When a fresh-faced gap-toothed 18-year-old singer from Kinshasa called Kanda Bongo (later known as Kanda Bongo Man) arrived in France in 1979, there were few opportunities for musicians from Africa.
“When I arrived in Paris, African music was not popular in France and all the record companies, I approached turned me down,” he told the BDLife in an interview from his home in London where he has lived for more than 20 years.
“Eventually a producer called David Outarra from the Ivory Coast started a label called Afro Rhymes which released my first song, Iyole,” he said.
With a catchy melody, Kanda’s saccharine voice and the lead guitar wizardry of Diblo Dibala, the song would set the template for the string of hits that would come later in his career.
Iyole earned the singer whose career had started in Kinshasa with the bands Bella Mambo and Bella Bella, an invitation to perform at WOMAD the world music festival in the UK in 1983.
In July this year, Kanda returned to perform at the 40th anniversary of the festival started by British artist Peter Gabriel. He still shines with the distinct high tenor and trademark round-brimmed hat, though his stocky frame means the dancing is more measured than it was in his heyday.
“I liked to choose my own style because an artist must look good before fans,” he says, about his reputation for flamboyant costumes and highly choreographed stage shows.
“They are all watching me and the stage is where you make people like you and even buy your music so there must be a difference between you and other people.”
Just like other musicians of his generation, he was also influenced by the giants of rumba congolaise, Franco, and Tabu Ley, and then developed his identity by taking in diverse influences from around the world.
“I am a musician who listens to all music styles from all over the world and then I develop my own melody,” he says.
When he first arrived in France, the nightclubs refused to play the traditional rhumba.
As he recalls, “It was too complicated for people because the music started slow, and then the beat changed at the climax. So, I sat down with some of my friends and we said ‘we have to do something.’”
They stripped down the rhythm with infectious guitar riffs, shortened the songs with a high-energy groove right from the top, creating a dance phenomenon that would spread right around the world.
Kanda recalls that he was in a Paris studio recording the album Sai Liza when the new “kwassa kwassa” dance arrived from the streets of Kinshasa, “I pushed that dance on my songs wherever I was performing around the world and it became a craze.”
He followed up that success with Moni in 1990 whose title track came about when he was performing at the popular S.O.B’s in Manhattan, New York at the end of a tour of the US. The crowd demanded more even after an encore so, the owner of the venue asked Kanda to ‘do something or the crowd will destroy my club’.
His band played a melody of a song that he was still working on and the crowd went wild. Realising he had another massive smash hit on his hands, the song which advises a young girl called Moni to take it easy in life and avoid pitfalls of youth was completed when he got back to France.
In the late 1990s while on a visit to Sierra Leone, Kanda was given a CD containing the songs of the country’s legendary musician S.E. Rogie and some fans begged him to record a cover of My Lovely Elizabeth.
After listening to the song, he liked the melody but thoughts the lyrics “were not rich”. “I used the melody, but wrote a fresh story which had nothing to do with the melody of the old man.”
He says the popularity of African music around the world, particularly the West African Afrobeats shows that the continent’s music is taking its rightful place in the world market
“This is our time, when I arrived in the 1970s African music was absent and you could not find a single album in the shops. This is the time for African music to shine,” he says.
As for rumba, Kanda Bongo Man says the music is timeless.
“I found rumba, I have played it and the next generation will perform it after I am gone,” he says.
“They love me and I love them as well. I love Kenya as a country. Kenya is like a home and the fans are like family.”