Thirty years after the death of Luambo Luanzo Makiadi “Franco”, the most famous band leader in the history of Congolese popular dance music, the man who was his deputy in T.P O.K. Jazz and his legitimate musical heir has passed on.
The death of Lutumba “Simaro” Massiya last weekend at the age of 81 brings to an end the last pillar of the great Congolese band T.P. O.K Jazz (tout puissant “the all powerful”).
He joined the band in 1963 from Orchestre Micra and grew in stature to become Chef de Orchestre (conductor) in one of Africa’s greatest ever music ensembles.
He was a trusted lieutenant of Franco’s for decades and wrote some of the most successful songs by T.P O.K Jazz. He was an excellent guitarist and composer who earned the nickname Le Grande Poet because of the soulful and spiritual nature of his songs. Some of his unforgettable classics include “Testament Ya Bowule” “Mamba” “Mandola” and “Couerr Artificiel”.
Despite his high standing as a musical genius, Simaro was a reticent figure who was quite happy to exercise his influence away from the spotlight enjoyed by Franco and singers like Madilu System and Sam Mangwana.
Mangwana sang on some of Simaro’s most celebrated works in the 1970s like “Ebale ya Zaire” (River Zaire) the story of a loved one carried away on a riverboat and “Mabele” which discusses the nature of life and death.
The partnership of Simaro and Mangwana also flourished in the 1980s with the success of “Faute ya Commercant” about a man who gives identical gifts to his wife and mistress.
“Simaro was not a vocalist, he wrote and arranged the songs, and played the guitar,” says Simeon Mfumu, presenter of the radio show Bridge over Congo on KBC. “The main rival for Tabu Ley in T.P O.K Jazz was Simaro, it was not Franco,” says Mfumu. He explains that it is only Simaro who could write songs of the calibre that would match those composed by Tabu Ley for his Afrisa International.
T.P O.K Jazz distinguished itself for impressive organisation under the iron first of Franco and an incredible live sound anchored on a multiplicity of vocals accompanied by an array of drums, guitars, brass section and percussions. It was in the music arrangement of the O.K Jazz classics that Simaro’s greatest legacy remains.
The recording session had a vocal frontline of four to five singers, supported by a chorus of harmonies, a string section with two solo guitars, a bassist and four rhythm guitarists.
The horn section consisted of trumpets, saxophones and clarinets. The percussions introduced and punctuated the sebene (climax). T.P O.K Jazz consisted of up to 50 musicians split between a touring outfit that performed across the world and a home based band that was led by Simaro.
Simaro was the bedrock of T.P. O.K Jazz in Kinshasa when Franco toured the band with the rest of the musicians.
“I don’t understand why he never ventured out to start his own band,” says Tabu Osusa, who lived in Kinshasa at the height of the fame of T.P.O.K Jazz.
He agrees with the view that Simaro was a songwriter in the league of Tabu Ley and other great composers of Congolese rumba. “Virtually every song he wrote was a hit,” says Osusa. “His lyrics in Lingala were incredibly deep that if you compiled them into a book it would be a bestseller.”
Unlike musicians who defected from Franco’s band to join rival groups or to launch their solo career, Simaro remained loyal to the Grand Master even though he too did solo recordings outside the group.
His signature song “Maya” was recorded in 1985 while Franco was on tour in Europe and even though the latter considered it a betrayal, Simaro was so crucial to the success of the band that any cracks in their relationship was papered over.
The infighting that characterised the years after Franco’s death and disagreements with his family led to the formation of Bana OK (the children of O.K Jazz) led by Simaro though the group did not scale the heady heights of success that they had with Franco.
Some of their notable recordings included “Tonerre Show” a collaboration with Pepe Kalle and “Trahison” which featured the vocals of Koffi Olomide.
The passing of Simaro, the distinguished poet of Congolese music marks the end of an era of the giant composers of rumba whose influence remains in the timeless works they wrote and performed.