Various Artists: The Rough Guide to Congo Gold

Nate Cunningham

A crash-course in Central Africa’s rumba and soukous that (for the most part) won’t make you feel like a musical tourist.

Various Artists

The Rough Guide to Congo Gold

Label: World Music Network
US Release Date: 2008-02-12
UK Release Date: 2008-02-18

Rumba was invented in Belgian and French Congo in the late '30s/early '40s as a kind of re-extracted music, in that it married traditional Congolese and other African musical forms with those from the Caribbean and South America, which had evolved largely from African music in the first place. The new form gained dominance throughout Africa over the next couple decades, along the way picking up the name soukous (literally "shake", after a popular dance done to accompany the rumba), by which it is still known today in its myriad forms. The Rough Guide to Congo Gold compilation contains rumba/soukous classics from the '40s through the '90s -- including almost exclusively names you can find in the Wikipedia entry on soukous -- which is as it should be, since its intended Western audience is likely to be fairly ignorant of the genre. Some of these introductory world music comps turn out to be the aural equivalent of a picture-postcard, so I think the best way to judge them is to imagine that funding has suddenly come through for Weekend at Bernies III -- in this case set in Africa -- and then to decide how many of the tracks could be put comfortably behind the house band at whatever resort our heroes find themselves staying at, or whatever "colorful" native rituals they’re forced to crash.

Put to the Weekend at Bernie's test, seven-and-a-half of the 12 tracks on Rough Guide's collection pass, the half-point being awarded to the most recent one, Madilu System's "Biya", because it may be a little too lush to fit in the movie, proper, though it's bouncy rhythms and comfy '80s pop synths would be perfect over the end credits. For a mainstream "world music comp" however, any score of .500 or over is pretty great, and there are a lot of genuinely soulful songs on here. Their back-ends are loaded with odd, but extremely catchy, bright guitar figures that will go down like a newly discovered candy to rock or soul fans on the lookout for novel sounds.

Contemporary soukous enthusiasts not yet acquainted with these tunes will find the blueprints of the genre to be as understated and confident as they could hope. Only those looking for a raucous Afro-beat fest will likely be disappointed by the easy, loping rhythms on offer, their horn charts nodding toward jazz more than soul or funk.

Among the historically significant figures on the CD, Franco was a great originator of the big band sound of '50s rumba, and he fares well with a seven-minute advertising jingle, "Azda", that starts out minimal and ends in nearly delirious pastures of mildly over-driven, very jammy guitar, and rum-drunk horns. An even longer, but more tepid second track, "Mujinga", still convinces in the cycle-and-drone dual guitar attack of its last few minutes. Joseph Kabasele Tshamala (aka Grand Kalle) was another '50s pioneer, but, sadly, his one appearance fronting legendary band L'African Jazz lends itself far too easily to images of Andrew McCarthy sipping mai-tais on the beach.

By contrast, Grand Kalle’s protégé, Tabu Ley Rochereau -- who is considered possibly the greatest of all rumba singers, as well as one of the principle architects of the soukous sound -- comes through strongly on all three of his songs. The first is an early effort with L’African Jazz, and the others follow in a more progressive direction, including one '80s date backing up famed female singer Mbilia Bel that’s a little corny, but so beautifully arranged and performed, it’s hard to resist. Rochereau's long-time partner, Dr. Nico, scores even higher with a female-sung party jam of his own, called "Mamu Wa Mpoy", with the best guitar work on the album ... until you come to the singular "Marcello Tozongana", by the less famed Verckys Mateta & Orchestre Veve. Here, the guitar gets stuck droning triumphantly on one note, while a sax blows freely overhead, and the only proper response is a manic, broken-robot dance that ends with you twitching on the floor. But don’t worry, Bernie won’t be down there.

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