rumba on the river

abetiOlomide, Koffi (Agbepa Mumba, Antoine), Congolese singer and band leader; born Kisangani, Congo-Kinshasa, Aug. 13, 1956.

Growing up in Kinshasa Olomide played a little guitar and listened to the music of the day including the great Tabu Ley whose style he admired. As a teenager he followed the band Zaiko Langa Langa, eventually striking up a friendship with singer Papa Wemba. By the time Olomide finished secondary school in the late seventies, Wemba had his own band, Viva la Musica. Olomide hung out with the band and contributed backing vocals on a few of its recordings.

In 1978, with help from a Kinshasa promoter, Olomide cut a series of 45s under his own name backed by moonlighting musicians, most of them from Viva. "Synza," "N'Djoli," and "Fleur Rose," love songs delivered in Olomide's smooth, sexy baritone, took Kinshasa by surprise. The city's music writers selected him as best composer and revelation of the year.

Shuttling between Kinshasa and university studies in France, and with no permanent band behind him, Olomide found it impossible to sustain his initial success. He slipped from view almost as rapidly as he had risen. The turning point in his career came in 1986 with the release of his first album, Dieu Voit Tout (God sees all), recorded with session musicians in Paris. Back in Kinshasa he put together a band called Quartier Latin and began to perform in earnest. An album variously known as Tcha Tcho or Rue d'Amour (street of love) from 1987 and a follow-up, Elle et Moi (she and I), gentle collections of romance and spirituality voiced with Olomide's patented croon, solidified his position as the king of lover's rumba.

Economic decline in Congo-Kinshasa (then known as Zaire) forced the singer to spend much of the 1990s in Europe. In Paris Olomide and Quartier Latin became one of the city's top attractions, playing well-attended shows in prestigious halls like the Olympia, Le Zénith, and Bercy arena. He released albums at the rate of nearly one per year including Noblesse Oblige (1994) and Ultimatum (1997), two highly successful offerings in the seductive Olomide style. He began the 2000s in the same vein, perpetuating his winning formula with albums such as Effrakata (2001) and Danger de Mort (2006).

The instability of Congolese bands was never more apparent than with Olomide, whose Quartier Latin resembled less a quartier and more a porte tournante, with defectors and new recruits in perpetual rotation. And yet the chronic upheaval failed to deter Olomide, as evidenced by the consistent high quality of his work on stage and in the studio. He is an excellent song writer with a gift for melody and a voice to match. In the midst of the soukous revolution when the rumba rocked with incredible speed, Olomide was a throwback to the gentler era of Joseph Kabasele and Tabu Ley. His popularity is particularly strong among women, who appear to be the bulk of his audience. That he successfully bucked the prevailing winds is a testament to his tenacity and talent.
© 2011 Gary Stewart

Tcha Tcho/Rue d'Amour (LP referred to in above text, O'Neil Productions TC1301); Tcha Tcho (not the album referred to in the above text, Stern's STCD1031) eighties recordings reissued 1990; Pas De Faux Pas (Sonodisc CD92018) 1993; Noblesse Oblige (Tamaris CD71307) 1994; Magie (Sonodisc CD74113) 1995; Ultimatum (Sonodisc CDS8827) 1997; N'Djoii (Ngoyarto NG028) seventies recordings reissued 1997; Attentat (Sono CDS28841) 2000; Effrakata (Next Music CDS8919) 2001; Danger de Mort (Sonima SMCD1687) 2006.

M. Sinnock, "Tcha Tcho and All That Jazz," The Beat (vol. 18, no. 1, 1999); G. Stewart, Rumba on the River (London and New York, 2000); M. Sinnock, "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do," The Beat (vol. 19, no. 4, 2000).