When the first notes of the band’s guitars warm up the stage on a Thursday night, the atmosphere inside a popular rhumba club on Nairobi’s Riverside Drive turns electric. It doesn’t take long before the irresistible sound of the Tabu Ley song “Mi Amour” fills up the dance floor.
Rocky Bila Kazembe and the Basi Tu band, one of the top rhumba groups in Nairobi, perform at Pots and Palms restaurant twice a week to a full house of loyal fans. The repertoire includes a mix of the band’s own tracks and the greatest hits of Congolese rhumba giants like Dr Nico, Joseph Kabasele ‘Le Grand Kalle’, Franco and Tabu Ley ‘Rochereau’.
“We play non stop from 8pm till midnight because unlike musicians in other genres, rhumba artists don’t take a break during the show,” says Rocky.
“Once we make the connection with the audience then we have to maintain that for the rest if the performance.”
He explains that rhumba songs average a length of 10 minutes each because of the traditional format containing the introduction, instrumental interlude with interplay of guitars and horn section and the climax, popularly known as ‘sebene’
The veteran Congolese vocalist and guitarist first played in Nairobi with Bilenge Musica in the 1990s before stints with Eric Wainaina, Suzzana Owiyo and Kidum He has been a fixture at Pots and Palms in Nairobi’s Riverside since 2001 and says the quality of the club and its clientele has been a major factor in his long spell at the same venue.
“People want to dance to rhumba played live and we have perfected timeless songs like “Savo Omo” by Franco or “Ndona” by Veve. No other band in the city can play the deep rhumba that we do,” he says. The recently refurbished Pots and Palms is one of the older establishments associated with rhumba. Today, rhumba, whether played by a live band or DJ, has become a popular choice of entertainment for many clubs around Kenya.
The Dolce Club on Nairobi’s Koinange Street that reopened in December 2017 complete with a VIP lounge has had a long association with rhumba.
“We are the only executive members club in the CBD [central business district] playing rhumba,” says Topi Lyambila, entertainment manager. He says that while many rhumba clubs have sprouted in residential areas, Dolce features high quality bands and some of the best rhumba DJs playing right in the city centre.
According to the legendary rhumba singer Kasongo wa Kanema, who first came to Kenya with the band Super Mazembe in the late 1970s, the popularity of rhumba has endured because the music has evolved through different eras, while retaining its identity.
“The basic style has remained the same but the singing has changed, and incorporated elements of contemporary music,” he says.
He singles out Congolese stars Fally Ipupa and Ferre Gola who are at the forefront of a new generation of rhumba musicians.
“They have modernised rhumba by retaining its traditional style while embracing new sounds,” he says.
Kasongo says bands like Rhumba Japan based at Club Vibro in Nairobi West and Bilenge Musica that plays at the Dream Village Club in South B have remained crowd pullers by giving a modern edge to vintage rhumba.
He feels that the demand for rhumba is so huge that many more clubs could embrace the music.
“There are still very few venues for live rhumba in Nairobi with many bands chasing those scarce opportunities are sometimes being paid a pittance,” he says. “Imagine a band of 10 musicians paid Sh6,800 for a night’s performance!” Shyam Shah, the bandleader of Orchestre Masika says it is a vicious circle: Very few venues are ready to invest in a full rhumba band and so the current generation of musicians will not bother with that type of music.
“Rhumba is live music,” says Shyam who adds that there is a big demand for the music even at international festivals. He has just returned from the UK where he was part of a rehearsal session with giants of rhumba, Orchestre Mangelepa, on their current tour. “Fans still love to hear such veteran musicians because their standards are high and they never compromise on quality,” says Shah.
Tabu Osusa who managed Samba Mapangala and Orchestre Virunga during the heyday of rhumba in the 1980s says the music scene has come full circle.
“Live music was popular in the 1960s-70s when Congolese first brought their rhumba to Kenya. Then the disco era arrived and bands suffered a decline,” he says.
He explains that what Kenya is witnessing now is a renaissance of live music, from rhumba to benga to one-man guitar.
“What is not in doubt is that Congolese music has always been very popular and that’s why rhumba is creating such an impact,” says Tabu.
The migration of musicians out of Kinshasa and into East Africa, first to Tanzania and eventually to Kenya started in the 1960s. The Congolese borrowed the spark of Kenyan benga guitars and added it to their rhumba to create a potent form of dance music.
Kenyan musicians struggled against this onslaught of rhumba and some of the astute musicians like Maroon Commandos, Ochieng' Kabaselleh and the Wanyika bands originally from Tanzania successfully adopted the Congolese style.
The dominance of rhumba today is a legacy of the Congolese music empire that stretched from Nairobi to Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda and back to the original home of the music in Kinshasa.
According to Fred Obachi Machoka, a popular radio and TV presenter who has promoted rhumba for almost four decades, the huge market for this genre presents an opportunity that Kenyan musicians are not exploiting by composing and performing their own songs.
Younger fans of rhumba like Dr Paul Murumbwa, who is in his early 30s, are drawn to the music through a combination of influences.
Dr Murumbwa who works as a dentist in Nairobi’s Lavington says his first contact with rhumba was through listening to KBC radio but once he joined college he developed a love for R &B hip-hop through the influence of friends.
“I switched back to rhumba when I started working because other genres became heavily commercial and driven by hype,” he says.
He admits that he may not be keen on the song titles or the artist names and but he can relate to a good rhumba song when he hears one.
“I was equally surprised that my fiancée who was born in the 90s also enjoys her rhumba because that is what her parents used to love.”
Hanging out with friends who are diehard fans of rhumba is what influenced Maria Aloo who is a regular at Pots and Palms and occasionally checks out other venues in the city like Vibro, Nairobi West and Pittstop on Langata Road to begin listening to the music.
Over time she has developed a taste for the music of Franco, Madilu System, Koffi Olomide and Ferre Gola.
“I play the music in my car and hang out at the rhumba clubs because good music is just that, even if you don’t understand a word of Lingala,” she says.
Allure of rhumba
Kasongo is critical of the trend of rhumba bands choosing, what he calls the “easy option” playing cover versions of popular hits notably by Franco and Tabu Ley instead of popularising their own songs.
Rocky who performs at Pots and Palms acknowledges that while his band plays the rhumba classics, they mix it up with their own songs.
“Perhaps every song sounds like a cover version, even when I am plying our own composition,” he says.
The allure of rhumba is a combination of grand arrangements, infectious melodies, and sweet harmonies.
“When you hear a rhumba song the first time you like it and want to hear it again. By the third time you want to sing along and by the fifth time you own it and want to sing it in the shower, the office, or even the farm ” says Machoka.
He hums along to the chorus of “Nakei Nairobi” by Mbilia Bel and Franco’s “Mario” to illustrate why the melody of such songs turned them timeless hits. Many rhumba fans that he meets today singing along to “Mario” were not even born when the song was released in 1986.
Contemporary rhumba artists like Koffi Olomide and Fally Ipupa, who incidentally performs in Nairobi this weekend, have pushed the boundaries for Congolese music by combining the traditional style of rhumba and its variants like soukous with R&B, hip-hop and electronic music.
“I like the guy because he gives you value, no playback: a four-hour show in which he does slow rhumba, soukous, sings, raps and dances,” says Machoka who will be the MC for the concert at Uhuru Gardens on Saturday.
However, he says, the only element lacking in modern rhumba is a catchy melody and if the musicians are able to consistently produce songs with memorable hooks then there will be a ‘rhumba revolution.’
An outstanding feature of the rhumba bands is the big sound with a typical group composed of three to four guitars, two saxophones, two trumpets, congas, a drummer and up to four singers.
“During our days as Mazembe, we would have 11 to 12 musicians at any one show and we travelled with this large band of musicians across Kenya,” says Kasongo.
He says drums and percussions can now be generated through computer software though he prefers to use such technology sparingly. One of the songs he has enjoyed working on in recent months is a new version of the classic “Stella” with Freshley Mwamburi.
“It has everything that a modern rhumba song should have; great arrangement and melody,” he says. He cites it as one of the exceptional songs by a Kenyan artist that has connected with people of all backgrounds and generations.
Thanks to technology, the size of the bands has shrunk into tighter units of musicians and the entire process of recording and performing has changed. Despite the changing times in rhumba, some groups still retain the big band format. Orchestre Masika that plays Saturday nights at Tamambo Restaurant comprises musicians from Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, DRC and Angola. The line up has four vocalists, a three-man brass section (two saxophones and trumpet), bass and two guitars, congas and drums.
“The rhumba sound requires a big band playing the complete range of instrumentation,” Shyam the bandleader. They play favourites by the Congolese greats T.P O.K Jazz, Afrisa International and Tanzanian giants Les Wanyika and Simba Wanyika.
Machoka says fans get frustrated when live performances are hampered by poor sound. “If venues want people to enjoy the experience of music then invest in professional sound system and ensure the sound is managed to the highest levels,” he says.
His advice for musicians: “Go out and play rhumba because that is the music people are craving for.”