rumba on the river

abetiEmpire Bakuba, celebrated Congolese rumba band, formed 1973; disbanded 1998. Core members: "Boeing 737" Kinanga Nanzao (born Congo-Kinshasa, July 6, 1953; guitar), Dilu Dilumona (born Kinshasa, Feb. 15, 1948; vocal), "Doris" Ebuya Lange (born Congo-Kinshasa; guitar), Pepe Kalle (born Kinshasa, Dec. 30, 1951;died Kinshasa, Nov. 29, 1998; vocal), "Papy Tex" Matolu Dode (born Kinshasa, June 28, 1952; vocal).

Empire Bakuba was the direct descendant of African Choc, a neighborhood band built around the nucleus of singers Kalle, Dilu, and Papy Tex. Afrisa drummer Seskain Molenga, on the lookout for musicians to help him make surreptitious recordings, introduced African Choc to producer Verckys Kiamuangana in 1972. Molenga and African Choc recorded several songs together under the name Les Bakuba for Verckys's Vévé label. In early 1973 the group, playing with borrowed instruments, performed live for the first time as Empire Bakuba, so named because a chief of the Bakuba people had been a large man like the giant Kalle.

When Verckys's promise of instruments never materialized the musicians moved to the new label, Sosoliso, owned by the popular singing group Trio Madjesi. There Empire Bakuba joined the ranks of the "youth bands," growing numbers of new bands formed by young musicians who were challenging the dominance of the older groups. Some youth bands dropped the usual horn section and produced a rougher sound influenced by Western rock. Empire Bakuba kept a foot in both camps by using horns while playing the rumba with a livelier edge.

A cast of supporting characters augmented the core group, which included the three singers and, eventually, guitarists "Doris" and "Boeing 737." In 1980 the band added a dancing dwarf named "Emoro" (Tumba Ayila) as an eye-catching foil to the "elephant" Kalle. When the speeded-up rumba known as soukous began to flow from Paris-based Congolese artists, Empire Bakuba adopted the style and made it fashionable among Kinshasa music lovers who had formerly rejected it as inferior.

Although the band made music aimed at the dance floor, nearly every song's lyrics commanded attention, a requisite for Kinshasa fans. Papy Tex's "Sango ya Mawa" (sand news) from 1978 spoke of the death of a loved one. Dilu's 1983 hit "Kambile" (a man's name) examined jealousy and infidelity. In 1985 Kalle dared to describe the difficult life in Mobutu's Zaire (as Congo-Kinshasa was then known) in "Article 15 Beta Libanga." The musicians were prolific in the studio, turning out three or four albums in each of their peak years from the mid-eighties to the mid-nineties. In addition, the band toured extensively in Africa, Europe, and North America.

During the course of its twenty-five year existence, Empire Bakuba rose from its beginnings as neighborhood attraction to win international acclaim. The longstanding friendship and respect that existed among the musicians made it one of Congolese music's most stable bands. Stability fostered creativity and success in the marketplace. Rumors of discord surfaced around 1998, especially when Kalle recorded a solo album. His sudden death from a heart attack later the same year put the rumors and the band to rest.
© 2011 Gary Stewart

Le Phénoménal (Sonodisc CD65054) 1989; Divis‚ par Deux (Sonodisc CD65050) 1992; Jeunes Orchestres du Congo/Za‹re des Années 70 (Sonodisc CD36539) seventies recordings reissued 1994; Gardez Votre Souffle (Sun JWS614) 1995; 8,000 KM (Plus de Paris EPP01) 1987 recordings reissued 1996; Full Option (Babi BOP20) 1997.

O. Ouedraogo, "L'Empire Bakuba du Zaire," Bingo (no. 410, Mar. 1987); C. Stapleton & C. May, African All-Stars (London, 1987); R. Prince, "Direct Attack!," Folk Roots (no. 94, Apr. 1991); G. Stewart, Rumba on the River (London and New York, 2000).