KOROGA Festival is a bi-monthly, outdoors music concert held in Nairobi, at the city’s arboretum grounds – one of the few green, quiet spaces in a bustling metropolis. Tickets are $15-20, and so, out of reach of the majority of Nairobi’s residents.
That means it is really a middle-class affair, and events like that are often disparaged for being less about the music or the fresh air, and more about some bourgeois attempts to “be seen”, with lots of unnecessary showing off going on.
This time, there was something different. The tickets sold out three days to the event. There was still much posturing, but the music took over, completely.
The main act of the evening was one of Africa’s most iconic musicians, for whom superlatives do no justice – Koffi Olomide. When he got on stage, I’ve never seen hysteria like that. It was like a fog had descended, I even saw a couple of men discreetly wipe away tears when the man began to sing.
What is incredible is that Koffi Olomide (born Antoine Christophe Agbepa Mumba) sings almost entirely in Lingala, a language not spoken in Kenya, which means the only people who understood what he was singing were his entourage.
But that’s how deep and heartfelt Koffi’s music is this section of young, middle-class Kenyan 20- and 30-somethings.
The music of Africa
Granted, Congolese music is popular all over Africa, and all over the African diaspora. I met Amini Kajunju, a Congolese living and working in New York, at conference in Rwanda, just a day after – and still reeling from – the Koffi Olomide concert. Kajunju is the president and CEO of the Africa-American Institute, an organisation that provides academic and professional skills training opportunities for Africans in both the U.S. and Africa.
“You can’t go to an African party anywhere [in the diaspora] without Congolese music being played,” she tells me. “It’s like the American music of Africa – everyone feels it, and everyone loves it.”
Kajunju was born and raised in then-called Zaire, under Mobutu Sese-Seko’s regime; she later lived in Liberia and the US as a teenager and young adult.
“Mobutu had his flaws, deep ones granted. A lot went wrong during his time. But Congo today is seen as a place of chaos and danger. It’s spoken of as the ‘rape capital of the world’. That’s not the country I grew up in,” Kajunju tells me.
In a way, then, Koffi Olomide’s music – and rumba and soukous music more broadly – froze Congo’s international image in a moment in time, before Congo was known for being a place of war, death and lawlessness.
Indeed, most of those who attended the Koroga festival, and were carried away by emotion, nearly fainting when he came on stage, were children and young teens when Koffi Olomide was at the height of his popularity in the 1990s.
My own sense is that few of them are really conscious of Congo as a place of darkness and death. They see it as a cultural Mecca of some kind.
Fabrics from Congo on sale at a market in Lusaka, Zambia. (Photo/ File)
It is said that the music that is popular when you are a young teen, and just getting a sense of self-awareness, is the music that you will love forever.
Most of those in the audience at the concert were born in an Africa that was nearly all under one-party rule, military dictatorship and repression. The wave of democratic change of the early 1990s that swept over Africa came with a promise of prosperity, wealth and a good life for everyone. Multiparty politics was to the magic bullet to fix all ills.
The economic miracle didn’t happen, and democratic reversals were many. But some changes were undeniable – the 1990s opened up African economies, and cultural spaces, to global influence – private radio and television stations sprouted all over the continent, and with them, all sorts of “immoral” music that parents hated.
Top of that list, along with American gangster rap, was ndombolo – Koffi Olomide’s iconic fusion sound and its accompanying gyrating dance moves.
With that, the children of the 1990s found Koffi Olomide irresistible – his was the sound of a new day in Africa, a wonderful combination of the authentic and the rebellious. Even if multiparty promises did not materialise, at least there was this.
But there’s something else. Although Koffi Olomide is the apex of a huge pool of talent coming out of DR Congo, the spread of Koffi fever in East Africa followed a familiar route that others had travelled before him – through western Tanzania and then, western Kenya, finding fertile ground in cities like Mwanza, Tabora, Kisumu and Busia. There, the rumba sound – and its local iterations, often broadly called benga – is the region’s bona fide pop music.
The migration route
“All of the big rumba bands of the 70s and 80s came to Kenya through Tanzania, Kisumu being the anchor,” Dan Aceda, a benga singer, songwriter, music historian (and thirty-something) tells me.
“Benga was uptempo but the sound that came from Zaire rumba was much more laid back. Congolese immigrant musicians came to Kenya and Tanzania played rumba, but sang in the local languages – Kiswahili, Dholuo, Abagusii. They came, learned, and took over,” Aceda says.
Then they found a route to Paris and begun to create this fusion between benga and rumba that became soukous led by Sam Mangwana, Lokassa ya Mbongo and others. “This fusion was made famous by that larger than life Pepe Kale song about Cameroonian soccer star Roger Milla that became a huge pan-African hit of the 90s,” says Aceda.
Cameroon was the first African team to make it into the World Cup quarter finals in 1990, so that energised the whole continent.
The list of the Congolese, and Congo-influenced bands making it in the wider region is long, and star-studded, and includes Remmy Ongala, Super Mazembe, Orchestra Virunga, Kasaloo Kyanga, Samba Mapangala and many others.
That’s how Koffi Olomide played his first concert in Kenya in Kisumu, as did another famous Congolese musician, Mbilia Bel, did in Busia – her first appearance in the country.
A whole country
In other words, the eastern shores of Lake Victoria, musically speaking, is a whole country on its own, where national borders are of little consequence.
“The route was from Mwanza over to Kisumu on a now-defunct ferry line,” Aceda tells me. “We were shocked to face such stiff competition from folks who came ready to learn Dholuo. In fact, they came to settle permanently in Kenya, never to go back,” he says.
And with [Daniel Arap Moi’s] KANU regime having made it harder and harder for local musicians at that time the Congolese and Tanzanians found it easy to enter the market.That’s how the rumba sound became a local thing.”
But why Kisumu? Why did the Tanzanians and Congolese, find a reception for their music there? Kisumu has had a long history of political exclusion, for nearly 40 years in independent Kenya. My own sense is that that made Kisumu, and Luo people generally, look outward. And made them more internationalist, thus fertile ground for the Congolese sounds.
But it wasn’t long before that music became hugely popular in cities further afield, such as Nairobi, Mombasa and Dar es Salaam, finding new expression in the irreverent ndombolo moves that Koffi Olomide is famous for.
Le Grand Mopao
In fact, a section of today’s big Congolese stars, including Fally Ipupa, Fere Gola, Werrason and Cindy le Coeur are all his proteges, having been part of his Quarter Latin band.
In a 2000 interview with Radio France International, Koffi explains where he gets his nickname Le Grand Mopao from:
“It was the ‘shégués’ - the street kids - who were responsible for that. One day I turned up at N’gobila Beach in Kinshasa harbour. That’s where the street kids hang out in the hope of picking up bits and pieces. Anyway, I turned up in my car and suddenly this mob of street kids started crowding round me, shouting ‘You’re the Grand Mopao! Give us this! Give us that!’ Grand Mopao means ‘the boss of bosses’ - everyone in Kinshasa knows that, but I didn’t know it at the time! I took it as a compliment and my new nickname sort of stuck after that.”
Sixteen years later, if the 40 minute encore of his latest song “Selfie” in Nairobi is anything to go by, Koffi really is Le Grand Mopao of African music.