Many African artists such as Ricardo Lemvo and Makina Loca, Gnonnas Pedro, and Africando play the Afro-Cuban influenced rhythms known as Congolese rumba. Also, there is no denying the African as well as European heritage of Cuba’s music; yet, collaborations between musicians from Africa and Cuba do not happen as often as one would expect.
Bana Congo combines the best of both worlds in one very exciting, danceable and charming package of Cuban and African rhythms. There is not only a very fine and tasteful combination of the two cultures; but also the album contains solid vocals, a sweet horn section, polished musicians and has a multi-layered, multi-textured sound that does not come off as over-produced nor insincere.
Congolese artist, Antoine Nedule Monswet or Papa Noel as he is now known was born in 1940 and grew up listening to 78 recordings of Cuban son on his mother’s phonograph and on the radio. He took up the guitar as a teenager and began to play the music he grew up with as well as Congolese rumba. He is recognized as one of the best guitar players in Africa and has played with many very excellent Congolese bands—most notably Franco’s, in whose band he played for many years. Not only is he a great guitar player, but a fine songwriter and singer. My favorite tracks on this CD tend to be the ones written by Papa Noel such as the lovely song, “Juliana”. On this one, Papa Noel takes the lead, singing this beautiful sad love song in his high sweet plaintive voice.
Cuban Papi Oviedo, born in 1937, is considered to be one of the greatest tres guitar players in the world. The tres guitar, a very common and distinctive instrument in Cuban music, has three sets of double strings, hence its name. The son of the legendary Cuban musician, bandleader, and tres virtuoso Isaac Oviedo, Papi (whose real name is Gilberto Oviedo La Portilla) started playing the tres guitar when he was around 15. Although a veteran of many bands like Papa Noel, Papi was the tres player in Elio Revé‘s band for a steady 13 years. Most recently, he has been on tour with Buena Vista Social Club’s Omara Portuondo exposing his great talent to even wider audiences.
The CD opens with the title track Bana Congo, a tribute to Papa Noel’s country and culture. The horn section begins then the guitars of Papa and Papi come in with the rhythm section and the outstanding vocalists that hold the sound together throughout the album. Even so, it is when the two master guitarists take solos or come to the forefront as duos that the music really reaches its high point such as on the second song of the album “Kin Havane” and at the beginning of the aforementioned “Juliana”. Another favorite of mine, also written and sung by Papa Noel, is “Molimo”. The master guitarists stand out on this one and the female African chorus is particularly wonderful. But then, all the vocals on Bana Congo are excellent. The songs are in Spanish, French, and the Congolese Lingala.
Although neither Oviedo nor Noel are purists, they do not play the more modern almost frantic paced Cuban rhythms known as timba that seem to be most popular today—music like one would hear from Cuban super groups such as Cubanismo, Sierra Maestra, and Los Van Van. They instead stay with the older style Cuban son blended with Noel’s roots of Congolese rumba. This isn’t to say that if one were a dancer they would be disappointed. I love to dance (hmm—have I said that before?) and so of course as soon as this CD is on I am dancing around my tiny house and overgrown garden.
Bana Congo is a perfect blend of the two cultures and an excellent example of what can happen when two legendary masters come together with respect for each other and an amazing rapport that surpasses any political boundaries or language barriers. This recording serves as a great introduction to the label Tumi’s first in their “crossing borders” series and knowing Tumi’s past releases and of course with this excellent example, I am certain that this will be a series worth watching out for.