rumba on the river

abetiPapa Noel (Nedule Montswet, Antoine), virtuoso Congolese guitarist; born Kinshasa, Dec. 25, 1940.

Papa Noel's life nearly spans the entire history of Congolese popular music. His birth on Christmas day, when the music itself was in its infancy, supplied him with an instant nickname. Some seventeen years later, as the music's dominant acoustic guitars yielded to the onslaught of electric models, Noel signed on at Léopoldville's (Kinshasa) Ngoma studio to play beside pioneer singer-guitarist Léon Bukasa. Their 1957 record about a woman named "Clara Badimwene" was Noel's first. He moved on to the Esengo studio the following year to play with a band called Rock'a Mambo led by musicians from Congo-Brazzaville, clarinetist Jean Serge Essous and sax player Nino Malapet.

The year of political independence for the two Congos, 1960, saw Noel in Gabon in the company of another Brazzavillean, Guy-Léon Fylla, and his band Makina Loka. Late the same year Noel found a home in Brazzaville's Bantous de la Capitale where his reputation gained first luster. Fashioning a stylish lead guitar that some called the third school of the Congolese rumba—after Franco and Docteur Nico—Noel enriched a Bantous repertoire that included his own compositions like "Basili Koyokana" (they no longer understand one another) and "Mobali Liboso" (man first).

Papa Noel stayed with Orchestre Bantou until the middle of 1963 when he embarked on a series of short-lived endeavors. First he joined with the great Joseph Kabasele, then in the process of rebuilding African Jazz. Shortly afterward he made his first attempt to launch his own band, Bamboula. Failing at that, he joined early Franco mentor Paul "Dewayon" Ebengo in his new group, Cobantou.

At the end of 1968, on his second try, Papa Noel successfully formed Bamboula. The group included a number of outstanding young musicians like future members of the Quatre Etoiles Bopol Mansiamina and Wuta Mayi. Bamboula recorded the hit "Succès Mambeta" (mambeta, a popular dance) and "Confiance Perdue" (lost confidence) before a number of defections signaled its demise at the beginning of the seventies.

A fallow period followed until Noel joined Franco's O.K. Jazz in 1978 for the longest stretch of steady employment in his career. Still, his most notorious and popular work of the time, "Bon Samaritan," was done, much to Franco's displeasure, in 1984 outside of O.K. Jazz. Noel continued with O.K. Jazz for a year after Franco's death in 1989. He moved to Brussels at the beginning of 1991 where he attempted, with little success, to form a band of Congolese musicians in exile called Maxirama. His best work came as a solo artist, recording with session musicians the excellent Haute Tension in 1994. He contributed the guitar parts to Sam Mangwana's 1998 outing, Galo Negro, and toured with Mangwana in 1998 and 2000.

Noel joined a young Cuban singer-guitarist named Adan Pedroso in mid-2000 for a memorable tour that included the WOMAD Rivermead Festival and the Bath International Guitar Festival. The latter performance was recorded and released on CD the following year as Mosala Makasi, an exquisite, ten-song set. Noel went on to help found the group Kékélé, a reunion of some of Congolese music's elders, before a severe bout with tuberculosis in 2001 imposed a long convalescence. He seems to have recovered nicely, however, performing and recording—including the fine 2007 CD Café Noir—into the beginning of his eighth decade.

In spite of his lengthy list of employers and the relative anonymity inherent in playing in the O.K. Jazz ensemble, Papa Noel is regarded, by peers and critics alike, as one of Congolese music's finest guitarists. During the music's most creative period, from the sixties to the eighties, only the names of Franco and Docteur Nico were spoken in the same breath with his. If he failed to reach the level of popularity of these other virtuosos, it was largely because of his proclivity to move from band to band. Papa Noel's stature has only increased during his years away from Kinshasa, due to his enormous talent and the exceptional quality of the music he continues to make.
© 2011 Gary Stewart

Papa Noel Nono ("Bon Samaritan," Gefraco KL090) 1984; Haute Tension (Les Mampoko's MPK001) 1994; Bel Ami (Stern's STCD3016) songs from previous two CDs reissued 2000; Café Noir (Tumi 114) 2007.
With Bantous de la Capitale: Compilations Musique Congolo-Zairoise (Sonodisc CD36504) sixties recordings reissued 1991; Le Bantous de la Capitale (Sonodisc CD36527) sixties recordings reissued 1993.
With O.K. Jazz: Franco et le tout puissant o.k. jazz (Sonodisc CD8461) 1989; Héritage de Luambo Franco (Tamaris LP TMS90002) 1990; Maby...Tonton Zala Serieux (Sans Frontieres LP SF007) 1990.
With Sam Mangwana: Galo Negro (Putumayo PUTU140-2) 1998.
With Adan Pedroso: Mosala Makasi (Yard High YHCD3) 2001.
With Kékélé: Rumba Congo (Stern's STCD1093) 2001.

M. Lonoh, Essai de commentaire sur la musique congolaise moderne (Kinshasa, 1969); S. Bemba, 50 ans de musique du Congo-Zaire (Paris, 1984); G. Ewens, Congo Colossus (North Walsham, U.K., 1994); G. Stewart, Rumba on the River (London and New York, 2000); B. Eisenberg, "Good to the Very Last Drop," The Beat (vol.26, no.2, 2007).
Thanks to Ken Braun for assistance.