Kanda Bongo Man – Isambe

22nd August 2023 · 1990, 1990s, Music

I’ve always loved soukous music, with its lively rhythms and circular electric guitar melodies. And if this doesn’t get you dancing then your feet must have fallen off. Either that or you’re dead. 

And no soukous artist loved the guitar more than Kanda Bongo Man, who encouraged his guitarist Diblo Dibala – nicknamed “Machine Gun” for his flying fingers on the fretboard – to solo with wild abandon on songs like J.T. from 1987. 

On this track, however, the guitar is played be his successor, the equally dextrous Nene Tchakou, while Diblo went solo recording songs like Laissez Passer.

It comes from the Congo – or Zaire as it was then – specifically Kinshasa and Brazzaville – and became popular in France, and hence travelled across the channel, in the 1980s.

I didn’t know til now that its name derives from the French word “secousse”, which means jerk, or jolt – which is pretty much the effect this music has on the central nervous system.

Nor did I know that it’s a speeded-up variation on the Congolese rumba that first developed in the 1950s, fusing elements of Congolese folk and soul with Caribbean and Latin beats and instrumentation.

Of course it spread across Africa in the 1970s and worked its influence into other styles, from the highlife of Ghana to the palm wine of Liberia and Sierra Leone and the taarab of Tanzania and Kenya.

Kanda Bongo Man is one of its prime exponents, along with Papa Wemba; both of them were based in Paris and pioneered a style known as kwassa kwassa, which in turn spawned a frenetic francophone offshoot in the Caribbean, evolving into zouk music, which I remember discovering in St Lucia in the mid-1980s through the band Kassav.

Even today, I only have to hear a snatch of their signature song, the pidgin Zouk La Se Sel Medicaman Nou Ni – to be transported back to tiny record store in a backstreet of Castries.

and I remember seeing him live a couple of times in the 1980s, when African groups seemed to come over here with much more regularity, and audiences flocked to see people like Kanda Bongo Man, Fela Kuti and the fabulous Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey and his Inter Reformers Band, of whom there seemed to be dozens on the occasion I went to see them.