The whole African continent was inspired by Cuban music which lead to the formation of new bands especially in French speaking countries like Senegal, Guinea, Mali, Bénin and above in Central Africa on both side of the Congo River (Flemming H. 2016). The most notable of national musical genre that was inspired by Cuban music (more specifically son, and son montuno) is the “Congolese Rumba”.

From Congo to Cuba…

Contemporary scholarship in ethnomusicology has made frequent reference to the links between the music of Congo and Cuba (Sublette, 2004; wa Mukuna, 1992; 1999). As is the case with the development of many musical styles, the slave trade had great impact on the development of Cuban music, with a significant input from people taken from the Congo basin. Cuba was established as a Spanish colony in 1511, and remained under Spanish rule – bar a brief period of British control in 1762 – until it was ceded to United-States custody in 1898. The Spanish Government imported very few slaves themselves, preferring to trade with slavers (Sublette, 2004: 77). This led to the slave population of Cuban being made up of people from diverse ports of embarkation. Evidence suggests that slaves from the Congo Basin were being taken to Cuba from the very early days of the colony right up until after the official abolition of slavery in 1886, with estimates putting the proportion of slaves of Congo origins at 32%, the largest slave contingent (Grandio-Moraguez, 2008). In addition to people forcibly taken from Africa, settlers on the island included Europeans from Spain and beyond, the largest Chinese population in the Caribbean and immigrants from nearby islands such as Hispaniola (now shared by countries Haiti and the Dominican Republic). The vast range of musical styles that developed in Cuba grew out of this complex mesh of imported cultures (In. Mcguinness, S. 2015).

… and back to Congo, the GV Series

The ‘return’ of Cuban music to Africa in the 1930s has been well documented (Sublette, 2004, Topp-Fargion, 2004). In the 1930s several factors combined to allow Africa to become one of the main audiences for the outpourings of Cuban and Latin American music from primarily USA-based record labels. For instance, what was then a young global record industry needed to find a new market after the 1929 Wall Street Crash decimated its home customer base. In an attempt to survive the recession that followed, ‘RCA Victor’ and the ‘Gramophone Company’ collaborated in 1933 to produce the ‘GV’ series for the African audience. ‘GV’ reportedly stood for ‘Gramophone-Victor’, however, it appears that musicians and consumers substituted their own interpretations, the most popular among Congolese being ‘Grand Vocalistes’ (Topp Fargion, 2004: 2). Initially aimed at the West African market the ‘GV’ releases found popularity across Africa, particularly in the two Congos (Topp Fargion, 2004, 2). The series ran until 1958 after having produced around 250 releases which were most popular in the mid-1940s. The first track to be released on the ‘GV’ series was a Don Apiazu recording of El Manisero, a Cuban classic by composer Moisés Simons (In. Mcguinness, S. 2015).

Belgian Congo, with its wealth of opportunity, was a draw for immigrants from Africa and the wider world. Congo-based foreign entrepreneurs played an important role in the pan-African success of Congolese popular music, with the formation of, and investment in, a thriving record industry. Coupled with a comprehensive network of radio stations, the industry helped promote Congolese music abroad. ‘Congo Jazz’ – as it was known – became popular with African and white audiences alike in the 1950s. The popularity of Cuban and other Latin American music in the two Congos led to a large number of records being released to this market. Cuban favourites included top Cuban artists Miguel Matamoros and his various groups, Septeto Habanero and later Orquesta Aragón (In. Mcguinness, S. 2015).

It became common practice for Congolese bands to include Cuban and Latin American songs in their repertoire. Modelled on Cuban bands, instrumentation included Latin American percussion and horn sections. Initially musicians embraced Latin America not just in the music but also in the associated performance practice; they adopted Spanish names, wore outfits inspired by Latin bands and copied the dance steps. Vocals were often sung in mock Spanish and Spanish words were interjected into the music. In an interview, Congolese guitarist and bandleader Franco [Luambo] is quoted as saying (In. McGuinness, S. 2015):

Well nobody understood Spanish. Nevertheless, we took a dictionary and searched for words that would sound good and we used them regardless of their true meaning.

Franco Luambo Makiadi, Interview with wa Mukuna, 17 March 1983

“Congolese rumba”

The G.V. series has been mentioned by many African musicians who grew up in the 1940s and 1950s and was an inspiration for the formation of the first dance-bands in Africa modeled on the Afro-Cuban instrumental line-up and repertoire. Afro-Cuban and Latin American music served as a matrix, at first copied then infused with local musical ideas from which a number of national styles of popular music evolved. To this day the most widely used generic term for popular music in the two Congo republics remains rumba congolaise.

The HMV GV series is a catalogue of roughly 250 double sided 78rpm discs issued between 1933 and about 1958, comprising almost entirely Latin music, mainly from Cuba but also from Puerto Rico and Brazil. It drew on recordings originated by Gramaphone and Victor (hence the GV prefix). The series was aimed initially at the West African market, but subsequently reached and became very popular across the entire African continent, particularly in the Congos (Topic Records 2010). They are credited with introducing Afro-Cuban music (specifically Son and Son montuno) into modern African popular culture. The resulting re-interpretations influenced the creation of several genres of African popular music (Wikipedia).

These records spawned some of the most successful modern musical styles West Africa, Central Africa, and East Africa. The most notable of these styles is “Congolese Rumba” which developed in Leopoldville (now: Kinshasa), Belgian Congo (now: Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC) in the 1940s and 50s (Wikipedia). A Congolese rumba derivative, higher tempo dance music style called “soukous” was also developed in the 1960s, not discussed here in detail.

Unfortunately, naming the new style “Congolese rumba” was a huge mistake because

  1. It was inspired strongly by son, not by rumba;
  2. Rumba as a music genre and a dance has already existed in Cuba before. The real rumba from Cuba sounds like this, for example: Los Muñequitos de Matanzas – La llave

Kinshasa was considered by many the „Mekka” of African music that had significant impact on the musical culture of Northern Angola (Angola is DRC’s southern neighbor) and Luanda (University of Kizomba).

One of the major figures in 20th-century Congolese music, and African music in general was the Congolese musician, François Luambo Luanzo Makiadi (Franco Luambo) (6 July 1938 – 12 October 1989). He was the leader for over 30 years of OK Jazz (later renamed to TPOK Jazz), the most popular and significant African band of its time.

Members of OK Jazz Congolese rumba band in Brussels, 1961
Members of OK Jazz Congolese rumba band in Brussels, 1961
Franco Luambo Makiadi, one of the major figures in Congolese rumba
Franco Luambo Makiadi, one of the major figures in Congolese rumba

Out of Cuba CD compilation from selected G.V. records

The album “Out of Cuba: Latin American Music Takes Africa by Storm” was released in 2004 containing 21 songs selected from the GV records which is highly recommended for you to listen to (Buy/listen at: Spotify, Proper Music, Apple Music/iTunes, Amazon):

If you want to understand why so many African bands have been so influenced by Cuban music, look no further than this great album. Superbly compiled, the album has informative liner notes (a neat mix of erudition and vivid anecdote) coupled with photos of the period.

★★★★ Songlines
Out of Cuba album cover
Out of Cuba album cover

Son montuno

Son montuno (“mountainous son”) was the genre (based on the clave rhythm) that had the most significant influence on the Congolese music which eventually lead to the creation of Congolese rumba.

Selected Congolese rumba songs:

  1. Docteur Nico & African Fiesta – Exibition Déchaud (1968)
  2. Docteur Nico & African Fiesta – Impercoque (year unknown)
  3. Franco & OK Jazz – On Entre OK, On Sort KO (1956)
  4. Franco & L’O.K. Jazz – Ba Katanga Balingi Toyokana (1962)
  5. Franco et L’OK Jazz – Ele Wa Bolingo (Mulamba Joseph ‘Mujos’) (1962)
  6. Franco & l’OK Jazz – Le temps passé (1964)
  7. Franco Et L’Orchestre TP OK Jazz – Ngai Tembe Eleka (1971)
  8. Franco / Le TP OK Jazz – NgaI Tembe Eleka (1972)
  9. Franco & L’O.K. Jazz – Likambo Ya Ngana (1972)
  10. Franco Luambo Makiadi – Mario (1986)
  11. Grand Kallé & L’African Jazz – Indépendance Cha-Cha (cha cha lingala, 1960, summer hit after independance from Belgium on 30 June 1960)
  12. Les Bantous de la Capitale – Kumbele kumbele (cha cha lingala, 1962)
  13. Les Bantous de la Capitale – Tokumisa Congo (cha cha lingala, 1963)
  14. M.N.C. Uhuru (Joseph Kabasselé) – African Jazz (1960)
  15. Nico Kassanda – Bea Okeyi Wapi (around, 1967-69)
  16. Nico Kassanda – Mokili ya Nzambe (1988)
  17. Ry-Co Jazz – Tu bois beaucoup (year unknown)
  18. Ry-Co Jazz – Kumbele (cha-cha lingala, 1962)
  19. Ry-Co Jazz – Bana Ry-Co (1964)
  20. Wendo Kolosoy – Pépé Kallé (1999)

Selected soukous songs:


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