INTERVIEW: inside decades of Kanda Bongo Man’s music journey

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Kanda Bongo Man in Uganda

Congolese soukous legend Kanda Bongo Man arrived in Uganda Friday ahead of his dance party today, Tuesday December 31, 2019, at Sheraton Gardens Kampala.

He will be at Resort beach hotel Entebbe on January 1, 2020.

On Monday, he addressed press on his music journey that dates back in 1970s.

Speaking at Sheraton hotel in Kampala, Kanda told edge.ug how he revolutionised soukous and influenced later Congolese lingala musicians.

Kanda Bongo Man speaking at Sheraton hotel in Kampala on Monday December 30, 2019.
Victoria University

You are credited for revolutionising soukous. Pioneers like Papa Wemba, Tabu Ley, Koffi Olomide, Tshala Muana, Wenge Musica and Pepe Kalle set the standard for lingala or rumba. Were you just breaking away from them or you felt something was missing and had to be added?

Kanda Bongo Man: I started singingwhen I was still in school. I became the singer for Orchestra Belle Mambo in 1973. The big names then included Tabu Ley who influenced Congolese music. When I was in Paris around 1979, I realised that my audience wanted a different kind of music from what we knew.

I told Diblo Dibala [aka Machine Gun for his speed and skill on the guitar] that look, we are not going to sell any tapes if we don’t change our music. The previous approach was to sing several verses and have one guitar solo at the end of the song.

Kanda with promoter Balaam Barugahara

So we decided to put guitar solos after every verse and even sometimes at the beginning of the song. That is how my first albums, Iyole in 1981 and Djessy in 1982, came about. So other Congo musicians also adopted this new music bringing about a whole new experience.

Question: Your new form of soukous gave birth to the hig-swinging kwassa kwassa dance rhythm [where the hips move back and forth while the hands move to follow the hips]. However, this once popular dance style met criticism and attempted bans on radios and TVs for obscenity. Do you feel cheated and unappreciated by history?

Kanda Bongo Man: Well, for kwassa kwassa [French of ‘What is that’?], you know these dances originate from the streets. It was thestreet dances back in Kinshasa who invented the dances and then brought them to us musicians. Then we would shape them and turn them into something we want. That is how kwassa kwassa came to be.

Our Paris based fans also preferred short soukous tracks suitable for play on dance floors everywhere. It appealed to Africans and to new audiences as well.

Kanda with KMP spokesperson Patrick Onyango

So the dance became popular when we incorporated it in videos. If you see Pepe Kalle and Viva La Musica’s videos, you will see the extent to which these dances captivated our fans.

For the first time in Congo all the groups adopted these dance steps which had not happened before, because bands preferred to have their own specific dance. Even Koffi Olomidde adopted a slower version of this genre with his band Quartier Latin.

Question: when we were growing up, Lingala was the music of the time. What killed the once all-Africa famous lingala music…would you say it died a natural death or Congolese musicians failed to sustain it?

Kanda Bongo Man: Well, I have no definite answer for that question. Music evolves and so did lingala. But what I can say is that many African countries felt that lingala was killing their own local music.

So, countries had to ban lingala to allow their own musicians to create. This was the only way to grow their local music and allow local artistes to create their own music which wasn’t influenced by lingala.

Question: At 64, you invented the famous kwassa kwassa dance, and influenced later musicians like Diblo Dibala, Yondo Sister, Loketo, Awilo Longomba etc. You are tired. Is there any hope of retiring or you are determined to die on the job like African politicians?

Kanda Bongo Man: [rolls with laughter] well, as long as I still have the voice, I will sing. I’m an entertainer. That is my job. I cannot stop singing until I’m unable to.

Kanda takes Coca Cola in Uganda

I will give you examples. You remember Miriam Makeba [nicknamed Mama Africa, was a South African singer, songwriter, actress, United Nations goodwill ambassador, and civil rights activist]. What age was she? [Died November 9, 2008 aged 76]. She was still performing.

There is also Hugh Ramapolo Masekela [South African trumpeter, flugelhornist, cornetist, singer and composer who has been described as “the father of South African jazz”]. You know he was still performing at the time of his death [Died: January 23, 2018 aged 78]. I mean, we are entertainers. We perform for as long we are still alive. So my friend, as long as I still have my voice, I will continue to entertain you.

Kanda Bongo Man’s press conference at Sheraton hotel in Kampala
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