Reviews of good albums we overlooked this year...
Rock-and-roll's big bang wasn't the only pop explosion of the mid-1950s. Something similar was happening half a world away in central Africa, where the loose aggregation of musicians featured on this ebullient compilation were forging a Latin-inflected strain of sub-Saharan dance music that came to be known as Congolese rumba. Soon to form the nucleus of the Kinshasa-based supergroup Tout-Puissant OK Jazz (later known simply as TPOK Jazz), the members of this prodigious ensemble would go on to establish a brash, polyrhythmic sound that's shaped African popular music for decades.
Included here are the earliest recordings of singer, songwriter and guitarist Francois Luambo Makiadi (a.k.a. Franco), a restlessly innovative bandleader not lightly compared to James Brown. "Bayini Ngai Mpo Na Yo," from Franco's first session under his own name, might sound quaint next to the faster, sophisticated soukous with which his work later became synonymous. But already in evidence is his famous sebene guitar style, where rhythm guitarists establish brief motifs on which the lead player can at length improvise.
Vicky, one of the featured male singers in OK Jazz, is likewise represented here, on the cha-cha-ing "Viclong Julie," while De Wayon, Franco's mentor, can be heard on the horn-rich "Mabele Yo Okanisaka." Franco, who died in 1989, contributes the rippling, serpentine guitar runs on the latter.
Though youth-oriented, the music on these 20 tracks bears none of the roughness of its rocking American counterpart. As sophisticated as it is urgent, the most rebellious feature of this Afro-Cuban hybrid is its freedom from the musical and linguistic conventions of the Belgian colonialists who ruled the Congo at the time of its creation.
Recommended tracks: "La Rumba OK," "Mabele Yo Okanisaka"