Ask young people in Congo about soukous and you might be told that it's a soccer move in which a player feints and dribbles the ball around an opponent. Your informants, who probably speak French as well as several Bantu languages, may explain that the word derives from the French verb secouer, "to shake." Ask middle-aged Congolese men and women, and they will tell you that soukous is the name of a dance that was popular in the late 1960s. Don't bother asking elderly folk about it; the word hadn't yet been coined when they were playing soccer or keeping up with dance crazes. Outside of Africa, however, around the same time that the concept of "world music" took hold in the late '80s, soukous was adopted as the generic term for contemporary Congolese musicor at least the sound being made by Congolese and Zairean musicians in Paris. This artfully produced, indefatigably upbeat music, with its genial voices and mesmerizing guitars, filled dancefloors around the globe for much of the following decade.
Whether defined as a particular dance or a musical genre, soukous is an outgrowth of Congolese rumba. One characteristic of rumba Congo that is germane to soukousboth the dance and the musicis the sebene. The Congolese guitarist Henri Bowane is reputed to have invented the sebene in the 1940s, but this kind of instrumental bridge, on which one or two musicians develop arpeggios in circular progressions while another improvises around them, has forever been common to music for Congolese harps, lutes, thumb pianos and xylophones. Bowane and his peers adapted traditional structures to two or three guitars and borrowed some ideas from the interplay of the Spanish guitar and the trés in Cuban sones and guajiras.
Their disciplesguitarists such as Franco, Papa Noel, Nico Kassanda and Nico's brother Dechaudpicked up electric guitars and a few tricks from rock 'n' roll, Western swing and Hawaiian music, and heated up and stretched out their sebenes. The typical rumba congo of the '60s and '70s tended to start at a moderate tempo, shift up for the chorus and then hit cruising speed for the sebene.
The contrasting rhythms gave rise to dances like boucher, mossaka, kiri-kiri (which actually slowed down for the sebene) and, in 1968, soukous, which was defined by a particularly emphatic midsong rhythmic change, when the dancers started shaking and the guitarists rocked out. Though three-minute singles still dominated the Congolese record market in the late '60s, bands playing live could extend the sebene indefinitely. In the '70s bands like Franco's T.P.O.K. Jazz and new-school Zaiko Langa Langa brought as many as five guitar parts (basse, accompagnement, mi-composé, mi-solo and solo) into sebenes that sometimes went on for 15 or 20 increasingly exciting minutes, creating what was called beau désordre"beautiful chaos."
Multitudes of musicians in Kinshasa, Zaire (the former Belgian Congo), and Brazzaville, Congo, continued to introduce new sounds and dances that incorporated the sebeneas they do to this daybut by the end of the '70s several of the best had moved abroad. At first they went to other African cities where Congolese music was already very popular. Mose Fan Fan SeSengo and Samba Mapangala reestablished themselves in Nairobi, Kenya, while bands led by Sam Mangwana and Nyboma Mwan'dido toured back and forth along the West African coast. Wherever they went they demonstrated their ingenuity and broadened their fan bases by blending local ingredients into their congo, zaire or lingala (as their music was called in other countries). Most of them made their way eventually to London, Brussels or Paris, where independent record producers and start-up labels were eager to market their music to immigrant communities, fans back home and, just maybe, some Europeans.
Singers such as Nyboma, Mangwana, Kanda Bongo Man and Papa Wemba scored international hits in the '80s with records made in Paris, and their guitarists attracted fully as much attention. The names Syran Mbenza, Dizzy Mandjeku, Daly Kimoko, Lokassa Ya Mbongo, Bopol Mansiamina, Pablo Lubadika, Diblo Dibala, Rigo Star appeared in countless album credits and in a variety of settings. Congolese/Zairean guitars turned up in many kinds of music produced in Paris in the '80s: Cameroonian makossa, Ivorian ziglibithy, Haitian compas, Antillean zouk and even European disco and rock. At the same time, those various styles imbued Parisian-Congolese/Zairean music with a current, cosmopolitan sound that strongly appealed to the burgeoning interest in "world music" in Europe and America. All it needed was a catchier name than "Parisian-Congolese/Zairean music." After trying out rumba rock and congobeat, publicists, critics, DJs and record retailers settled on the more African-sounding tag, soukous.
Unlike the original soukous, this music was produced almost entirely in studios. All of its practitioners, famous and anonymous alike, sustained their careers with session work for other musicians in addition to their own recordings, and they gave live performances infrequently, if ever, although they had been accustomed to nightly shows and many fewer recordings back in Kinshasa and Brazzaville. Only after some years did a few soukous musicians form more or less formal groups4 Étoiles, Loketo, Soukous Starsmainly to meet the worldwide demand for stage appearances. They proved themselves to be entertaining performers, and they spread soukous fever as far as Colombia, where it fostered champeta criolla, and Japan, where language schools offered Lingala classes to fans who wanted to sing soukous karaoke.
But soukous musicians continued to make most of their music in Paris studios. Their albums became elaborate productions involving synthesizers, programmed drum machines and the top session players and audio-technicians in the city. The best soukous records achieved a sophisticated balance between craft and hedonism, but too many sounded sensationalistic or formulaic. Most of them failed to win over the public back in Congo, where rougher sounds and greater spontaneity were preferred. And in due time soukous fell out of favor with followers of world-music trends. However, instead of ending the careers of talented musicians, the demise of soukous has propelled such artists as Sam Mangwana, Mose Fan Fan, Samba Mapangala and the former members of 4 Étoiles to revive Congolese rumba and create the best music of their lives. Somewhere in the world at this very moment a band is playing a fantastic sebene. Ken Braun