba and King of La SAPE, and an African Planetary Star. Of his mother who was a professional ‘wailing woman,’ he said: “My mother was my first teacher and my first public. … I grew up with my mother’s melancholic singing. … When I will sing, she will say “my son, block here, and now project your voice“… when I did well, she will clap for me“(source: Tv5 – Africanité). For his mother, he composed Mama and Maria Valencia. Enjoy! Happy Mothers’s Day.
For this year’s Valentine, we will introduce you to “Souffrance d’Amour” by the Cameroonian singer Ben Decca. The song, “Souffrance d’Amour” translated as “Love suffering” tells of a love so deep, so strong between two people, but which does not work. So it is, in the words of Ben Decca himself, “proof that two people can go their separate ways and remain in love despite everything. “Souffrance d’Amour” is a shout-out to people who give themselves entirely to the other with sincerity and loyalty, but unfortunately, in general they receive the opposite of what they put in… sad reality…” [“Souffrance d’Amour” est la preuve que deux personnes peuvent se quitter et demeurer amoureuses l’une de l’autre malgré tout. Souffrance d’Amour” est une dédicace aux personnes qui se donnent à l’autre entièrement avec sincérité et loyauté, hélas en général ils reçoivent l’opposé de ce qu’ils ont misé… triste réalité…]. “To love is to forget oneself and to think only of the one we love” [“Aimer c’est s’oublier soi-meme, et ne penser qu’a celui qu’on aime…”]
For those who do not know him, Ben Decca, he is the ultimate crooner of Cameroon… You could think of a Luther Vandross type… His career spans over 40 years of constantly amazing music. He is a pure talent, and hails from a family of musicians, with 3 younger siblings who are also renowned singers Grâce Decca, Dora Decca, and Isaac Decca, and nephew to the great Cameroonian legend Eboa Lotin, and great grandson to Lobe Lobe Rameau one of the pioneers of Makossa in Cameroon. His work has been the legendary, and he has lightened to lives of so many of us lovers of life, given life to our feelings of joy, pain, grace, hurt,…. Kudos to the great, and only Ben Decca.
I remember dancing to the tunes of “Yé ké yé ké” as a child… I also have fond memories of seeing Mory Kante play his kora, and being amazed by his dexterity, finesse, and charisma. Every note transported me to different horizons. It did not matter that I did not understand his language, I could feel the emotions he conveyed with his voice and kora… it was like magic: one could travel all the way to Guinea and back within the confines of one’s room.
On May 22, 2020, an honorable member of the Griot (Djeli) family, Mory Kante, moved to the land of his ancestors. In reality, he just changed dimensions, and left us with the electricity of his music. Born in 1950 in a small town near Kissidougou in Guinea, Mory Kante came from a long family tradition of griots (Djeli). Both of his parents were griots, his father was from Guinea and his mother from MaliMory absorbed the singing of his parents and as a child learned to play the balafon. As a child, his family sent him to Mali to study the kora and other griot traditions.
Mory Kante is often known as the “electronic griot” because he modernized local traditional instruments such as his kora which he electrified, and fused African music with styles and instruments from Western pop. Kante’s 1987 single “Ye Ke Ye Ke” was a hit, first in Africa and then across Europe. It became the first African single to sell more than a million copies and has been licensed frequently for commercials and film soundtracks. It has even been reworked by other musicians into German techno, Bollywood film music and Chinese Cantopop.
If you ever come across a kora, or listen to Ye Ke Ye Ke remember this great man who modernized the ancient ways to share with us his love of the music of his forefathers. His music has inspired countless singers from the new generation. The New York Times , BBC, and Guardian have written articles about this great man.
More than a writer, Francis Bebey was also a musician. Below is a video where Francis Bebey introduces the viewer to the one-note flute, and the communication system invented by the pygmy peoples of Central Africa to converse with each other using that instrument. As I told you earlier, Francis Bebey headed the music department at the UNESCO‘s office in Paris, where he focused on researching and documenting African traditional music. Enjoy a lesson from the maestro!
For me, Manu Dibango is like a person with whom I grew up… well because his song “Bienvenu, Welcome to Cameroon” was played on national television endlessly when growing up. It was a special song, and it made everybody know what a beautiful country he came from, and how welcoming the people of that land were. He also had a thunderous and contagious laughter.
Emmanuel N’Djoké Dibango was born in Douala, Cameroon, on 12 December 1933. He was an outstanding saxophone and vibraphone player. He was sent early to France for high school. I remember an interview he gave about his first time in Europe. As a kid, he had never seen snow, and he was in such awe of the snow that he wanted his mother back home to see it; so he mailed her some snow… but as you might have guessed, all his mother received was a wet, all dried up, empty envelope! While in France, his studies got derailed by music, as he got introduced to the saxophone and as a results he failed his high school exams (Baccalauréat) to his father’s disappointment. However, this launched him in what became an internationally acclaimed career.
His hit song, “Soul Makossa,” came out in 1972, and propelled him to international fame. His fusion of African rhythm and sounds on the saxophone created a sort of fusion that was new, modern, and hip. The song “Soul Makossa” on the record of the same name contains the lyrics “makossa“, which means “(I) dance” in his native tongue Duala language. The song has influenced popular music hits, including Kool and the Gang‘s “Jungle Boogie.” In 1982, Michael Jackson picked up a version of a line that Dibango sang on “Soul Makossa” — which Jackson sang as “mama-se, mama-sa, ma-makossa” — on his song “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ ” from the album Thriller. Dibango sued the American megastar; Jackson settled out of court for an undisclosed amount of money. In 2007, Rihanna sampled Jackson‘s version of the “Soul Makossa” line on her song “Don’t Stop the Music,” as Jackson had given her permission, but not Dibango. Two years later, Dibango sued Jackson again, as well as Rihanna in France; that time, his case failed, due to the earlier settlement.
So long to the artist… like Fela Kuti, Manu Dibango has influenced countless singers around the world, and has brought in a new generation of African saxophone players. Your saxophone filled with soulful tunes from Cameroon and Africa, will continue to fill our souls. Enjoy these very good articles on The Guardian and NPR.
Meet Dan Abisi, a Kenyan music teacher who makes his own trombones from scratch. I was moved by his love and passion for music which has made him consider cheaper alternatives such as building his own trombone, and thus making it widely available in Kenya. Given that in Kenya, and probably in many African countries, there are very few shops selling these brass instruments (and they are not cheap!), manufacturing it locally is definitely a winner. I don’t know what it takes to manufacture a musical instrument, but I bet spending hours trying to make it sound right is important. Kudos to Dan Abisi who has been making his own trombones and sharing his love of music and the instrument with local Kenyan children!