Soukous All Stars: Keeping the Congolese Flame Alive
Interview by Banning Eyre August 16, 2018
Soukous All Stars: Keeping the Congolese Flame Alive
On Thursday, August 23, several generations of music superstars will come together in the David Rubenstein Atrium for a free night of soukous, the Congolese musical style that's influenced artists worldwide for more than 50 years. In advance of what promises to be an epic performance, several members of Soukous All Stars—Elie Kihonia, Nyboma Mwan'dido, Ngouma Lokito, and Yohni Sungu—spoke to journalist Banning Eyre about keeping the flame of the original Congolese soukous style alive.
Banning Eyre: You have so many legends of Congolese music coming together in this band. How did this particular ensemble come together?
Elie Kihonia: Well, the story is really about trying to make sure that those legends, as they are aging—that their music and their work and what they have accomplished for our music is rewritten. It must stay as part of the legacy for the young people. Today Congolese music has spread everywhere in the world, especially in Africa, through the music they're calling, for example, Afrobeats, you know—in terms of the new young generation of singing from Nigeria, Ghana music. They're playing soukous music. It's just a different name now. Because back then, as we all know, traditionally Nigerian people did not play that rhythm, which is the Congolese original rhythm.
We want to make sure that all of those young people today understand where that rhythm came from, where that music came from. So we thought it's an important element to bring all those legends who are still alive, who are still there to be able to tell their own story in their own words, and for people to see that those are the creators.
If I speak about someone like Manuaku being the lead guitarist, one of the first among the Congolese creators of the soukous style... When you think about Nyboma at the age of 14, 15, 18, those guys created something, created songs with bands like Bella Bella, Lipua-Lipua, you know. Those guys were young, but their songs even today are still what Fally [Ipupa] is picking up. Their voice is what Ferre [Gola] is singing. So we wanted to make sure that even P-Square, who is now imitating whatever that is—it didn't come from Sunny Ade or it didn't come from Fela, but it came from people like Nyboma. That's really why this band came together.
You hear even a sampling on bass—an individual called Ngouma Lokito created a lot of those sounds, created a lot of those ideas. That's why we thought it is important that those legends who are still alive, they can speak, they can make their voices known. They can share their stories in their own voices. We lost so many individuals like Papa Wemba, one of the legends. They can't speak anymore, so today, those ones while we have them alive, our goal is for them to tell their stories themselves.
BE: What about in Congo itself and in the Congolese communities in Europe? Do you feel like the music of the generation of Zaïko Langa Langa and OK Jazz and Bella Bella and all these wonderful groups that these artists represent is still respected and understood? Because I guess Congolese music keeps changing, right?
Elie: Yes, Congolese music keeps changing, but the roots are still there because some of those legends are still there. The young people of today say they fear losing markets, sometimes trying to become more Afrobeats, you know, trying to imitate to become like they're from Nigeria or from Ghana or wherever, not knowing that they are the ones who... you know, you inherit something from your traditions.
Soukous music is Congolese, it didn't come from Cuba. It was born in Congo, it is Congolese identity. You know, that rhythm—tak-tak . . . tak-tak-tak—is ours. It comes from our tradition. You can trace it back to our old traditions from Kongo, from the Luba, from the Lunda. So it's our music. We did not take it from anybody else. Even in France, today they have people like Kanda and Nyboma and Ngouma Lokito. They're still there. He still plays how he played when he was 17 years old, and today he's 63.
BE: Tell me about this particular band. How did all these artists come together for this big, fifteen-concert tour?
Elie: Well, Paris, as you know, became almost the mecca of all the Congolese soukous stars. Most of them made their homes in Paris, and of course they still go back to Congo. We are trying to make America a place where they can come and reside, they can come and express themselves through the music. So the idea came from the USA, but the action took place in France. We went there, recorded, and practiced and we brought musicians who now reside here.
We also have young ones who are inheriting this music. They are New York Congolese. For example, one of our lead guitarists, he's a young man, but he knows the repertoire of Bella Bella. When those songs were playing, he was not even born! You'll meet him at the concert, Yohni Sungu. He's an unbelievable young guitarist. So we've brought all of them together, the young ones who are going to keep the flame alive and the old ones who have been keeping the flame and who have worked with the greatest people. Like Nyboma, he's done it all in Congolese music. Ngouma Lokita, they've done it all in Congolese music, with all the greatest artists you can name.
BE: I love that there is a passage of generations in this band giving the great achievements of the legends and passing them onto a new generation. That's how music moves ahead, and it's beautiful to see.
Nyboma, you live in Paris now but you lived quite a long time in the United States. How do you find American audiences to understand Congolese music? You've seen it over many years. Have you seen changes? What's your impression of how American audiences respond to this great musical tradition that you represent?
Nyboma: I think audiences are hot now. American people know African music now, from Congo, from Nigeria, from everywhere in Africa. They know African music now. It's good now.
BE: They know African music now because they've been hearing it for a number of decades. There used to be a lot of Congolese bands that would come to New York City. It's different now, it's harder to tour, and tastes have changed a bit, but you still feel like people understand the music when you play now, more than they did back in the 1980s?
Nyboma: Yeah, I think now people know this music. Before, it's like people come here to try to make the way for this music, but now, the way is open.
BE: Recently in New York there was a big concert of this new Afrobeats music, which, as Elie pointed out, has deep roots in Congolese music. There was a huge crowd. Do you feel like we're now coming into perhaps a new era of Americans understanding Africa through music?
Nyboma: Yes, I want to say that because we have some people here that teach this music in the university to children. They teach this music. That's why the young people from America know this music now, better.
BE: Ngouma, you live in the Bronx. What's your impression about American audiences, because you've played for a lot of them over the years. Do you also find, like Nyboma, that there's more understanding and more acceptance of Congolese music?
Ngouma: Listen, this was my idea for a long time. I wanted the American people to know this music. When I was in Congo, people were dancing to American music, and I would think to myself, "Why don't American people dance to African music?" That's why me and my friends and everybody came to stay in America, to show people African music, Congolese music.
BE: I understand and I think you're right. My experience is that when people hear this music they love it, they want to dance to it, they want to just interact with it. It's very powerful music and the level of musicianship, the quality of the players and singers in Congo is just unrivaled. It's so clearly one of the great music centers of the world.
Ngouma, you've played with so many different bands in Europe, here, in Congo, do you have do you have any favorite eras? A band that you played in that was particularly special, that is the one you'll always remember? Tell me about some of your high points in your career.
Ngouma: My band is the Soukous Stars! I've played with a lot of people, but my band is the Soukous Stars.
BE: So you're coming together to bring Congolese music to make people remember its importance and its power. What do you see as the future of Congolese music?
Nyboma: In the future, Congolese music will be powerful, because now everything is together. Soukous is back again in America.
Elie: I can add because now, not only that, but the young people, some of them born here in the U.S., our young people like Yohni, having young people like this who learn guitar the way Huit Kilos, the way Manuaku, the way Lokassa Ya Mbongo plays, the way Franco plays, that they are now taking over those styles of music. And some of those children, they've never been to Congo, but either because they are born to Congolese family, they love the music, and they're going to be the future. Those children are going to take over. They're going to own and make sure that there is the true identity. Talking to Yohni, you see the love of Congo music, the way he respects the elders, the way he is taking this music in his heart. He plays blues, he plays jazz, but he can play Congolese music like you would not even believe. That's the same way as the people from Colombia and from Nigeria, they are learning to play guitar from Congo. People from Ivory Coast, all of them are learning.
"With Congolese music, we don't necessarily play in a square box."
BE: Yohni, tell us your story a little bit.
Yohni: I'm based in New York but I was born in Kinshasa. I lived there for roughly 17 years, and I moved here to the United States. When I was 15 I joined a choir, and then I had a taste of guitar through my friends and then I started playing, and ever since then I never quit.
BE: You came up in the U.S. playing lots of different styles, jazz and blues—what's special about Congolese guitar?
Yohni: To me it's kind of close to jazz when you really play because you get to experience a lot of techniques. You try a lot of things as you go. With Congolese music, we don't necessarily play in a square box. A lot of pop music is really squared up. In the Congolese style, you actually have to be in a circular kind of mode. When you play you're not really playing 1-2-3-4, instead it's like 1-2-3-4 . . . and 8.
The very important thing is to listen to the elders. When you do listen to the elders you actually learn a lot more. Honestly I'm a self-taught guitarist, however I used to listen to music that my grandfather listened to, my grandmother—the music that she grew up listening to. That's what I picked up on, and even today when I play with the elders, it's as if I was born in that era rather than if I was born today even though I can still play what we play today as young people.
BE: Tell me about your singer, Luciana Demingongo.
Elie: Luciana is one of the great voices of Congolese music. His timbre, his style of singing is the Papa Wemba generation. He sang with Papa Wemba and Viva La Musica. He was with many people, Zaïko, Choc Stars, all the big names that you know from Congolese singing, he sang with them. And today a lot of recordings of musicians, he interprets them, so he's sung on a lot of recordings. So that's Luciana's background. The name he's given is "Demingongo," which means "from the voice."
BE: Can you give us a sense of what you'll be performing at Lincoln Center? Will it be a mixture of classic songs and new songs?
Yohni: For the show we have some of Luciana's original music that he made before, titles like "Princesse Julia," "Aziza," those are his own classic songs sung with Viva La Musica. We also have some classics by Nyboma, some that he did with people like Pépé Kallé. We also have newer music, like Zaïko Langa Langa, the recent music they've been playing. We have some of even the newer generation, like Fally. It's kind of a globalization of Congolese music from the top, since Wemba you come all the way to this newer generation.
BE: Sometimes people talk about five generations of Congolese music. It sounds like you're going to try to touch on all of them a little bit, right?
Yohni: Exactly. To me that's what we're doing right now, so it's coming from the top heads to the younger generation. Like Elie was saying, it's a torch being passed on. That's what we are carrying right now.
Elie: I can add to that. What is really great about this group and what is also amazing is that there is different styles of people who created—for example, Nyboma. You know that generation from Bella Bella, Lipua-Lipua. You have people like Kanda Bongo, he comes from that generation. So you have Luciana, who comes from the generation of Papa Wemba. And then you have guitarists like Ngouma, who by himself created a sound that is going generation to generation, being passed on to different type of styles, like playing with the thumb and the forefinger. Nowhere else is that style being played, only by the Congolese bass player.
And then of course even on the riffs, like Yohni was talking about. The expression—even a jazz guitarist, when he sees a Congolese playing just with one string so fast, so many beats. Musically, you won't be able to write that. It's impossible to write that musically. That's the kind of thing that you will never find in any other generation of music in the world, any other format of music in the world. It is Congolese. We must be proud, and we must be able to teach the world: this is Congolese. People need to know and they need to start respecting and giving dues to those great artists like Nyboma, Luciana, Ngouma Lokito, Lokassa Ya Mbongo, Manuaku, Nseka Huit Kilos, all of those people. They deserve it. They deserve it.
One of our goals right now is to go all the way to the Grammys. Individuals like Nyboma should be honored, just like Jimi Hendrix, just like all those people who created styles that the world is playing. Papa Wemba died. At the Grammys people should have stood and honored him while he was there because he did give that kind of contribution to the world. So we want to change that. We want to make sure people know that. The academies, all of the great institutions of world music must recognize these Congolese artists, Congolese music, as one of the greatest musics of all time.
Banning Eyre is a writer, guitarist, photographer, and producer. He has written about international music, especially African music, since 1988. He is also the lead producer for the Peabody Award–winning public radio program Afropop Worldwide.