With 40 tracks of vintage African music filling up two CDs, Roots of Rumba Rock: Congo Classics 1953 – 1955 is an ethnomusicologist’s dream and a pure delight for all fans of international sounds. Beautiful slipcase packaging and a deeply detailed booklet make the set a keeper. You should, however, put more stock in the “Roots” part of the title than the “Rock”. Although these recordings hail from the same era as the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, they’re far from the polished, Western pop-influenced worldbeat we’ve grown accustomed to in the past few decades. For the people of Africa in the 1950s, however, the music heard here was as exciting and new as Haley, Presley, Berry, and Richard were in America and Europe. While much of colonized Africa’s media was controlled by whites and featured Euro-centric entertainment, the Belgians who’d staked out the Congo never bothered. So, the homegrown sounds emanating from Radio Congo Belge in Léopoldville (now Kinshasa) were a rare treat for the continent’s native populace. There was a spot on the dial where Africans could actually listen to African music.
And not just traditional African music, but a melding of old styles onto a new sound: Afro-Cuban music. Cyclically, this “new” sound had actually originated in Africa, as slaves from the Congo were deported to the Caribbean, taking their rumba rhythms along with them. Generations later, these familiar rhythms came back with decidedly Latin American flavorings. So, from out of Africa and back home again, the rumba evolved. The results are chronicled here on Roots of Rumba Rock
This stylistic crossroads is a place of sweetly funky, happy sounds. The collection begins with a biguine (a cousin to the rumba hailing from Martinique). “Kotiya Zolo Te” is a bewitching piece of proto-Afro-pop by Bowane, the scene’s biggest star. He was powerful enough to get a Cadillac in trade for all future publishing and mechanical royalties, meaning he was ripped off only as much as most black musicians in America at that time. The rest of the artists on these discs sold their songs to the Loningisa label for a beer and were sent packing. Ah, colonialism! Still, the music is beautiful, with a brisk but gentle, swaying rhythm. Bowane returns on the next track, a sebene with decidedly African vocal harmonies, but a distinctly Caribbean tone to the music underneath. It isn’t until the rumba on track five, Kalima Pierre’s “Tika Lofundu”, that the Cuban roots break up through the African soil with its rickety-yet-kickin’ horn charts. With a more Spanish-influenced vocal delivery, De Wayon’s “Nyekese” (another biguine) moves one step closer to that Buena Vista Social Club sound.
While its fun to hunt for these Cuban flavorings, what makes this compilation compelling is the diversity of the joyous noises it presents. The material is all tethered together by shared commonalities, but each cut is peppered with its own unique quality, like a Creole-leaning accordion part or the regional tones of a likembe (thumb piano). Capturing the evolution of influences right at the moment new ideas were sprouting forth, Roots of Rumba Rock: Congo Classics 1953 – 1955 is a very fun and sublimely sweet collection of great songs from an exciting period in the history of African music.