Various Artists: Roots of OK Jazz

Various Artists
Roots of OK Jazz: Congo Classics 1955-1956
Crammed Discs

This is a reissue of a 1993 album compiled by Vincent Kenis, the man behind the recent success of Konono No. 1, the Kasai Allstars, and Staff Benda Bilili. Roots of OK Jazz, now revamped as part of Crammed Discs’ “Congo Classics” series, is especially welcome in the wake of the two outstanding recent compilations put out by Sterns Africa of the work of Franco Luambo Makiadi (known to fans of African music simply as Franco) and his band, the Tout-Pouissant Orchestre Kinois de Jazz, or OK Jazz for short. Franco would be responsible, from the 1950s until his death in 1989, for some of the most influential popular music of the African continent, especially the Congolese rumba and soukous sounds that would dominate much modern African pop.

The collection gathers material from the period before the official formation of OK Jazz and features a number of the group’s future members, including Vicky, Rossignol, Essous, De La Lune, Dessoin, Roitelet, De Wayon, and Nganga. The records put out by these musicians, all of whom are credited as leaders on at least one cut, appeared on 78 RPM discs, many of which did not survive due to their continued use at dance events. As Kenis notes, recording technology had been used by European colonists in the Congo as an extension of “His Master’s Voice”, delivering orders for curfews among other “public services”; the HMV discs containing these Latin-inspired pop songs, by contrast, signaled an assertive sonic reclaiming of public space.

The Latin influence on Congolese music has been much discussed and has also been the focus of other compilations, such as last year’s Cubanismo from the Congo on the Honest Jon’s label. As would later happen with rock, funk, and hip hop, Congolese musicians in the metropolitan centers took the latest imports and made their own mark on them. And, as with those musics, the cosmopolitan was made more appealing by recognizing styles in which African music had played a defining role, which was clearly the case with the music of Cuba and other Latin American countries. Once the musicians were able to afford them, the horns that acted in such effective counterpoint to Franco’s liquid guitar runs would also parallel the sounds of classic rhythm and blues, that fascinating period where jazz gave way to rock and roll and the honking sax still retained a dominant role.

Kenis notes the contemporaneous developments in popular music in the USA of the 1950s but is keen to downplay any actual sonic influence. The young rebels of Léopoldville (now Kinshasa) or Brazzaville may have been known as yankees for their modern cosmopolitan ways, but their musical tastes remained primarily Afrocentric and they were quick to localize foreign influences, for example by using a multi-pitched frame drum (the patenge) to replace the double bass. At the same time, modernization and contingency were key drivers of style and so an electric organ might be used instead of the accordion favored by previous generations (this can be heard on “Nabosani Ndako” on this collection) or to replace wind instruments that were beyond the group’s miniscule budget. As for the Spanish used on tracks such as “Maria Antonia”, it was largely strung together from random sentences found in language books.

Despite a note in the booklet that claims the CD “might not do justice to the glorious analog” of the original recordings, the sound quality in this collection is excellent, especially with regard to the clarity of Franco’s guitar. The exquisitely understated Spanish guitar fills found in the romantic “Oyo Elengi Motema” are notable beneficiaries of this clarity; so too is the sustained electric guitar attack that adds drama to the closing section of “Mabele Yo Okanisaka”. The compilation bears eloquent witness to the development of Franco’s guitar style, as his solos move from brief blasts of sound to more fluidly evolving lines. Such fluidity would be a notable element of Franco’s mature style and it is fascinating to hear its early stages.

The booklet contains historical notes about the recording industry in the Congo and the early days of OK Jazz, as well as personnel and lyrics for each song. In his notes, Kenis also recalls his meeting with Franco’s biographer, Graeme Ewens in 1989 and their discovery that they were both intending to release early recordings by the star. Fortunately, they were in possession of different recordings, meaning that the compilation that appeared on the RetroAfric label in the 1990s (Originalité) acts as a continuation of the story contained here rather than an overlap. The story of Franco’s later years, meanwhile, is best heard on the two Sterns collections.

Ironically, the music that these musicians created helped to forge a modern cosmopolitan Congolese popular music that later groups such as Konono No 1 and the Kasai Allstars would react against. It’s good to know that Vincent Kenis is involved in telling the various sides of this story, not least because it should be noted that the music developed by these yankees is as deserving of historical treatment as the more “traditional” music of Kasai.

Indeed, one of the more poignant moments to be found on Roots of OK Jazz is the lyric of “Mabele Yo Okanisa” (“Earth, You Took”), De Wayon’s lament for two deceased singers in which he also ruminates on the transience of the music he is playing and on his own fate. The singer urges his listeners to take photos of the musicians so that they will be remembered and wonders who will remember him when his moment has passed. It’s a lyric worthy of Jorge Luis Borges and, like Borges’s writing, contains its own answer. The recording, of course, will remember him, as long, at least, as we keep playing it.

RATING 8 / 10