rumba on the river

abetiAfrisa, renowned Congolese rumba band, formed (as African Fiesta 66) 1966; disbanded 1996. Notable early members: Henriette "Miss Bora" Borauzima (born Kisangani, Congo-Kinshasa, Sept. 21, 1945; vocal), Roger Izeidi (born Kinshasa, Nov. 20, 1935; died Kinshasa, Jan. 2001; maracas, vocal), Rene "Karé" Kassanda (born Bakwa-Sumbu, Congo-Kinshasa, Sept. 10, 1945; vocal), Dominique "Willy" Kuntima (born Kinshasa, July 31, 1931; died Kinshasa, Jan. 25, 1972; trumpet), Sam Mangwana (born Kinshasa, Feb. 21, 1945; vocal), Joseph Mwena (born Congo-Kinshasa, 1932; bass), Armand Samou (born Kinshasa, Jan. 5, 1935; died Kinshasa, 1984?; saxophone), Tabu Ley "Rochereau," (born Bagata, Congo-Kinshasa, Nov. 13, 1940; vocal), Jean Paul "Guvano" Vangu (born Congo-Kinshasa, 1940s; guitar).

Afrisa's roots go deep into the rich soil of the Congolese rumba. In the early sixties Afrisa's leader, Tabu Ley sang behind the illustrious Joseph Kabasele in African Jazz, the archetype of the modern Congolese rumba band. When the musicians deserted Kabasele in 1963 to form African Fiesta, Ley emerged as a leader of the new group along with guitarist Docteur Nico and maracas player Roger Izeidi. Three years later African Fiesta split into two factions: one led by Nico called African Fiesta Sukisa; the other, in the hands of Ley and Izeidi, became known as African Fiesta 66 and, the following year, as African Fiesta National.

Izeidi handled the band's business affairs. Ley wrote most of the music and, on the strength of his exceptional voice, emerged as a charismatic presence at the mike. Promising singer Sam Mangwana and Henriette "Miss Bora" Borauzima, one of the few women to break into the Congolese music business, backed Ley on vocals. Group produced many memorable songs including the hit "Mokolo Nakokufa" (the day I die), a rumination on life from the viewpoint of the poor, the rich, and the dissolute.

Band drew a three-month suspension when it showed up late for a 1967 New Year's Eve party thrown by Congo-Kinshasa's president Joseph Mobutu. Inactivity triggered a walkout by Mangwana and several others. Band recovered with new personnel, including guitarist Lokassa ya Mbongo and singer Ndombe Opetun. New lineup continued to produce hit records like "Toyota," a story centered on Kinshasa's newest status symbol.

Ley took complete control of Fiesta National by forcing Izeidi out in 1969. A year later the band played two concerts at the prestigious Olympia concert hall in Paris, the highest profile appearance to date for a Congolese band outside of Africa. Ley renamed the band Afrisa International following the Olympia shows. Back in Kinshasa Afrisa pioneered the concept of "le show" by staging elaborate, Olympia-like concerts in large halls while leaving the night clubs to others.

Several notable musicians arrived in the seventies: guitarists "Michelino" Mavatiku Visi, Dizzy Mandjeku, and Dino Vangu; saxophonist Mekanisi Modero; drummer Ringo Moya; and Sam Mangwana for a brief return engagement. The decade was the band's most productive as new songs flooded the market every few months. Among a remarkable group of hits "Kaful Mayay" (go ask Mayay), the story of an arranged marriage gone bad, stands out.
The year 1981 saw the arrival of a young woman named Mbilia Bel, whose voice and beauty rejuvenated Afrisa for the new decade. Singing solo or in duets with Ley, Mbilia's presence insured good paydays for the band in spite of the steep decline of the economy of Congo-Kinshasa (then known as Zaire). "Mpeve ya Longo" (holy spirit), a song about family problems that women face, and "Eswi yo Wapi" (where did it hurt you?), about getting a taste of one's own medicine, rank among the best of Afrisa's hits with Mbilia Bel. The band's most ambitious tour, seventeen stops in North America in 1984, was a mixed success. Fans packed the halls, but critics lamented Afrisa's inclination to crossover into Western pop music.

Mbilia quit the band at the end of 1987, to be replaced by Faya Tess, but by then the country's economy lay in ruins. Unable to sustain itself at home, Afrisa spent most of the early nineties in Paris or on tour. A much smaller Afrisa moved to the United States in 1994. The musicians toured the country for nearly two years and cut two albums, Muzina and Africa Worldwide, for Rounder before finally breaking up on the west coast.
Afrisa ranks as one of Africa's most enduring and prolific bands. In thirty years of existence the group produced several outstanding musicians, like Sam Mangwana, Lokassa ya Mbongo, and Mbilia Bel, who would go on to become stars in their own right. An uncountable number of records produced an extraordinary number of hits and helped spread the Congolese rumba across Africa and into Europe and America.
© 2011 Gary Stewart

As African Fiesta (66) National: Le Seigneur Rochereau (Sonodisc CD36515) sixties recordings reissued 1992; Rochereau & L'African Fiesta National (Sonodisc CD36525) sixties recordings reissued 1993; Rochereau & L'African Fiesta [National] (Sonodisc CD36549) sixties recordings reissued 1995.
As Afrisa: Rochereau & L'Afrisa International (Sonodisc CD36542) seventies recordings reissued 1994; Rochereau L'Afrisa International Sonodisc CD36544) seventies recordings reissued 1995; Tabu Ley "Rochereau" (Sonodisc 36552) seventies recordings reissued 1995; Faux-Pas (with Mbilia Bel, Genidia GENCD1031) eighties recordings reissued 1996; Bel, Ley (with Mbilia Bel, Kaluila KL0177) eighties recordings reissued 1998; Tabu Ley Rochereau & L'Afrisa International (Sonodisc CD36594) seventies recordings reissued 1998; Exil-Ley (Genidia CD92019) 1993; Muzina (Rounder CD5059) 1994.
Retrospective from African Jazz through Afrisa: Tabu Ley Rochereau: The Voice of Lightness (Stern's STCD3027-28) 2007.

M. Lonoh, Essai de commentaire sur la musique congolaise moderne (Kinshasa, 1969); S. Bemba, 50 ans de musique du Congo-Zaire (Paris, 1984); C. Stapleton & C. May, African All-Stars (London, 1987); G. Stewart, Rumba on the River (London and New York, 2000).