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.
Papa Wemba was not only a star, a musician, and artist, but he was also a father, a husband, and a son. He had been married to his wife, Marie-Rose ‘Amazone’ Luzolo, for almost 50 years; they had met when he was 20, and she was 14. They had 6 children. In this world, very few celebrities have been married to only one person for almost 50 years.
Here are a few words of Papa Wemba, le rossignol (the nightingale), the King of Rumba and SAPE.
About his mother who was a professional ‘wailing woman’: “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 Mamaand Maria Valencia.
His daughter, Victoire, said that after Papa Wemba was convicted by the Belgian justice, “Dad prayed a lot. Dad was a champion, and he was victorious“(source: TV5 – Africanité).
About his wife, he said: “For my first trip to Japan, I said I will never go alone… my first long trip,… 13h long…, I brought my tender spouse and one of my children to experience it with me” (source: RFI- Dernière interview avec ClaudySiar). For his wife, he sang 4 min 29 secondes d’adoration, Phrase, and Ma Rosa.
He was a compassionate being: during one of his concert, he asked the audience for one minute of silence for one of his band members, Patrick Bebey, who had lost his father the week before (source: TV5- Edition spéciale – Hommage Papa Wemba).
He was a generous soul: a neighbor in Matonge said: « Je me souviens qu’une fois, je l’ai juste salué en passant. Il m’a rétorqué. Albert pourquoi tu fais le pied. Je lui ai expliqué que mon véhicule était tombé en panne. Il m’a donné à l’instant même l’argent que j’avais besoin pour réparer ma voiture. » “I remember that one time, I just greeted him [Papa Wemba] in passing. He asked me. Albert, why are you walking. I told him that my car was broken. Instantly, he gave me to money to fix my car.” (source: Radio Okapi).
Papa Wemba was known for his legendary humility: « A l’annonce d’un cas de décès à Matonge et surtout dans notre avenue ici Kandakanda, il s’arrangeait toujours pour envoyer sa contribution lorsqu’il n’était pas au pays. Dans les cas où le décès intervenait et qu’il se trouvait sur place à Kinshasa, il venait personnellement conduire la quête pour soutenir la famille éprouvée. Bien sûr, sa contribution était toujours largement au-dessus par rapport à ce que nous autres pouvions bien volontiers donner » témoigne Francine, une voisine de Papa Wemba à Matonge. “At the announce of a death in Matonge, and particularly on our avenue here in Kandakanda, he always made sure to send in his contribution when he was outside the country. When the announcement happened and he was in Kinshasa, he personally came to lead the quest for people’s contribution to support the bereaved family. Of course, his contribution was way bigger than anything we could gladly contribute” (source: RadioOkapi).
“I was lucky to cross all the oceans with my voice.” … “I was lucky to belong to a country with a musical genre such as Rumba.”
Papa Wemba defined Rumba as “the maternity of the African music” (source: TV5 – Africanité).
He said: “I am Rumba, it is thanks to Rumba that I have made a name for myself in the world” (source: TV5 – Africanité, RFI- Dernière interview avec Claudy Siar).
About la SAPE and his influence around the world: “Today even great politicians sapent (are dandy)… Before Mr. Obama steps out, he first takes a look in his mirror to make sure that he looks good… La SAPE is international“(source: TV5 – Africanité).
About SAPE: “La vie est trop courte pour s’habiller triste. [Life is too short to dress sadly]” (source: Oeil d’Afrique).
About leading: “Il ne faut pas tenir la queue, il faut être devant le peloton.” [Don’t be at the back of the queue, You must lead the pack.] (source: RFI- Dernière interview avec Claudy Siar).
About retirement: “Moi, Papa Wemba, N-O-N, jamais je ne parlerais de retraite. A moins que le Bon Dieu lui-même ne me dise ‘ta voix n’y est plus’… Tant que je serais un homme debout, tant j’aurais toujours ma belle voix, je serais toujours sur scène.” [I, Papa Wemba, N-O, I will never talk of retirement. Unless God says ‘your voice is no longer there’… as long as I will still stand, as long as I still have my beautiful voice, I will always be on stage.](source: RFI- Dernière interview avec Claudy Siar).
And lastly about his gift, his voice, and God: “My voice is my gift. … I have the grace of God, God loves me very much, and He always puts His hand on me” (source: RFI- Dernière interview avec Claudy Siar).
Very few in this world have had a chance to ‘depart’ while doing something they loved, while in the midst of doing something they’ve always been passionate about. Papa Wemba’s departure was sudden, but it was in the midst of doing what he loved. This man had been at the forefront of African music for over 40 years. He was truly an African global star. He loved Rumba and introduced the world to the Rumba Rock. Japanese fans created bands and sang in Lingala in Japan, thanks to Papa Wemba’s touring the country. Papa Wemba toured the United States with artists such as Peter Gabriel. People in Colombia and in other countries across the world danced to the rhythm of Papa Wemba. He was truly a global star, and Africa just lost a legend.
In high school, while on our way to school, my father would play Papa Wemba‘s album in the car: Emotion. Rightfully titled ‘Emotion‘, Wemba’s album featured a whole range of emotions which added to his unique ‘Rooster-like‘ voice to make me, as a teenager, feel those emotions, and go to school happy. Try it… listen to the up-beat Yolele, or Fafafa-fa, Sala Keba, or Awa Y’ Okeyi, … and tell me how you feel, truly, because Papa Wemba rocked my childhood.
So when I learnt that this great man, Papa Wemba, the one who had accompanied me with his voice to school every day, this man who had made me so proud of music, Congolese music, African music, this flamboyant stylish man who had introduced the world to SAPE, the King of Congolese Rumba, this man whose words I still quote “Y a pas match, Kaokokokorobo” had collapsed on stage and was no longer… I was devastated. Oh Papa Wemba, I thought you were going to ride with my kids to school, the way you did with me…. I thought I would always dance to the rhythm of O’Koningana,…Ye te oh, Wake Up, …
When life was hard, I would hum to the tune of your song in the movie ” La Vie est Belle” and instantly life became beautiful again. And ‘Mama‘ was just a loving song to a mother. When I felt lost, I would sing “Show me the way.”
So I was sad… But then I realized that Papa Wemba had trained generations of musicians, had inspired numerous people, sang his lungs out for so many of us… then I realized that his flamboyant spirit lives on. His music keeps on… The dress style he created, la SAPE, still goes on. And yes, I will keep playing Yolele. So is Papa Wemba really gone? Is this great African baobab really gone? No, he has just changed his postal address. However, his music stays with us, and will lead some of us to school or work… always.
Where did it all start? In 1960, 24-years old Ebanda Manfred fell head over heels in love with a teenage single mother from Yaoundé, Cameroon. The girl, Amié Essomba Brigitte, had to quit school to take care of her child. Madly in love, Ebanda Manfred told her of his feelings, but she told him that she could not start a love relationship until her child was weaned. Finding the wait too long, especially since he had to return to Douala the following year, Ebanda Manfred sang his despair and asked: “Amié, njika bunya so mo, oa mo o ma dubè no, na mba na tondi oa?”. Translation: “Amié, when will you finally believe in my love?” Thus the song “Amié ” was born. It became an instant hit when it came out in 1962. A year later, it was reprised by Francis Bebey. In 1980, the great Bébé Manga made an adaptation which brought her to the international stage, as she won the “Golden Maracas.” The song will be reprised by artists around the world, from the Carribbean to Latin America, and Europe.
In celebration of Valentine’s day, I live you with this great African love song. In Bébé Manga’s English version, the song clearly states “Amie (friend) oh, you are all I ever hoped for, everything I ever dreamt of,…” So tomorrow, don’t forget to sing AMI O to that special one, that one you longed for, and dreamt of, that special one in your life.
Is it possible to talk about Congolese music without mentioning ‘Le Seigneur’ Rochereau (Lord Rochereau)? Is it possible to talk about Africans performing at the great Olympia hall in Paris, without mentioning the first African ever to have performed there? Is it possible to talk about Rumba, without talking about the impact Tabu Ley Rochereau had on Congolese, and therefore African music?
I remember listening to his love ballads ‘Pitié’ on the radio, while growing up. I remember watching the gorgeous M’bilia Bel singing with Tabu Ley Rochereau. Well, Tabu Ley Rochereau was one of those rare artists who have written/composed/performed/produced over 3,000 songs, and have more than 250albums in his repertoire. He is one of the few who could claim to have influenced entire generations both in music and in politics as he later became vice-governor of Kinshasa. Just listening to the interviews of the likes of Koffi Olomide, Lokua Kanza, M’Bilia Bel, Papa Wemba, tells us a lot about him. When asked about the impact of Tabu Ley Rochereau on Couleurs Tropicales, Lokua Kanza (one of my favorites) replied: “Just like an American child can say that Nat King Cole rocked his childhood, Tabu Ley Rochereau rocked mine (Lokua’s),” and that of most Congolese children. That was the impact of ‘Le Seigneur Rochereau’.
As Kinshasa, Congo, and Africa mourns Tabu Ley Rochereau, we will remember ‘Le Seigneur Rochereau’ by dancing and singing to his great tunes. We will celebrate his life (Rochereau even wrote the song ‘Mokolo Nakokufa’ (the day of my death) a bit like Mozart composed Requiem) and influence on all of our lives (even when he stood against Mobutu with the title ‘Trop c’est Trop’). Tabu Ley was a uniter (when Kenya banned Congolese music, he sang ‘Twende Nairobi’ with M’Bilia Bel), a decider, a crooner, a lover, an activist, a melodist, but above all, Tabu Ley Rochereau was a baobab! Listen to ‘Pitié’ below, and do not forget to read these really good articles on his life on Philly.com, AFP, RFI Musique, and the best on Radio Okapi.
”La sape” (pronounced sap) is La Societe des Ambianceurs et Personnes Elegantes, or the Society of Atmosphere Setters and Elegant People. The ‘Sapeurs’ adhere to a culture of high fashion at all costs. Most are very well-dressed men who strut in Versace, Gucci, Prada, or Ralph Lauren’s attires. They pay extreme attention to the quality or their clothing, and are extremely refined. The word sapeur comes from two Lari words “Lunkété” and “tsi Muntu” or ‘beauty’ and ‘human.’ A true sapeur is one who symbolizes beauty and humanity through the clothes he wears, in his outlook, his words, and his actions. In other words, he is someone who embodies and expresses the beauty of the mind and soul in harmony with the colors of his wardrobe, expresses love for his neighbor (luzolo), and is an apostle of peace.
The roots of the movement can be traced as far back as in the 1920s and 1930s when the first privileged Congolese returned from France with wardrobes of expensive suits. However the culture, and its name ‘la societe des ambianceurs et personnes elegantes’ took off thanks to the great musician and singer Papa Wemba who developed a flamboyant and sometimes exaggerated style. His style was in direct opposition to Mobutu-approved uniform, the dreaded style-less ‘abacost’ (from the French “a bas le costume” or “down with the suit”) a dull Zairean version of the three-piece suit. Papa Wemba called his new style Ungaru, and it was a throwback to the elegance of the 1930s—complete with tapered trousers, brogues, neatly trimmed hair and tweed hats worn at a rakish angle. For Congolese all over the world, the look was irresistible: SAPE was born. Sape became almost like a religion: fashion at all cost, elegance, and setting the atmosphere, creating the spectacle. Elegance at all costs is its motto. In the old days, sapeurs would often spend months or years saving up for outfits; they would start out by renting or borrowing suits from their more established peers. Like in any movement, there are rivalries and affiliations within the SAPE movement: Paris vs Brussels, Brazzaville vs Kinshasa, Bacongo vs Moungali. It is a total fashion warfare. Sapeurs from Brazzaville follow the three colors rule, while the Kinshasa crowd is all about going overboard.
One important trait of the ‘sapeur’ is uniqueness: one cannot look like the common man, and so there is a constant urge to look different, unique, and elegant. And the cost of the ‘sape’ is quite high… but very important. Isn’t a person unique anyways? then why not exert that uniqueness in fashion? There used to be weekly defilés (shows/catwalks) of sapeurs in the streets of Kinshasa or Brazzaville, to find and elect the most ‘sapé‘ man. These were known as “Fight days”, weekly events, and the combat arenas were the local outdoor bars on Avenue Matsoua, the most famous place of Brazzaville, Congo. Today, the sape culture has extended throughout Africa, and particularly French Africa. In the video below, you will see how sape is redefined in Cameroon, a neighbor to Congo… and how there is a difference between being ‘hip‘ and being ‘sapé‘. ‘Hip‘ is just having the latest trends: the pants down on the floor, the pierced jeans, etc… while ‘sapé‘ means having elegance, class, and uniqueness…. Enjoy!