Papa Noel's songs sound even more Cuban than you would expect from the doyen of a music scene inspired by Cubans.
Antoine Nedule Monswet takes his stage name from the day of his birth, Christmas, 1940. He was born in Leopoldville, in the Congo, at a time when this was some corner of a foreign field that was forever Belgium. (I once overheard South Africans, pre-1990, worrying that the end of apartheid, while overdue, would be like independence in the Congo. "They raped the nuns," they said.)
He grew up listening to Cuban music. The radio played son, and his mother bought imported vinyl 78s. Monswet taught himself to play the guitar. (The biographies of so many older African musicians start like this. "He taught himself to play the guitar." Virtually always a him, playing this guitar.) As an adult he joined bands: Orchestre African Jazz, Orchestre Bantou, his own group Orchestre Bamboula, and TPOK Jazz. The OK Jazz? Oh yes. He played alongside Franco for years. The Franco? Yes. Tout Puissant!
So he was there in the early days of the Congolese rumba boom, and he was there, too, when the boom faded. Big bands shrank into small bands, keyboards moved in, and rumba was overtaken by the medley of styles that came to be known, outside Africa, as soukous. Franco contracted AIDS, recorded a terrifying AIDS song, "Attention na SIDA", then died. Papa Noel's career was looking shaky until he managed to work his way into the European world music scene, which has been a place of professional rebirth for more than one elderly African musician.
At sixty he flew to Havana and recorded with the Cuban tres player Papi Oviedo. They put together an album, Bana Congo, which was released by Tumi to the tune of critical acclaim, nice sales figures, and an award nomination from the BBC. A booking agent remembered Papa Noel as "a lovely man." All of which leads us here, to Café Noir, or, to give the album its full title: Bana Congo presents Café Noir. This is their follow-up, a kind of sequel.
There's no Papi Oviedo this time but Cubans are present nonetheless. They're an acting reminder that Tumi's usual focus is Latin America, not Africa. In the band that has been assembled for this album almost everyone is Cuban. We've got Coto-Antonio Michin Garcia on the tres, Osnel Rodriguez Othero on second guitar, Jorge Luis Torres tapping the okónkolo drum, and so on. As a result, Papa Noel's songs sound even more Cuban than you would expect from the doyen of a music scene inspired by Cubans. Where some other African bands -- Orchestra Baobab, for instance -- have moved Cuban music in ever more African directions, Papa Noel has taken his native rumba and pushed it closer to the Cuban part of its roots.
I think it's the tres that does it. The tres and the trumpets and the clave. The whole album twitches with clave. Meanwhile the trumpets have a scintillating brightness, like over-oxygenated blood, that seems more Latin than African. The beat knots itself in tight circles, the movement of feet making clockwork motions on the dancefloor. Even a low-key song like "Lolita" has a powerful, twitching muscle pushing it along from behind. The singer lowers his voice and the trumpet stays away yet the clave-knock is still there, nudging the listener. Stand up! Dance!
Not only is this album less African than you might think, it's also less guitar-oriented. Considering that Papa Noel has made a living out of his guitar, he doesn't seem at all afraid of stepping aside and letting the other instruments stand at the centre of the listener's attention. When he sings, his voice is ruby-warm with a lilt, the effect of rumba's de facto official language, Lingala. Manu Dibango guest stars on alto sax. There's a photograph of the pair of them in the booklet with a caption that reads: "Papa Noel and Manu Dibango -- an emotional reunion after 20 years in the Paris Studio." Their mouths have been stretched vertically by the blur of the camera until Dibango's head resembles that of Bacon's screaming Pope, but this Pope is a happy one. His sax noodles along through "Africa Mokili Mobimba" and "Soukous Son".
If I were trying to sell Café Noir to as many people as possible, I'd be running around the streets pointing out that it would make an ideal transitional album for Buena Vista fans who haven't yet found their way into the Congolese music (if you like one, odds are you'll like the other). For me, it's a touch too mellow, in spite of the all-powerful clave-gods in the background. But the album will probably do well whether I love it or not. For one thing, this kind of music is popular already ('popular' in a world music sense, which is not the same as popular popular) and for another it's been getting glowing reviews from people who know more about African music than I do. (Caveat: my layman here listened and called it "restaurant music.") For a third, it's cockle-warming to see Papa Noel still kicking arse and taking names after fifty years in the business. Good on him. It's a pity Franco couldn't have lived to see it.