You'll be relieved to hear that Kékélé's magnificent 2001 debut album, Rumba Congo, wasn't a flash in the pan. In fact, judging from the evidence of Congo Life, there's a whole new world of reactivated acoustic Congolese music to come from these guys, and before long I can foresee them having a brand-sound body of work equivalent to that of their Afro-Salsa counterparts, Africando. They really are that good.
Main members Syran Mbenza, Nyboma and Wuta Mayi formed part of 80s soukous pioneers Les Quatre Etoiles. Bumba Massa and Loko Massengo, both top solo singers with various Congolese bands over the years as well as solo performers, make up the inner circle, joined by semi-permanent honorary members Rigo Star (the guitarist whose style and arrangements kickstarted the solo careers of stars Mbilia Bel and Koffi Olomide in the late 80s) and French arranger/producer Francois Bréant.
All members contribute songs, some brand new, others tried-and-tested favourites from previous band incarnations. But whereas, first time around, they would have been subjected to the hard-core electro-studio sound of 80s and 90s soukous, here everything's acoustic.
But what acoustics! Rigo and Syran's guitar lines are a revelation, with an almost Hawaiian lilt, sometimes doubled with Caçau de Queiroz clarinet to give a similar effect to electric soukous guitar where occasion calls. Arranger Bréant uses strings and flute in three distinct ways: first, in the basic Cuban charanga style for the cha cha cha tracks; second, in the style of the great Martinican string-beguine orchestras like Malavoi, Matébis and La Mestiza; and finally, in European baroque mode -a style peculiarly suited to these delicate Congolese melodies, which in any event have a significant part of their roots in eighteenth and nineteenth-century European salon music.
There really isn't a weak track on the whole set, but special favourites? Loko Massengo's two songs "Lolita" and "Bebe Yaourt"; Bumba Massas contributions "Nakobala Te" and "Silence" (so good to see this giant of Congolese songwriting back in the limelight after too long); and of course, the Franco-homage medley "Souvenirs-OK-jazz".
Delicious melodies, inspired and original arrangements, faultless and non-indulgent playing, scalp-tingling voices are more than enough for this reviewer, at least, to reaffirm his long-held suspicion that the best African music and the best Congolese music are one and the same thing. --John Armstrong
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