The Congo, by Way of Cuba

A Congolese singer performing Cuban dance music in Spanish may strike some people as odd, but to Ricardo Lemvo it makes perfect sense. As it should: The interchange of African and Caribbean music constitutes one of the most harmonious roundtrip journeys in musical history.

"Cuban music traveled back to Africa in the Forties right after World War II and it's been there ever since," explains Lemvo, a native of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire) who lives in Los Angeles and heads Makina Loca, a band made up of African, Cuban, and Hispanic-American musicians. On his new album, Mambo Yo Yo (on the Putumayo Artists label), Lemvo sings nine of the album's ten tracks in Spanish, a language he picked up from a Cuban girlfriend. (He also sings in the African tongues Kikongo and Lingala.)

"I grew up listening to Orquesta Aragón, Benny More, and on and on. My cousin had a huge Cuban record collection," says the 40-year-old vocalist during a phone interview from L.A. He's just begun an American tour there with Makina Loca and the innovative Congolese-Angolan vocalist Sam Mangwana, who is a role model for Lemvo. "Cuban music has had a huge influence on the music of Congo and much of French-speaking Africa."

Lemvo describes the buoyant sound of Congolese rumba as a cross between the quintessential Cuban orchestral dance genre son montuno (itself a blend of African and Spanish elements) and calypso. Soukous, a related dance style, has a faster, merenguelike beat, although all Congolese dance music, including rumba, is often referred to as soukous today. Congolese musicians of the postwar years replaced the driving piano chords of the orchestral Cuban son with spiraling African guitars, giving their rumba a lyrical sway, mellower than the intense Cuban swing. The Africans' incorporation of the Latin beat was actually a reclamation of their own thumb piano rhythms, which a century before had been integrated by tres players in Cuba's Oriente province to create son. As the country-style son moved west to Havana, progressive piano chords created the more aggressive, urban son montuno style.

Growing up in Kinshasha, Lemvo lived next to a bar; the blasting speakers leaked songs of Cuban bands into his room at night. He says that although he didn't understand the language, Lemvo felt a strong connection to the music, hearing within it the rhythms of Africa. He was also exposed to the hits of local Congolese bands, who in the Sixties began doing covers of Cuban songs in Lingala, incorporating their own guitar style and adapting the arrangements to fit the sweetly melodic sound of their language.

"At that time if you wanted to be a real singer you had to be able to sing various styles -- from Cuba, from France, from Italy, from Spain, even jazz," recalls Mangwana, who was born in 1945 to Angolan parents in what was then the Belgian Congo. "The colonial administration had a good cultural policy; they were bringing musicians in from all over," he says from his Los Angeles hotel room. "They were playing in all the cities in what were called spectacles populaires. We'd go to the football stadium and hear Miguel Matamoros or La Sonora Matancera. It was an opportunity for a small boy to be exposed to different influences."

One of the major groups re-Africanizing the Latin styles born from the slaves' forced emigration to the Americas was the band African Jazz, featuring guitarist Nicholas "Dr. Nico" Kasanda and Pascal Tabu "Rochereau," later known as Tabu Ley. Mangwana, who sang in the choir as a student at Kinshasa's Salvation Army School, went to see Tabu Ley one day, after Tabu Ley had formed his own band, African Fiesta. Mangwana, then seventeen, showed the bandleader some songs he had written. "I sang one of the songs and he said, 'You boy, you are doing well, you can be professional. Come join my band, I am offering you a shortcut to life.'"

But his parents had other plans: They wanted Mangwana to finish school and become an economist. So the young singer ran away with the band. Six years later his father finally forgave him. After his stint with Tabu Ley, Mangwana sang with another seminal African orchestra, OK Jazz, before going solo in the Seventies. He considers Angola, his parents' homeland, to be his native country, but says he cannot go there "because I say the truth in my songs."

Mangwana's testimony can be heard on the title track of his new CD, Galo Negro, also on Putumayo. Mangwana sings in Portuguese about an elderly freedom fighter who tries to forget his suffering in the arms of a lover. Mangwana sees the "Black Cockerel" of the song's title as a symbol for himself. "The black rooster crows in the morning to wake up the village," he says. "I'm singing to wake up the African confidence."

Mangwana lives in exile in Paris, where he writes songs that carry messages for Africa and the continent's far-reaching diaspora. His music encompasses a mix of styles from Angola, Mozambique, Cape Verde, and Congo, as well as rumba, son, and vallenato. Mangwana is possessed with a liquid tenor, and he sings with moving passion in Portuguese, Lingala, Kikongo, and Swahili.

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