Singer/songwriter Antoine "Wendo" Kolosoy was recording in the Congo long before the galloping soukous sound filled dance floors in Europe and Africa in the 1970s and '80s and even before the first sprouting of its rumba roots, via Cuba, in the '40s.
One of the first artists ever to record in the Congo, the 75-year-old recently returned to the spotlight with Marie Louise (Indigo), which revisits some of his early hits in the company of a hot young band.
"Kolosoy's a great composer with an excellent voice," said Gary Stewart, author of "Rumba on the River," an exhaustive history of Congolese music. "He came along as the Congolese capital of Leopoldville [now Kinshasa] was starting to urbanize. People bought his records, and it gave the new recording industry a big boost to have a homegrown musician like Wendo being heard."
Born in the country, Kolosoy said he began playing guitar as a child after his dead mother appeared in a dream and told him to do so. He traveled to Leopoldville when he was a teenager and formed the band Victoria Kin, who appeared on the radio. His rich, crooning voice, which could also yodel and yelp playfully, won him numerous fans.
Kolosoy's break came in 1948. He signed with the new Ngoma label and recorded a string of hits.
"It was a remarkable time," Kolosoy remembered. "We were learning all the time, every day it seemed, how to do this and that, how to get a bigger sound. Our success inspired other people, too."
A Healing Hit
Kolosoy's biggest hit, by far, was "Marie Louise" (RealAudio excerpt), a song that could reputedly heal the sick and raise the dead. Recorded in 1948 with guitarist Henri Bowane, it was a pivotal release in Congolese musical history. Not only was it the country's best-selling record ever, but it also introduced the extended instrumental bridge known as the sebene.
"The sebene was for dancing," Kolosoy said. "When we played, people wanted to dance more. This gave them the chance to do so, and it gave the musicians a chance to really play. So everyone was happy!"
The sebene soon became an essential part of the Congolese sound. The Leopoldville scene began to change quickly as the many studios and labels established in the wake of Kolosoy's success began unearthing new, eager talent.
"Once the studios took off, lots of bands formed and the rumba that evolved from his innovation overtook his own music," Stewart said. Kolosoy's folkier music became passé. "He eventually modernized his sound and recorded more, but he was from another era."
Change In Musical Climate
Kolosoy, who eventually became known as "Alanga Mzembo" (Song Master), attempted to keep up with the country's rapidly changing musical trends. He added musicians one by one, "until I had six people who were committed to doing what I wanted," he said. He played the new rumba people wanted to hear, as on "Soki Oyoki Victoria" (RealAudio excerpt), but it was too late. Fresher stars had overtaken him.
Kolosoy played around Kinshasa during the following years, surfacing for the occasional tour, including one with the great rumba singer Tabu Ley Rochaereau in the late 1970s. As the slick new soukous form began to usurp rumba in popularity, however, he became even more obscure.
"I had to slow down for a time when the government wasn't too kind to artists. Apart from that, I kept playing the whole time," Kolosoy said. "This is my life."
When he eventually had a chance to return to the studio, in 1999, it seemed natural to play his music in the relaxed style of early rumba, the genre he'd helped father. With his trademark yodel still intact, as on "Pépé Kalle" (RealAudio excerpt), he remains the only living link to the early days of Congolese music.
But, not unlike his even older Cuban colleagues in the Buena Vista Social Club, he refuses to become a museum piece. "I'm playing the music I love," he said, laughing. "Now it's time for people all over to catch up with me!"