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.