Saturday, February 20, 2010

Lovers' Soukous for Soukous Lovers

It's no secret I'm not thrilled about some of the Congo music that's been coming out lately, particularly from the Paris-based bunch. For those of us who got to know it in the '70s and '80s, "soukous" is synonymous with the mellow, hot-yet-cool sounds popularized by the great Franco and Rochereau, Kosmos Moutouari, Pamelo Mounk'a, and of course, Lipua-Lipua and its many offshoots. That was real cuisine. The new stuff? Well, it's just fast food.

Of this crew guitarist/composer Papa Noël has always held a special place in my heart, although he's labored in the shadows of better-known musicians for many years. Born Antoine Nedule Montswet in 1940 in Leopoldville (today Kinshasa), he was nicknamed "Noël," having taken his first breath on Christmas Day.

In 1957 Noël made his first record (backing Léon Bukasa) and joined the group Rock-a-Mambo, which crossed the river in 1960 to the newly-independent French Congo and became Orchestre Bantou (later Bantous de la Capitale), a major force in Congo music for decades. In 1963 he returned to Leopoldville, and was soon asked by the great bandleader Kabaselle to join his Orchestre African Jazz. Here he played for five years, leaving to lead his own Orchestre Bamboula for a few years, and then to play with a succession of combos. In 1978, Papa Noël was asked by Franco to join his
Orchestre Tout Poussaint OK Jazz, where he stayed until the great man's death in 1989 (it was as a member of OK Jazz that Noël was jailed for 22 days in 1978 as punishment for Franco's notoriously filthy song "Jacky," a recording in which, ironically, he played no role).

During the years that Papa Noël toiled as a "musician's musician" in other people's projects, lending them his soft-spoken elegance and masterful guitar work, he occasionally made solo recordings to great acclaim. Two of these were Bon Samaritain (1984) and Haute Tension (1994), tracks from which are available on the CD Bel Ami (Sterns SDCD 3016, 2000).

In 1999 the family and I had the pleasure of hearing and meeting Papa Noël when he performed in Milwaukee as part of the backup group for Sam Mangwana, who had just released his CD Galo Negro and was touring the U.S. to promote it. Although Mangwana was the "star" of the show, these two great musicians were definitely co-equals in our eyes. I could tell Noël was pleased to have been recognized in his own right, and he seemed touched that I had brought two of his hard-to-find LPs for him to autograph. Here we are below:

Papa Noël's Allegria (Editions Provil PV 015, ca. 1987) is one of those "desert island" recordings, a masterpiece that I rank, along with Fela Anikulapo-Kuti's Zombie, Kiné Lam's Galass, and Kuku Sebesebe's Munaye, one of the ten greatest African recordings of all time. See if you don't agree:

Papa Noël - Allegria

Papa Noël - Sem-Sem

Papa Noël - Nzoto Pasi

Papa Noël - Sante Pepele

Download Allegria as a zipped file here. Much of the information in this post was mined from Ken Braun's very informative liner notes for Bel Ami.


Anonymous said...

I saw Noël on this same tour, in Tucson. Mangwana was a joy, of course, even if my repeated calls for Maria Tebbo were in vain. But the highlight was a short set by Noël, just him and an acoustic guitar. The effortless mastery and beauty of his performance makes it one of my most treasured concert-going memories.

John B. said...

You're lucky then. In the Milwaukee show Papa Noël didn't get any solo time. Otherwise the performance was excellent.

Anonymous said...

Papa Noel is a great musician, and his LPs are all good.

wuod k

Anonymous said...

I agree with you about the difference between 70s Congolese music and more contemporary stuff. I saw Pépé Kallé round about the same time in Tucson and while it was great fun, it wasn't something I savored later (or even remembered much about). I had a young Congolese friend at the time who liked to kid me about my "old fuddy-duddy taste" in Congolese music. A bunch of her friends didn't even go see Sam Mangwana/Noël – but they went crazy for Pépé Kallé.

John B. said...

Actually, I've always considered Pépé Kalle "old school," although he was getting into the faster, more stripped down sound there toward the end. I saw him in Madison in 1989 & thought he was great.

To be fair to the younger crew, one of the best shows I've ever been at was Kanda Bongo Man, who arguably started the whole "bubble-gum soukous" thing, in Chicago in 1990.

WrldServ said...

It's not always easy to draw the line between 'old school' and the younger generation. Quatre Etoiles, for example, were certainly part of the Paris soukous scene, but are all 'old school' musicians.
Even Koffi Olomide has firm 'old school' roots.

The brilliant "Bon Samaritain" (with that classic performance by Carlito) was really an OK Jazz album, but recorded (and a huge hit in Congo) while Franco was in Europe, - much to the dislike of Franco, by the way.

John B. said...

Unfortunately "Allegria" doesn't credit the other musicians, but I assume Papa Noël doesn't do the vocals. Would you have any idea who it could be?

Anonymous said...

This blog continues to just amaze me with such brilliant music- cheers!

Anonymous said...

I have the Sterns CD but didn't know this one which is also fabulous!


joe said...

This is a very sweet LP, and I do thank you for it. As for being on my "desert island" list, I don't know; to me that is a frustrating mental exercise which is so highly dependent on my current mood...

I will grant you this: if I had a list, I would have to put Munaye on it, it being such a haunting album which lingers in the back of your mind constantly. Every time I put that on at work it never fails to draw comment (always positive).

Again, thanks.

John B. said...

Yes, isn't "Munaye" wonderful? If the only thing this blog had ever done was to make that recording available, it would have justified its existence.

joe said...

Don't sell yourself short, John. Your blog is justified by dozens of incredible posts. I have learned a ton here, and I thank you for that.

Dave said...

Thanks for this great collection. It is tastefully done as is usual of the early Congolese style.

And thanks again for your wonderful work.